Wanderlust and Worldliness: Sanmao’s Spiritual Journey
by Mike Fu. Translator of Sanmao.
Dec 04, 2015

In 1967, a young woman from Taiwan flew across the world to study abroad in Europe. She was not the first to do so by any stretch of the imagination. But this initial voyage across thousands of miles set in motion a chain of events that would profoundly alter the course of her life and make literary history. Far away from home, she was known only by the Western name she had chosen for herself, Echo. Her restlessness would continue to chase her around the globe over the years. She would meet new friends and lovers in Madrid, West Berlin, and Chicago. She perfected her English and Spanish and dabbled in German. She had affairs both torrid and mundane. Upon returning to Taiwan, she met an older German man with whom she was prepared to settle at last. But then the unthinkable happened; he passed away suddenly. Despondent, she attempted suicide. When she was revived, she decided to leave to collect herself and mend her heart. Once more she gravitated toward Spain, a place of happy memories. But for years, she’d harbored a fantasy and felt an intense homesickness for another place, a land she had never seen or known. Now, nearing the age of thirty, she made up her mind to go. After a short stay in Madrid, she gathered her few belongings and boarded a jet plane again. Her destination was the Sahara desert.

© Huang Chen Tien Hsin, Chen Sheng and Chen Chieh through Crown Publishing Company Ltd.

Echo was not alone in the Sahara. A familiar face had resurfaced in Madrid and become part of her life again. His name was José Maria Quero. He had met Echo when he was just a teenager, falling deeply, hopelessly in love with her. Now that she was back, he sought to transform his unrequited passion into a relationship of substance. When she announced her plans to travel across the desert, he quietly found government work in what was then the Spanish Sahara, a colonial hinterland where Iberian administrators lived in uneasy coexistence with the nomadic Sahrawi Arabs. José waited patiently for Echo to arrive in Africa, confident that she would acquiesce to his love. Sure enough, they finally married after spending months trying to accumulate the relevant paperwork. Even in the desert, it seemed, there was bureaucracy.

© Huang Chen Tien Hsin, Chen Sheng and Chen Chieh through Crown Publishing Company Ltd.

Echo began writing about her experiences in this remote land. Since childhood, she had been a voracious reader of both Western and Chinese literature. Some of her fiction had previously appeared in Taiwanese literary magazines. These stories were drippingly sentimental, verging on the mawkish. It was in the Sahara that she uncovered a new rhythm in her sense of narrative, articulating a mature yet whimsical worldview. She took on another pseudonym and published these vignettes of life in the desert. Chinese language readers began to take notice, intrigued by her colloquial tone and playful perspective on an unimaginably exotic locale. Despite the foreign environment, she painted a picture of domestic life that was recognizable and endearing. She wrote about cooking and home decorating as much as the cultural and spiritual life she sought to create for herself in the desert. As an outsider, she still managed to navigate fluidly this Spanish-speaking domain with an abundance of charm. Her readers would come to know her as Sanmao. Her life and work are now the stuff of legend.

Influential publisher Crown first released Stories of the Sahara in 1976, a collection of Sanmao’s writings that originally appeared in Taiwan’s United Daily News. This provocative work is a landmark in Taiwanese literature, conveying the purportedly autobiographical experiences of a pioneering writer and traveller. Sanmao was both pen name and persona for Echo, also known as Chen Ping. The first-person tales in Sahara present an idealized authorial vision of self: an itinerant young woman living on the edges of the world, embracing a life saturated with great romance and compassion. As the sole Chinese woman in this realm, Sanmao becomes caricature and cultural ambassador to those around her. She deftly negotiates her Otherness and liminal identity throughout the book. At times she allies herself with the civilizing mores of the Spaniards; on other occasions, she finds solidarity with the Sahrawi, who are both primitive and pure in her eyes. Readers were immediately mesmerized by her voice and subject matter. The Sahara memoirs propelled Sanmao into the literary limelight in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and eventually mainland China. She remained a public figure for the rest of her life, forever under the guise of ‘Sanmao,’ rather than Echo or Chen Ping.

Nowadays Sanmao’s work is considered popular literature, dismissed by some as little more than fluff. But it’s hard to overstate the enormity of her impact on her first fans, many of whom did not even possess the means to travel abroad. An entire generation of young people looked up to her, awed by her indomitable spirit and joie de vivre. For those who came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, she embodied the archetype of a well-heeled and well-travelled modern girl. Effortlessly polyglot, she transcended national boundaries and embraced worldliness in her lifestyle and sensibilities: Chinese by birth, Taiwanese by rearing, a dual Spanish citizen by marriage. Her writings evoked great empathy for people of the world, as well as an insatiable wanderlust. Her legions of loyal readers sought to emulate her cosmopolitan chic and claim her free spirit as their own. For them, Sanmao was a conduit for accessing the vast and unknown world – European and African cultures, foreign languages and religions, faraway lands. Through her mastery of narrative and skilful character studies, her audience back home could glimpse a wondrous reality seen through her eyes.

As Sanmao, Chen Ping lived a storied life of her own. She and José left Western Africa as the political situation deteriorated in the mid ‘70s, resettling in the Canary Islands. It was there that José died in a tragic diving accident in 1979. Bereft and forlorn, Sanmao spent the next decade struggling to regain her mental and physical health. Her popularity as a writer, however, continued its upward trajectory. She remained a vibrant figure in the Taiwanese literary scene. She taught university courses, helmed advice columns, published more travelogues, essays, and translations, and even ventured to pen song lyrics and screenplays. Although she continued to roam the world, including a long commissioned voyage through Latin America, she was never fully able to extricate herself from the anguish of her past. In 1991, mere days into the new year, she hung herself by a pair of silk stockings in a Taipei hospital. Chen Ping’s death did not decelerate the momentum of Sanmao’s literary stardom. In the decades since, Sanmao’s collected works have been reprinted time and again across the entire Chinese speaking world. The millions of copies sold are a testament to the enduring mystique of this seemingly ordinary woman whose bravura and blitheness captured a quintessential yearning of her times.

Sanmao has not been without her fair share of detractors, many of whom view her with a degree of skepticism. The veracity of her Sahara tales, for instance, has been called into question. Although she maintained that all her stories came from real experiences, some are dubious of her central role in the colonial community or the moral high ground she occupies in many of her narratives. Her most vocal critics have claimed that various details of her personal life were deliberately obfuscated. Some say her marriage to José was fictionalized; yet others assert that José never even existed. “Wherever . . . [she] chooses to go, she beautifies, educates and enlightens,” notes East Asian scholar Miriam Lang of the literary identity Sanmao assumed in her writing. “She demonstrates the possible scope of a ‘beautiful life’ based upon an ideology of feeling, an ‘aesthetic cosmopolitanism,’ a modern ability to consume culture, and a set of bourgeois values.” It is no surprise that such a dynamic personality living in the public eye could be undercut by scandal or suspicion. Regardless, no one can deny that Chen Ping invented herself anew in the masterwork known to the world as Sanmao and, in doing so, unlocked a global consciousness for millions of Chinese readers. Sanmao allowed the youth of yesteryear to live vicariously through her adventures across multiple continents. Her voice was at once spunky and sincere, situating the reader as confidante. She lavished sympathy and kindness onto her fellow man. Though her own narrative was marked by tragedy, she is remembered for her brilliance of spirit. Nowadays, the success of East Asian economies has made it easier than ever for young people to jet from place to place, to assume a global identity, to roam to the ends of the earth in search of spiritual solace. For many such wanderers, Sanmao was both prototype and precursor.

Mike Fu is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator. Follow him on Twitter: @tragicsalad