As we discussed in the previous lesson, some of the oldest variants of the Cinderella story originate in China.
One of these is the legend surrounding the life of a Chinese woman named Ye Xian, who is believed to have lived in the third century CE. The folktale that recounts her story was first published in 850 CE, but it may have existed as oral tradition long before that.
That story not only likely travelled thousands of miles and influenced the European tradition, it also influenced a contemporary Chinese author, Adeline Yen Mah. In 1999, Yen Mah published a memoir of her childhood entitled Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter.
So this reading does double duty. Yen Mah tells her own story, self-consciously mapping it onto the pre-existing Cinderella plot. But in the course of her narrative, she also retells the story of Ye Xian – so we get two Cinderella stories in one.
Story and History
Fairy tales tend to be deliberately vague as to their setting. Refusing to specify when and where a story takes place allows for greater ease in suspending disbelief when magical or supernatural happenings occur; after all, if the story isn’t really set in our own world, the rules of our world need not apply, and we can allow the story to create its own world and its own rules. (It’s also quite handy if you’re hiding satire or political critique in the subtext of your story, and want to be able to wiggle out of accusations of libel; it’s like a version of the modern disclaimer that any resemblance to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.)
One twist that Yen Mah’s story offers to the tale of Cinderella is that not only is it set in a concrete time and place, but the reference to that society and its history is an important part of the story.
So let’s take a moment to refresh our memory of Chinese history.
The mid-nineteenth century saw a dramatic change in the relationship between China and Europe, due to European imperialist incursions dubbed the Opium Wars. The clip below sums up what happened:
Having gained control of Hong Kong, as well as numerous other territories within China’s major cities (concessions), European powers were able to exert an almost colonial influence in China politically, economically, and socially.
The two successive defeats in the Opium Wars were followed quickly by another in 1895, when China surrendered in the First Sino-Japanese War, losing control of Taiwan and Korea in the process. The ravages of war and the loss of confidence in the rulership of the emperor led to political instability and then rebellion; the Qing dynasty was overthrown and a Republic was established in 1912.
The new government’s power was tenuous, however, and political unrest soon erupted again. The left wing of the ruling political party (the KMT) split off to form the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1921, and eventually challenged the sitting government for control. China was plunged into civil war for the next 20 years.
Recognizing China’s weakened state, the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, sparking the Second Sino-Japanese War. To fight the Japanese, the KMT and CPC were briefly allied, but the Communist forces ended up getting much of the credit for China’s eventual victory in 1945 and the reclamation of the territories ceded to Japan. This strengthened the support of the CPC’s campaign for control of China.
By now we know how this part of the story ends: the CPC would gradually gain control over more and more territory, until it controlled all of mainland China and established the People’s Republic of China in 1949. But Yen Mah’s narrative spans a period of constant upheaval and uncertainty. The memoir begins in 1941, when Japanese troops were still occupying China, and follows the young Adeline through the intensification of the Civil War that looms over her development into a young adult. By the end of the memoir in 1952, she has had to leave her home three times to avoid the worst of the conflict, starting in Tianjin, before moving to Shanghai, and finally to Hong Kong.
???? Read the excerpts from Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella (1999), attached below.
Note: The excerpts total about 50 pages, but the book is written for a young audience, so the language is straightforward, and it should be a quick read.
Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically:
- The book is titled Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter. Is it a contradiction to claim that the main character is Cinderella, but it is also a true story? Does the fairy tale frame make you doubt the truth of the story? Or do you think the Cinderella story actually reflects reality and has an element of truth about it? Linda Holmes also described the tendency for American culture to refer to real-life situations as “Cinderella stories”; do you think these comparisons are appropriate?
- How does the character of Niang compare to the other versions of the “evil stepmother we have encountered in the different stories we have read thus far? Does she seem to share the same motivations for her attitude and treatment of the heroine? What about the family’s motivations? Why do they all accept Niang’s attitude and treatment — what is the source of her power? (Hint: Think about what we’ve learned re: the historical background of the story.”
- How does the story establish Adeline as a Cinderella figure? How do her treatment and her experiences parallel those of other Cinderellas? What qualities does she represent — do they match up to other versions of Cinderella?
- Not only does Adeline Yen Mah frame her memoir by labeling it a Cinderella story, young Adeline also identifies with other fictional characters she encounters in literature (Sarah Crewe and King Lear). Why do you think Adeline seems to want to understand her own life through the framework of these fictional lives? What does she get out of viewing herself as an incarnation of the fictional character?
- How does Aunt Baba’s folktale Cinderella (the story of Ye Xian) compare with the other versions we have read? Does it share the same lesson or moral?
???? Write a paragraph (100-300 words) responding to one or more of the questions above. As always, be sure to support your points by referencing specific details from the story.