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


From the bestselling author of Falling Leaves, a remarkable book of wisdom and spirit.

Somewhere it is written that every Chinese wears a Confucian thinking cap, a Taoist robe, and Buddhist sandals. In Watching the Tree, Adeline Yen Mah brings together the many influences on her life as a child of the East and as a student and adult in the West. Conveying a wealth of insight and experience, Adeline illuminates major aspects of Chinese customs ...

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From the bestselling author of Falling Leaves, a remarkable book of wisdom and spirit.

Somewhere it is written that every Chinese wears a Confucian thinking cap, a Taoist robe, and Buddhist sandals. In Watching the Tree, Adeline Yen Mah brings together the many influences on her life as a child of the East and as a student and adult in the West. Conveying a wealth of insight and experience, Adeline illuminates major aspects of Chinese customs and culture while weaving in stories of personal struggle triumph throughout her life.

Taking a step beyond her previous book, Falling Leaves, a powerful memoir set against the backdrop of political and cultural upheaval in China, Adeline explores the centuries-old Chinese traditions and their legacy in modern-day China and the West. With Adeline's provocative essays on Buddhism, the I Ching, Tao, Confucius, and their role in shaping Chinese thought, Watching the Tree inspires as it uplifts the soul, giving readers an unusual glimpse inside a culture that remains mysterious and often misunderstood.

In her sharp observations on Chinese food and medicine, yin and yang, Zen, and feng shui, Adeline enlightens readers with the mundane—an approach to healing an illness you might find at a Chinese grocery store—to the larger questions in life surrounding true happiness, health, and spirituality. Bridging the cultural divide between the East and West, these stories reveal the strength and peace of mind that comes from opening one's heart and mind to the wisdom and experience of our combined histories.

For anyone looking for a clearer understanding of Chinese culture and for inspiring personal stories that embody a life lived in the wake of Chinese tradition, Watching the Tree opens the door into a world of calm reflection, knowledge, and spirituality.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In Falling Leaves and Chinese Cinderella, Adeline Yen Mah presented enthralling accounts of her childhood and adolescence in Shanghai. In Watching the Tree, she explores Chinese cultural traditions and the effect that their wisdom has had on her life. Mah is especially persuasive when she describes the resiliency and continuing relevance of these practices.
Library Journal
This brief but compelling book is basically a primer on Chinese culture. In 11 chapters, Mah (Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter) furnishes explanations of Confucius and Confucianism, Buddhism, the I Ching, Chinese herbs and medicines, feng shui, yin-yang, and the Chinese language, among other topics. Intertwined with these lessons are her own experiences and reflections. During an unhappy childhood with a cruel stepmother in Shanghai and Tianjin, she learned much from her grandfather and aunt, both of whom sustained her through many trials. Later, as a doctor in England and America, Mah learned more from other doctors, professors, and an encounter with Philip Larkin, the noted British poet. Mah is an articulate and fluent writer, and though she gives the Chinese characters for many of the things she discusses, the material is basic enough that the reader does not need to know the Chinese. Recommended for large public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 8/00.]--Kitty Chen Dean, Nassau Community Coll., Garden City, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767904117
  • Publisher: Broadway Books
  • Publication date: 6/18/2002
  • Edition description: First Paperback Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 253
  • Product dimensions: 5.21 (w) x 6.45 (h) x 0.51 (d)

Meet the Author

Adeline Yen Mah is a physician and writer. She divides her time among London, Hong Kong, and her home in Huntington Beach, California.
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Read an Excerpt

Copyright 2002 by Adeline Yen Mah
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Table of Contents

1 Watching the Tree to Catch a Hare 1
2 The Wisdom of the I Ching 12
3 Hidden and Nameless Tao 30
4 A Confucian Thinking Cap 46
5 The Path to Zen 78
6 Thousands and Tens of Thousands Varieties of Qi 103
7 Let Food Be Medicine 119
8 Yin and Yang in Harmony 144
9 Hidden Logic Within the Shape of Words 174
10 The Invisible Energy of Feng Shui 202
11 The Lessons of Silence 228
Bibliography 245
Broadway Books Reading Group Companion 247
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Reading Group Guide

About This Guide
The questions that follow are intended to enhance your group's discussion of Watching the Tree and assist in gaining a deeper understanding of Chinese culture through the interplay of this title with the author's memoir Falling Leaves.


1. The author saved her grandfather's copy of the I Ching. Later, when she was facing a difficult decision, the author turned to the I Ching for guidance. Discuss the meaning of this ritual for the author. Does it have Western parallels?

