Watching the Tree:
A Chinese Daughter Reflects on Happiness, Tradition, and Spiritual Wisdom

by Adeline Yen Mah


Broadway Books (a division of Random House, Inc), New York, NY, 2001. ISBN 0767904109.
Reviewed by Lee Ambrose
Posted on 10/24/2005

Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

Adeline Yen Mah is a writer and physician who lives in Huntington Beach, California. She divides her time between her California home, London, and Hong Kong. Her other works include the bestselling Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter as well as Chinese Cinderella. For more information, you can visit the author's website.

Adeline Yen Mah has combined her experience as a physician, her Chinese heritage, and her deeply personal connection to her grandfather, Ye Ye, to create a work of art that is at once informative, enjoyable, and enlightening. By her own admission, this book is a "letter of gratitude to a grandfather who once gave me the most precious of all gifts: my sense of hope."

Recognizing an ever growing number of people who are interested in eastern philosophy, the author offers us a rare perspective on the concepts and beliefs as she shares with her reader. She is, to her thinking, a true Chinese-American: born in China and having lived and practiced medicine in America for some thirty years. She is able to take the basic concepts of her heritage, blend them with soulful lessons she learned througout her life, and apply them in such a way that she answers questions about the concerns of modern day western peoples who still long to know more about the mysterious and spiritual elements of Chinese culture. Readers are treated to history lessons, religious principles, Eastern medical practices, discussion on foods of the Chinese culture, the more mysterious ideas of invisible energies, and a lesson in Chinese language. All the while, the reader almost forgets that this ia a nonfiction work. Its ease of reading and its personal and relaxed style seems more like a conversation with Adeline Yen Mah. For me, that is the mark of a truely gifted non-fiction author.

In a chapter discussing Confucian practices, I was quite taken back to learn that "over the centuries very few great Chinese novels were written." The author sites the fact that "Composing fiction in the spoken language was considered despicable by the literati. The word "novel" in Chinese is known as "xiao shuo" ("little talk"). " She tells us that authors were often ashamed of their novels or they would deny the fact that they were in fact authors of works of fiction.

A fascinating discussion takes place in the chapter titled "Let Food Be Medicine." The author relates a story of a conversation with her brother. "One fundamental difference between us Chinese and the English is this: We Chinese live to eat, whereas the English eat to live." This enjoyable chapter is sure to make the mouth water and the mind race with vivid images and olfactory arousal. Did you know that the standard greeting of a Chinese upon meeting a friend is not "How are you?" but rather "Have you eaten your meal today?"

A.Y.M. writes "Every month, we women spend hours at the beauty parlor and hundreds of dollars on cosmetics to improve our appearance. Unless we have a healthy body, however, such endeavor (though commendable) is unfortunately rather like applying a new coat of paint ot a car with a damaged transmission. Perhaps we should simply always keep in mind the Chinese proverb: "Yi shi wei liao" (Let food be medicine).

Perhaps one of the most endearing chapters, to my way of thinking, is the eleventh and final chapter: "The Lessons of Silence."

The author's grandfather had two scrolls above his bed. These were scrolls each bearing four Chinese characters he had penned with his own hand. Discussions between grandfather and then child, now author, led to life-long lessons that A.Y.M. shares with her readers in spare yet meaningful form. The one scroll bore the characters for tian ("heaven"), jing ("scripture"), di ("earth") and yi ("justice"). Her grandfather cautioned her that as she went through life and became fascinated by wonders such as a beautiful sunset or a scientific phenomenon she should "keep in mind that all phenomena on earth are based on Tian jing di yi ("Heaven's scripture and earth's justice"). The other scroll bore the four characters/words Bu yan zhi jiao ("the lessons of silence").

Adeline Yen Mah writes of this second scroll: "Writing has obliged me to spend long hours searching for those voices which we never hear except when our inner self is at peace and everything else is suspended." Reading this passage I found my inner self shouting "Yes!" How true it is. When writing, we creatives cannot hear the deeply rooted inner voices when all about us is clamoring and our minds are scattered. Silence from within brings us the peace and clarity we need to put our own words in print. This connection between author and reader was a powerful and fulfilling way to end the experience of spending time in this amazing book.

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