She inspired generations of Chinese women with stories of her travels through Africa and Europe in the 1970s. At a time when opportunities for women were limited, Sanmao surprised readers with her independence and worldliness. Now, her collection ‘Stories of the Sahara’ is finally available in English.
Known for her insatiable wanderlust and unflappable spirit, Sanmao dazzled Chinese readers with accounts of her travels through Africa and Europe in the 1970s.
At a time when opportunities for women were limited, Sanmao, who was born in Chongqing and raised in Taiwan, inspired generations of readers with her independence, compassion, and can-do spirit.
Every year on the anniversary of her death, tributes are posted on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. Last year, Google honored the renowned author on her 76th birthday with a Doodle. Women have taken on her English nickname “Echo” as a tribute.
Previously, Sanmao’s work was only available in Chinese and Spanish, owing to her travels in Spain and its former territories in Africa. Now for the first time, English readers have the chance to read Sanmao’s work.
One of her most well-known volumes, Stories of the Sahara, is out now by Bloomsbury Press.
“When I read this book, there was this sensation of familiarity in it,” says Mike Fu, translator of Stories of the Sahara. “The character just felt like somebody I had known for a long time.”
Fu received the book—an original Chinese version—as a gift on his 26th birthday and began to translate a couple of chapters on his own.
Struck by her enduring popularity, he was surprised that her writing had never been translated into English before.
“She captured the public imagination in greater China at a time when very few women could not only travel the world, but live abroad by themselves.”
“She captured the public imagination in greater China at a time when very few women could not only travel the world, but live abroad by themselves.” Fu says. “She was a pioneer in that sense, but also a deeply romantic person, a wandering soul, somebody who molded her entire reality into what she believed it should or could be.”
Sanmao was born in Chongqing as Chen Maoping in 1943. Her family moved to Taiwan in 1948 during the Chinese Civil War.
A voracious reader as a kid, she struggled against the rigidity of the education system and was homeschooled from middle to high school. At the age of 20, she studied at the University of Madrid, marking the beginning of her time far from home. She developed a penchant for learning languages, and became fluent in Spanish and German.
“I often needed to go off the tracks of a normal life and do things without explanation.”
“I often needed to go off the tracks of a normal life and do things without explanation,” Sanmao wrote in one of her essays. She later added, “Perhaps a life plain as porridge would never be an option for me.”
Sanmao had already drifted through several countries when she came across a feature on the Sahara desert in an issue of National Geographic. The photographs were so gripping that she decided to see the desolate landscape for herself.
After settling in the capital city of El Aaiún during the waning days of Spanish colonial rule in the Sahara, Sanmao began to chronicle her life in the desert. Her stories were serialized in a Taiwanese newspaper in 1974.
Sanmao’s husband José María Quero, a Spaniard she had met while living in Madrid, is in every story of the book. In Stories of the Sahara, Sanmao depicts their marriage with endearing candor as he shares her adventurousness and eagerness to see the world.
“All I want is for you to do things your way,” Quero told Sanmao. “If you lost your individuality and flair, I wouldn’t see any point in marrying you!”
The two appeared to be perfect partners. As a wedding gift, Quero gave her a camel skull, which Sanmao accepted as a sign of his worthiness to be her soulmate.
But they also came from different backgrounds, a fact that’s played up with humor in her stories. She would lead José to believe that a bowl of vermicelli noodles was softened fishing wire and let him chop up shark’s fin.
During the translation process, Fu wanted to preserve Sanmao’s conversational way of writing, sometimes switching from direct translation to English equivalents such as “let’s be real” and “how do you like them apples?”
In Stories of the Sahara, Sanmao also depicts interactions with members of the nomadic Sahrawi Arab tribe. Readers learn about her friends Salun, the grocer trapped in a doomed romance and Gueiga, the daughter of Sanmao’s neighbor who, like most Sahrawi women, doesn’t know her age.
In some instances, Sanmao infantilizes them to the point of exoticism. At worst, she claims the moral high ground as an outsider—her usage of the word “civilized” may make today’s readers wince.
But she also shows a sincere desire to help and understand her neighbors, delivering them medicine and picking up hitchhikers after she gets her driver’s license.
With confidence and spunk, she shook off any reservations she had about being an outsider—she was, after all, a Chinese woman traveling in Africa, sometimes alone, in the 1970s.
“Every little stone in the sand, I still know how to cherish. Every sunrise and sunset, I’m reluctant to forget.”
She became friendly with those around her and found wonder in human interactions. “Every little stone in the sand, I still know how to cherish,” she wrote. “Every sunrise and sunset, I’m reluctant to forget. Not to mention these real, living faces, how could I just erase them from my memory?”
Sanmao returned to Taiwan in 1980 after her husband died in a diving accident. Her health deteriorated, and in 1991, she committed suicide at a hospital in Taipei. She was 47.
In her lifetime, Sanmao traveled to over 50 countries and published 20 books. Her continued popularity decades later is a testament to the profound effect she had on readers as one of the first Chinese women to travel to far-flung locales.
“I think she’s going to surprise a lot of English readers,” Fu says, “and challenge public notions about the autonomy of Chinese women.”
Stories of the Sahara, he says, will be a welcome, diversifying edition to bookshelves usually stocked with heavy political narratives of 1960s China.
“I’m hoping her voice will add texture to the reader’s idea of what China or Taiwan or even ‘Asia’ is, was, and could be,” he says. “I think Sanmao might just inspire people to explore other views into modern Chinese literature.”