Falling Leaves
by Adeline Yen Mah
John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1998, 288pp, $22.95
The story of an unwanted Chinese daughter.


t the age of three my grand aunt proclaimed her independence by categorically refusing to have her feet bound, resolutely tearing off the bandages as fast as they were applied. She was born in Shanghai (city by the sea) in 1886 during the Qing dynasty when China was ruled by the child emperor Kuang Hsu, who lived far away up north in the Forbidden City. The pampered baby of the family, eight years younger than my grandfather, Ye Ye, Grand Aunt finally triumphed by rejecting all food and drink until her feet were, in her words, 'rescued and set free'.
     Shanghai in the late nineteenth century was unlike any other city in China. It was one of five treaty ports opened up to Britain after the First Opium War in 1842. Gradually it burgeoned into a giant intermediary between China and the rest of the world. Strategically situated on the Huangpu River seventeen miles upstream from the mighty Yangtse, the city was linked by boat to the inner western provinces. At the other end to the east, the Pacific Ocean was only fifty miles away.
     Britain, France and the United States of American staked out foreign settlements within the city. To this day, amidst the new high-rise buildings, Shanghai's architecture reflects the influence of the foreign traders. Some of the great mansions, formerly houses of diplomats and business magnates, possess the stately Edwardian grandeur of any fine house by the River Thames at Henley in England or the Gallic splendor of a villa in the Loire valley in France.
     Extraterritoriality meant that within the foreign concessions, all subjects, be they foreign or Chinese, were governed by the laws of the foreigner and were exempt from the laws of China. Foreigners had their own municipal government, police force and troops. Each concession became an independent city within a city: little enclaves of foreign soil in treaty ports along China's coastline. China was governed not by written laws but by the rulings of magistrates appointed by the emperor and her citizens traditionally viewed these mandarins as demi-gods. For roughly one hundred years (between 1842 and 1941) westerners were perceived throughout China as superior beings whose wishes transcended even those of their own mandarins. The white conquerors were treated with reverence, fear and awe by the average Chinese.

     Legal cases were tried before a Chinese magistrate but presided over by a foreign consular assessor whose power was absolute and whose word was final. The local populace was further humiliated by being barred from ownership of, or even free access to, many of the most desirable sections within their own city. Discrimination, segregation and abuse coloured most inter-racial dealings, with westerners viewing the Chinese as their vanquished inferiors. All this was bitterly resented.
     Immediately south of the French Concession in Shanghai my great-grandmother owned a tea-house in the old walled Chinese city of Nantao.


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