Sanmao’s Shifting Sands

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.