Sanmao wrote extensively from the Sahara desert in the 1970s.
Culture

Sanmao, the globetrotting Taiwanese writer who inspired generations of women

Mar 26, 2019

If you went on Google in Taiwan and Hong Kong today, you would have found a Doodle of a woman in a loose blue dress sitting alone in a desert with pen and paper in hand.

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The woman in the illustration is Taiwanese writer Sanmao, who would have turned 76 today.

Born in Chongqing, China, as Chen Maoping in 1943, Sanmao moved with her family to Taiwan at a young age, developed an early interest in literature, and went on to become one of the most prolific travel writers of her time.

In more than 20 books, she enthralled readers with her musings on life and the human condition. Her writings were characterized by a deep level of compassion, honesty, and connection to the people she encountered. She was fluent in four languages—Mandarin Chinese, English, German, and Spanish.

For many, Sanmao embodied the ideal of the cultivated, free-spirited woman at a time when there were few well-known figures like her in China.

Sanmao in the Sahara desert.
Sanmao in the Sahara desert.

Her pen name, Sanmao, was borrowed in earnest from a character by graphic novelist Zhang Leping. Sanmao, in Zhang’s work, was an orphan living in poverty during the Chinese Civil War.

"When I came across Sanmao, the orphan wandering in the streets, I realized there were many poor children struggling to survive,” she wrote in a foreword to the Taiwan edition of Zhang’s book. “When I began writing, I decided to faithfully record the lives of ordinary people whose voices go unheard. So I chose this name.”

Her collection of essays, Stories of the Sahara, which she wrote while living in the Western Sahara with her Spanish husband, remains one of her most popular books in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

“Don’t ask me where I come from. My home is far away.”

Sanmao

Sanmao’s wanderlust—driven by a mix of yearning for romance, hunger for knowledge, and desire to see the world beyond the confines of her homeland—made her a hero among generations of Chinese women who felt bound by the expectations of their rigid society.

“Don’t ask me where I come from,” she wrote in her poem The Olive Tree. “My home is far away.”

For many, Sanmao embodied the ideal of the cultivated, free-spirited woman at a time when there were few well-known figures like her in China.
For many, Sanmao embodied the ideal of the cultivated, free-spirited woman at a time when there were few well-known figures like her in China.

Her independent spirit inspired Chinese girls everywhere to adopt her English nickname, Echo, which was also the name of her favorite teacher.

“If you meet a Chinese girl who has Echo as her English name, I think there’s a fair chance that she’s a fan of Sanmao,” Mike Fu, a New York-based writer who is translating her stories, told Quartz reporter Echo Huang in an essay.

For many Chinese people in the 1970s and ’80s who couldn’t easily travel, their perception of the world was shaped by Sanmao’s writing. Her time in the Sahara overlapped with the Spanish occupation of the Western Sahara, and she wrote extensively about the local population’s struggle against the Spaniards. Over a lifetime, Sanmao traveled to more than 50 countries.

But her life was also a tragic one. Her first love, a German teacher to whom she was engaged, died from a heart attack before they could marry. Later, her husband, José María Quero, passed away in a diving accident six years into their marriage in 1979.

Sanmao with her husband, José María Quero.
Sanmao with her husband, José María Quero.

Afterward, Sanmao returned to Taiwan for good. Her health deteriorated, and in 1991, she committed suicide at a hospital in Taipei. She was 47.

Reports at the time suggested the reasons for her suicide included a cancer scare, disappointment over losing an award for her script to the film Red Dust, and depression over her husband’s death.

Today, Sanmao’s name is synonymous with romantic aspirations of wanderlust, liberation, and nonconformity. Last March, Spanish authorities opened a route on the Canary Islands that lets travelers retrace her steps in the archipelago.

Worldwide, Sanmao has also become a feminist icon, though she never claimed to be a feminist herself. A Google Doodle commemorating International Women’s Day this year included this poignant quote from her:

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TaiwanChinese writersFeminism

Journeys: