The girl who was fed after her father's dog

Adeline Yen Mah's Chinese childhood was marked by vicious cruelty and prejudice. She tells Vanessa Thorpe why she has written her story
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THERE was Wild Swans. And now there will be Falling Leaves.

This month another intimate and dramatic glimpse of Chinese life around the time of the revolution will be unveiled in London with the publication of the life story of Adeline Yen Mah, an anaesthetist-turned-writer.

Falling Leaves - "the story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter" - is very much in the tradition of the earlier autobiography by Jung Chang, which became a world-wide bestseller. It covers the years of turmoil following the Japanese invasion of China, the Second World War, and the civil war in which the Communists triumphed in 1949.

Indeed, Mah and Jung Chang are friends, and it was through meeting Jung Chang's agent that she was encouraged to set down her own remarkable story.

"The big difference is that my story is not political, like Jung's. It is a more of a psychological drama," she says.

Mah's mother died giving birth to her and it was not long before her affluent father remarried and moved the family to Shanghai with his teenage bride, Niang.

The brutal stepmother, sticking to the fairy-tale blueprint, imposed a regime of domestic cruelty in her home by routinely favouring her own children. Mah, who was growing up in a culture where female children counted for very little anyway, was alternately neglected and bullied.

"I was the youngest of five stepchildren - the lowest of the low," she recalls, now also resigned to the sad conviction that her elder brothers and her sister all blamed her for the death of their natural mother.

Then known by her Chinese first name of Jungling, Mah was the last to be considered in the family and often the last to be fed, coming after her father's dog. If she went missing as a child, no one noticed.

On one occasion her only protector, the benevolent Aunt Ba Ba, gave her a silver coin, but she was viciously whipped by her father for accepting the gift.

In this uncompromising, anecdotal fashion, the book details Mah's strange journey through emotional deprivation to eventual liberation in the West. Her story is testament to the ingrained nature of the traditional Chinese notion that females are inferior.

The book's title, Falling Leaves, refers to a Chinese proverb which says that a falling leaf always returns to its roots. But it was not quite so easy for Mah, now 59, to interrupt her hard-won medical career in California and go back to roots so exceptionally twisted.

She spent four years working on the book and has just completed what she describes as the deeply unsettling experience of translating her work into Chinese ("The figurative words were so much more evocative for me").

"Much of it was painful and difficult to write, but I felt compelled to do so," Mah explains.

Part of this compulsion must have been the wish to return to storytelling, the only thing that had ever functioned as a reliable fairy godmother, with the capacity magically to transform her childhood world. As a 10- year- old she adored Frances Hodgson Burnett's story The Little Princess, identifying with the heroine and learning it all by heart.

"I would like to write a children's book next because The Little Princess had such an impact on me and gave me such hope," she says.

Because of her early reading she was familiar with Western family mores. So how did she account for the contrasting habitual injustice of her own home life?

"My story is very specific because my mother had died, but there was amazing sexual discrimination in China then. If a child was picked upon in a family, it would usually be the youngest daughter.

"Girls were not allowed to take the same exams as men. In fact Confucius said: 'An uneducated woman would be a woman of virtue.' It was believed that we were weaker. People used to get rid of girl babies just like kittens, almost out of kindness, if they were poor."

A few strong women, however, were able to throw over the traces even so. Mah's grand-aunt refused to have her feet bound as a child and founded the Shanghai Women's Bank in 1924.

In 1949 the Yen family left their impressive aunt behind them and set off for Hong Kong, so they were not able to witness the changes wrought on women's lives by the revolution. Mao's pronouncement that women "held up half the sky" helped to wipe out wide-scale infanticide, but the practice has crept back in since the Seventies as a result of the so-called one- child policy.

Mah is saddened by the continuing bias in favour of sons: "The trouble is that it goes so far back in the culture. We always used to say, 'We look up to the males and look down on the women.' It was as bald as that.

"I thought things would change, but when I went back to meet up with my family again with my Chinese-American husband he could not believe the discrimination. It was like stepping back into my childhood."

Published by Michael Joseph, price pounds 16.99.