Sanmao’s Shifting Sands8 min read

Lavinia Liang reviews Stories of the Sahara by Sanmao, trans. Mike Fu

Sanmao has been experiencing a renewal. Not the Sanmao of the famed 1935 Chinese comics – the Shanghai street orphan so malnourished that he has only three hairs (san mao) on his head, or perhaps only thirty cents (san mao) to his name – but Sanmao, the pen name of Chinese writer Chen Maoping. Known as Echo Chan in the West, and “Taiwan’s wandering writer” to others, author and cultural icon Chen was vastly popular in the Chinese-speaking world during the 70s and 80s. Yet not one of her books was translated into English until recently. Last year, she was honored with an ‘Overlooked No More’ obituary in The New York Times, a Google Doodle, and, in January 2020, the release of the English edition of the 1976 book that skyrocketed her to celebrity, Stories of the Sahara, translated by Mike Fu.

Sanmao was born in Chongqing to a well-off family that then departed to Taiwan due to the Communist victory over the Nationalists in 1949. She struggled in junior high and eventually stopped attending school, after which her father, a lawyer, hired private tutors for her. In her college years, Sanmao began traveling widely – first to Spain, where she met the young José María Quero y Ruíz, whom she would eventually marry – and later to both Germany and the United States. She became fluent in Spanish, German and English, all during a time when few Chinese women traveled the world – indeed, a time when Taiwan was still under the rule of martial law.

By her accounts, she opened a copy of National Geographic one day in the early 1970s, read a feature piece on the Sahara Desert, and knew she had to go there. “I couldn’t understand the feeling of homesickness that I had, inexplicable and yet so decisive, towards that vast and unfamiliar land, as if echoing from a past life,” she wrote. So in 1973, at the age of 30, she did go – along with Quero (or “José” in her essays), who traveled ahead and found work to save up money for their life in El Aaiún, then the capital of the Spanish Sahara.

Stories of the Sahara is a collection of 20 of Sanmao’s travel and memoir essays, largely from her time in El Aaiún (Laayoune today). Most were originally published in the Taiwanese newspaper United Daily News. Sanmao’s writing is simple, her sentences plain and often short; the content of her stories is what has drawn her wide audiences. The Sanmao of Stories of the Sahara – even without the grand and, for many Chinese, unimaginable reality of having moved to the world’s largest desert in the first place – is bold and curious, always asking questions and seeking out new friendships. She hardly shows any vulnerability in this collection; she is constantly plucky, resourceful, unafraid to speak up.

Sanmao firmly centers herself in her stories – even pieces like ‘Sergeant Salva’ and ‘Crying Camels’ that involve wider current events (the decolonization of the Spanish Sahara) are still based in personal observation and narration. The verifiability of Sanmao’s narratives surrounding the social change she witnessed is also not airtight; whether the Sahara stories are all to be taken as factual nonfiction is unclear. For example, in ‘Crying Camels,’ Sanmao writes of personally knowing Bassiri, leader of the Sahrawi nationalists. A Muhammad Bassiri was an actual leader of the Sahrawi independence struggle, but he disappeared in Spanish custody in 1970, several years before Sanmao arrived in the Sahara.

Sanmao also does not work to illuminate the lives of her Sahrawi friends and acquaintances beyond what she deems interesting aspects of their cultural practices, nor does she focus on rigorously reporting on the region’s social turmoil and political happenings. In fact, in several instances, she openly considers the Sahrawi “uncivilized.” Mike Fu, the translator, notes that he debated leaving in passages in which Sanmao writes patronizingly or dismissively of the Sahrawi, but that he ultimately retained them, in order to “preserve the integrity of the whole work.” Sanmao’s readers were Chinese, and far removed from her life in Africa, while the subjects of her writings were not able to read those very writings, which were in Chinese.

