Yen Mah was born in Tianjin, Republic of China on 30 November 1937, to Joseph Yen (Yen Tse-Rung), a businessman, and Ren Yong-ping, an accountant. She had an older sister, Lydia (Jun-pei) and three older brothers, Gregory (Zi-jie), Edgar (Zi-lin) and James (Zi-jun). She has stated in Falling Leaves that that she did not use the real names of her siblings and their spouses to protect their identities but she did, however, use the real names of her father, stepmother, aunt and husband, while referring to her paternal grandparents only by the Chinese terms 'Ye Ye' and 'Nai Nai' .
Yen Mah also writes of her Ye Ye's younger sister, whom she calls either 'Grand Aunt' or 'Grand Uncle Gong Gong', and cites as founder and president of the Shanghai Women's Bank. 
When Yen Mah was a year old in 1938, Joseph Yen became infatuated and married a half-French, half-Chinese 17-year-old named Jeanne Virginie Prosperi. The children referred to her as Niang (娘 niáng, another Chinese term for mother), and she is called so throughout the whole book. They had two children, Yen Mah's and a younger half brother, Franklin and half sister, Susan (Jun-qing).
Her legal birthday is 10 November, as her father did not record her birthdate and instead he gave her his own (a common practise prior to the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949). Two weeks after her birth, her mother died of puerperal fever and according to traditional Chinese beliefs, Yen Mah was branded as 'bad luck' by the rest of her family.
Allegations of child abuse
In her second book, Chinese Cinderella, Yen Mah details the emotional and physical abuse she suffered in childhood and her attempts to gain her father's approval and love. Yen Mah writes that Prosperi would abuse her and the rest of the family, including Prosperi's own daughter Susan, all the while doting upon Joseph and their son Franklin. Yen Mah's third brother, James protected her from some of their stepmother's actions, although in Falling Leaves it appears that her main refuge from Prosperi was her father's older sister, Aunt Baba (T: 姑媽, S: 姑妈). Throughout her childhood, she was emotionally supported by her paternal grandfather and paternal aunt. When her father became wanted by the Japanese, he left Tianjin for Shanghai. Soon afterward, her stepmother and half-brother followed, and then her grandmother Nai Nai died from a massive stroke.
Yen Mah further recounts that she was severely punished whenever she disobeyed her stepmother's strict rules, such as attending a friend's birthday party. When she was elected class president at Shengxin Primary School in Shanghai, Yen Mah's friends came to her house, with congratulatory gifts. She was summoned to her parents' room, where Prosperi beat her until her nose bled before commanding her to ask her friends to leave. Joseph then made her open the presents and then throw them in the trash bin, and in a fit of rage, Prosperi sent Yen Mah back to St Joseph's Primary School (now the Tianjin no. 21 Middle School) in Tianjin.
Shanghai and Hong Kong
When her father and stepmother were ready, Yen Mah and her full siblings went to Shanghai and moved into their father's house along Avenue Joffre. Two months later, her aunt, Ye Ye, and Susan arrived (the former two delayed moving to observe the hundred days' mourning period for Nai Nai). When Susan arrived, she was too young to recognise her mother, Prosperi, who thus beat her soundly in frustration. Yen Mah intervened, leading Prosperi to declare that she would never forgive her.
The Yen family later moved to Hong Kong when Yen Mah was eleven, and she transferred to Sacred Heart School and Orphanage (Sacred Heart Canossian College). At the age of fourteen, as her autobiography states, Yen Mah won a play-writing competition for her work Gone With the Locusts, and her father allowed her to study in England with Edgar.
She left for the United Kingdom in August 1952, and read medicine at London Hospital Medical School, eventually establishing a medical practise in California. Before the start of her career in United States, she had a brief relationship with a man named Karl, practised medicine in Hong Kong hospital at the behest of her father, who refused to give her air fare when she expressed plans to move to America. She has stated in an interview with the South China Morning Post that her father wanted her to become an obstetrician in the belief that women wanted treatment only from a female doctor, but as she hated obstetrics she became an anaesthesiologist instead. 
She worked as an anaesthesiologist at West Anaheim Community Hospital and eventually became Chief of Anesthesia. In her free time, she continued writing about the tragedies that had overshadowed her life. She moved into the boarding home of her friend Lee, and became the object of affections of both Lee and another acquaintance, waiter Byron Bai Lun-Soon.
In 1964, Yen Mah and Bai married but he proved to be violent and abusive, and she divorced him in 1970, four years after the birth of their son Roger. Later in 1972, she married professor and abstract painter Robert A. Mah, who adopted Roger, and they had a daughter, writer Ann Mah.
Her autobiography, Falling Leaves, was published in 1997, shortly after Jung Chang's memoir Wild Swans. It made the New York Times Bestseller list, selling over a million copies worldwide and translated into twenty two languages. Beginning with her traumatic childhood under her stepmother's cruelty, it goes on to recount how, after Joseph Yen died, Propseri had prevented his children from reading his will until her own death two years later. When the wills were read, Yen Mah had apparently been disinherited. The success of Falling Leaves prompted Yen Mah to quit medicine and devote her time to writing.
Falling Leaves was translated into Chinese for the Taiwan market. It was titled Luoyeguigen (T: 落葉歸根, S: 落叶归根, P: Luòyèguīgēn). Unlike other cases of memoirs, the novel was translated by the original writer.
Her second work, Chinese Cinderella, was an abridged version of her autobiography, and sold over one million copies worldwide. It received numerous awards, including The Children’s Literature Council of Southern California in 2000 for Compelling Autobiography; and the Lamplighter’s Award from National Christian School Association for Contribution to Exceptional Children’s Literature in June 2002.
Published in 2001, her third book, Watching the Tree, is about Chinese philosophy and traditional beliefs (including Traditional Chinese Medicine). A Thousand Pieces of Gold was published in 2002, and looks at events under the Qin and Han dynasties through Chinese proverbs and their origins in Sima Qian's history, Shiji.
Yen Mah has written three further books for children and young adults. Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society, her first fiction work, is based on events in World War II, and Along the River, another fictional book based on Chinese history. China, Land of Dragons and Emperors is a non-fiction history book for young adults.
In 2004, Yen Mah was voted fourth on the New Zealand children's best seller lists.
Falling Leaves Foundation
Adeline Yen Mah is Founder and President of the Falling Leaves Foundation, whose mission is 'to promote understanding between East and West' and provides funds for the study of Chinese history, language, and culture. There is also a website dedicated to teaching Chinese over the Internet for free, and the foundation has established a poetry prize at UCLA.