2. "There is nothing softer and weaker than water, Yet nothing is better for attacking hard and strong things." [36] What does this fundamental tenet of Taoism mean? How has Adeline used this principle in her struggles?

3. "Change is the only constant" [42] in Taoism and Buddhism and yet the Tao is unvarying. How is this duality representative of Chinese thought?

4. What role did Confucianism play in the author's life? To what extent was it a positive influence and to what extent was it negative? What about in Chinese culture as a whole?

5. How does the author's life reflect the wisdom of the Basic Noble Truths of Zen Buddhism, "pain and suffering are common in life," "human cravings can also give rise to unhappiness" and "by relinquishing cravings and desires, much suffering can be avoided"? [83]

6. The author discusses aspects of Zen that were derived from Taoism and Confucianism. Li (principle or order of nature), Zi ran (Let everything do that which is itself), Wu Wei (taking no unnatural action or arriving at action through non-action). [100-101] What is the importance of these concepts to Zen and to Chinese culture?

7. What does Qi mean? How is it important to Chinese medicine and philosophy? What does it mean to the author? How does it help her accept her stepmother's will? [103]

8. How is the Chinese concept of Let Food Be Medicine similar to the western concept You are what you eat? How are Chinese attitudes toward food different from Western attitudes?

9. The author's grandfather comments that the combination of mei (to buy) and mei (to sell) combine to form "buy-sell" or a business transaction, and calls it "subtle and ingenious" and "profound and all-encompassing." [154] How does this combination reflect a uniquely Chinese attitude toward business? How is it indicative of how the Chinese language effects the culture?

10. "Yin and yang are not opposites like the western concept of good/evil or black/white" [156] Discuss the importance of this concept to Chinese culture. How does it relate to the language and philosophy? Why has it been so widely adopted in the West? Do you think most westerners understand its deeper subtleties?

11. The author discusses a number of terms without direct equivalent in English including Qi (air, gas, breath or life force), Yin and Yang (black and white), and Li (logic, reason, truth and principle). What does the lack of an English equivalent teach us about the Chinese way of thinking? What about English words without adequate Chinese translations like "rights" and "privacy"? What does the lack of Chinese equivalents tell us about both Chinese and western culture?

12. What does the author learn from her three principle adult relationships, Karl, Byron and Bob? How were they colored by her Chinese heritage? And how were they affected by her Western experiences as well? How does her concept of buy/sell help explain failed relationships in general? How does the author view relationships as a reflection of yin/yang?

13. Discuss the author's view of Feng Shui. How does it correspond to its use in the West?

14. The author's grandfather had two scrolls on the wall above his bed Tian Jing Di Yi (Heaven's Scripture and Earth's Justice) and Bu Yan Zhi Jiao (The Lessons of Silence). They clearly have a great deal of meaning for him and for the author. Discuss the importance of these phrases. Can they be helpful to us in our day-to-day lives in the West?

15. The author says, "At the dawn of our new millennium, there is a hunger throughout the world to comprehend who we are and how we fit together." [3] How does this relate to the book? Is the author trying to address this need with her work?

16. The author says, "I hope to bridge the cultural divide between East and West, so that westerners will understand better the Chinese way of thinking, discover its roots and see how it resembles or differs from their own." What places the author in an ideal position to address these questions?

17. In her memoir Falling Leaves we learned about the author's life. In what ways do the events in her life seem universal, and in what ways do they reflect the philosophic underpinnings of Chinese society? Do you feel the abuse she suffered and how she dealt with it was affected by Chinese traditions?

18. In Falling Leaves Adeline Yen Mah reveals her deep-seated desire to preserve and bolster the integrity of her family. Discuss the effects of Chinese culture and thought on this desire.

19. In the two books we are given complementary pictures of the author's relationship to her Aunt Baba and grandfather Ye Ye. How are their attitudes and philosophies similar? How are they different? How do they each reflect Chinese thought? What role do they each play in Adeline's emotional, intellectual and spiritual development?

20. Although the author is clearly grounded in Chinese philosophy, she has spent much of her life in the West, in England and America. Drawing on the insights of both books, discuss how each culture has effected her beliefs.

21. The titles of both Falling Leaves and Watching the Tree are derived from Chinese aphorisms: Falling leaves return to their roots, and Watching the tree to catch a hare. How do they reflect the subtlety and beauty of the Chinese language? How do they reflect the author's worldview?

22. Through Falling Leaves we are given remarkable insight into the workings of the author's family. Through Watching the Tree we learn of the culture in which these people were raised. Which of these family members most closely represents the ideals of Chinese society? Who deviates from these principles and how?

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