“When I first arrived in the desert, I desperately wanted to be the first female explorer to cross the Sahara.” That terrific lede is the opening line of a collection of travel essays that have given rise to more journeys, both imagined and real, than anyone could possibly count. “Stories of the Sahara” are the collected works of a Chinese woman who wrote under the pen name Sanmao, though she was often called Echo in the English-speaking world. Inspired by stories she read in National Geographic magazine as a child that depicted the Sahara desert’s alien landscape, Sanmao left what she saw as a culturally repressive China, striking out to see the world. She eventually traveled to more than 55 countries, learned to speak multiple languages, and wrote voluminously, her words providing an escapism for readers back home who couldn’t hope to leave China themselves.
Named Chen Ping at birth, Sanmao was born in 1943 in the bustling city of Chongqing. Her father was an educated and well-to-do lawyer who moved the family to Taiwan fearing the communists’ rise to power in postwar China. She was a voracious reader, finding inspiration to question the world, to move freely within it, to escape cultural and social bonds, to explore, to adventure. All while coming of age in a world still struggling to put the pieces together in a postwar environment, with despots and tyrants rising to fill power vacuums, including in her native China.
Sanmao briefly attended university in Taiwan, then finally in 1967 stretched her wings and took flight, leaving China behind, to alight in Europe. She studied in Germany and became fluent in the language, then moved on to spend time in the US, then back to Europe where she settled in Madrid, Spain, picking up that language too, and where she met a man she’d eventually marry, Jose Quero.
In the early 1970s, Sanmao finally had her chance to cross the Sahara. She moved to Africa with Quero, to a town called El Aaiún in the Spanish Sahara, a colonial area with competing factions of Spanish, Moroccans, and native Sahrawi people. It was there that she began the writing that would not only make her a cultural treasure in China but would allow an escape for so many who couldn’t follow in her footsteps.
Sanmao wrote a regular column in Taiwan’s United Daily News about everything she saw and experienced in a Muslim country that chafed with her western ideals of feminism and autonomy. She dispensed medicine from her own personal supply to women who couldn’t otherwise see the only doctors in town who refused to treat women. She fended off violent attacks from men when off sightseeing in rural areas. She lavishly decorated her home. She held parties. She learned to drive, evaded local police for months who tried to arrest her for driving illegally, and eventually succeeded in earning a driver’s license.
And after each escapade, a column would appear in that Taiwanese newspaper, under the mysterious name “Sanmao.” It would be devoured by a readership eager for mystery, for adventure, during a political purging called the White Terror, in which thousands were detained and executed after being labeled as spies for Communist China.
Hongwei Lu, a scholar of East Asia, noted that “San Mao’s travel accounts of foreign cultures and life experiences gathered through her living and studying abroad provided post-Mao China with a taste of multiculturalism, and suggested the possibility of not only an expanded consciousness of the world, but a transformation of the way people think about the world and the possibility of being part of it.”
It didn’t take long for Sanmao’s essays to be collected into a book. In 1974, “Stories of the Sahara” was first published in Taiwan as a collection of 20 of Sanmao’s most cherished articles. It sold at an unimaginable clip—at least 15 million copies have been purchased since that first printing, with countless pirate copies spreading from Taiwan into China.
Her wanderlust and freedom were intoxicating to a Taiwanese and Chinese readership unaccustomed to women venturing out to not only travel the world on their own, but to actually live in, not only Europe, but impossibly exotic Saharan Africa. She proved to be an oversized influence in Asian cultures that read her work, inspiring young people, but women especially to not only project their own impulses for traveling and experiences on Sanmao, but to embark on their own adventures.
Echo has since become a common name for Chinese women whose mothers came of age reading Sanmao’s essays. “Her free, easy lifestyle and kindness has encouraged me to pursue my dream, when I felt lost,” says a 24-year-old Shanghai-based illustrator Echo Lee. “It was San Mao and her work that gave me the courage.”
It’s easy to understand with passages like this:
“Often, I asked myself, what is distance? Then I heard my own answer, saying that distance is what I desired most in life – that it is freedom. A freedom far, far away, like the air. At that moment, I realized that I had slowly released myself from all the things I didn’t need that were binding me to my life. I then thought: I can go to the most remote corners of the earth if that is where my heart wants to go. It was in that moment, that my freedom had finally arrived.“
Sanmao’s life, while footloose, was filled with tragedy. In her student days, she’d been engaged to marry a German man who died of a heart attack. In 1979, her husband Quero died in a freak diving accident after the couple had moved to the Canary Islands. Following his death, Sanmao traveled some more then returned to her native Taiwan to teach. Eventually overcome with grief and depression, she took her own life in 1991.
But her legacy continues to inspire.
Weibo, a hugely popular social media site in China, has an account that publishes lines from Sanmao’s books with well more than one million followers. On what would have been her 76th birthday, Google paid tribute with a “Doodle” on the search engine’s homepage for the day.
Just this year, “Stories of the Sahara,” was published in English for the first time.
Mike Fu, the book’s translator says of Sanmao in the acknowledgments: “[Sanmao] would have delighted in the opportunity to befriend even more people across cultures and languages.”