Sanmao firmly centers herself in her stories … and does not illuminate the lives of her Sahrawi friends and acquaintances”

In the essay ‘Hearth and Home’, Sanmao is astonished to see the transformation that José has undergone living and working in the desert for three months before her arrival. “Only then did I think of the life I was about to face,” she realizes. “This was my reality now, a major test rather than just an abstraction about which I had romantic and childish ideas.” This is one of the only moments in which Sanmao acknowledges her romanticism and the contextual privilege – as a Spanish citizen – in which she has arrived in the Sahara. (Lugging a heavy water tank back to her house, she is happy that her mother is “not a clairvoyant,” or else she would be in tears over her daughter’s living conditions, despite the fact that the idea and decision of coming to the Sahara were Sanmao’s own.)

But this unhesitant centering of herself is also a – if not the – reason for Sanmao’s appeal. The boldness of a woman doing so was and still is striking, especially in a place where she was very obviously not a native. (“I’m the only Chinese person around these parts,” Sanmao tells a foreigner in El Aaiún at one point.) Despite the remarkable uniqueness of her life, Sanmao’s writing is accessible, whether through the ease of her prose or the open expression of her feelings. In all this, she inspired a whole generation of Chinese – and other Asian – women, who grew up under political uncertainty and conservative norms, and showed them the possibility of participating in a wider, more culturally diverse world.

In 1975, Spain pulled out of the Western Sahara, leaving the territory in a legal limbo that continues to the present day. On Spanish withdrawal, the region’s neighbors – Morocco to the north, Mauritania to the south – each claimed sovereignty over it, while the native peoples of the Western Sahara proclaimed their own independence through the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Sanmao and José moved to the Canary Islands in late 1975. There, in 1979 and at the age of 27, José drowned in a diving accident. Sanmao returned to Taiwan soon after, where she continued to write everything from lyrics for popular songs to the screenplay for the popular film Red Dust (1990), as well as on assignment from Latin America from 1981-82. Sanmao’s singular life and literary stardom are perhaps overshadowed only by her death in 1991, when she committed suicide at the age of 47.

Sanmao inspired a whole generation of Chinese women, who grew up under political uncertainty and conservative norms”

Fans speculated as to why Sanmao took her own life; perhaps depression from José’s death or a brush with cancer at the time. But Sanmao had already attempted suicide twice before. As Singaporean novelist Sharlene Teo cautions in the foreword to the English edition: “Tragedy has a tendency to eclipse the light of a life’s work, romanticizing everything, lending every line an air of pathos and bittersweet resonance.” Taken as a whole, Stories of the Sahara tends towards the upbeat. Sanmao takes mishaps and roadblocks in stride, and treats the pervading loneliness of the desert as a force to be reckoned with rather than conceded to. Yet there are strange flashes and startling premonitions throughout the book – moments that hint at greater sorrow. In ‘Seed of Death’, for example, Sanmao undergoes a horrific onslaught of physical ailments that are apparently the result of a cursed Mauritanian necklace she picks up in the street (an indulgence to superstition that also crops up in ‘A Knife on a Desert Night,’ where she mentions having seen a UFO). She closes ‘Seed of Death’ with a conversation with José: “I’ve been thinking that maybe, just maybe, I have a subconscious impulse to end my own life,” she tells him. “So that’s why I became so ill.” José is shocked. Sanmao casually writes of his reaction: “I don’t know why, but these topics make people depressed. Humans are most afraid of themselves.”

After such a tragicomic and unbelievable tale, this closing is odd – a punch to the chest. It recalls the ending to Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi, and the disbelief that audiences surely have in response to fantastical stories. Was there really a tiger; was it really a cursed necklace? “Which story do you prefer?” Martel’s protagonist Pi asks at the end of his tale: the story with the real tiger or the tiger-as-Pi? That Sanmao’s life was marked by personal tragedies is a part of her legacy, and it poses the same question. Which story do we prefer: the story with a cursed necklace and a woman who might one day take her own life – or the story with only one of these things?

Today, there is a ‘Sanmao Route’ to follow on the Canary Islands. Her writings, which had never ceased being popular in the Chinese-speaking world, are finding their ways into other languages, other hands. Today, the sight of an Asian woman speaking multiple languages, marrying someone of a different ethnicity, and traveling solo are no longer rare. Perhaps “renewal” is not the only word that captures how Sanmao’s influence is expanding into the Anglophone world. “Reawakening” works as well. ∎

Header: Sanmao in Madrid with her husband José María Quero. (Wikicommons)