Taiwanese writer Sanmao inspired generations of Chinese-language readers with Stories of the Sahara, an account of her travels in the Sahara Desert (recently translated into English by Mike Fu). Today, on what would have been Sanmao's seventy-seventh birthday, her niece, Jessica Chen, reflects on her childhood memories of Sanmao and the writer's enduring legacy.
Listen to one of Sanmao's stories in Chinese, Spanish, Catalan, Dutch, and English in this multilingual reading.
Millions around the world knew her as Sanmao, the legendary writer who embraced her independence and sojourned far and wide. To me, she was simply Auntie—a family member, playmate, and someone who raised me in her own unique manner. If Auntie were with us today, she would be seventy-seven years old. Back in the 1970s, when she first became a public figure, we’d have been hard pressed to imagine that Sanmao, with her two pigtails, gentle and gingerly voice, bold sense of romance, and heart full of curiosity and childlike wonder, might grow old. She has frozen herself in our hearts by her own devices. Today, we allow her to live again through our remembrance.
Auntie never really imagined that she could make a life out of writing, but clearly the seeds were sown at a young age. Even when she was still a child, she was already writing to express her feelings, her hopes and dreams, her fears and sorrows. Grandpa and Grandma always said she was a special child with a gift from God, and the richness of her interior life was off-limits to others—unless she chose to let you in herself. Writing was the window she opened to the outside world. The people who understood this would naturally discover a path to her heart; those who didn’t could only stand at the window and gaze in from afar.
When she was thirteen, Auntie took a leave of absence from school because she couldn’t conform to the strict demands of the educational system. At fourteen, she was writing about first love and making observations on life that set her apart from her peers in maturity and sensitivity. This period of youthful cultivation informed how Auntie eventually wanted to educate me and my twin sister. The three of us often went together to the bookstore of the Eastern Publishing Company, and Auntie would always let us stay the whole afternoon until we had a box full of books to lug into the car. I truly owe my love of reading to her.
I will always remember the nights of my childhood when my sister and I would put down bedding in the living room next to Auntie’s bedroom just so we could sleep closer to her. We felt security and warmth in being near her. I’d often awake in the middle of the night and see the light on in her room below the doorframe. I knew that she was keeping watch over us, scribbling away into the darkest of hours. She was my lighthouse and source of comfort during those long nights.
One time, I couldn’t help sneaking over to peek through the door. Before I could even hide myself properly, she invited me to come in and sit on her bed. I watched her as she continued to write without pause. To this day, I remember so clearly her slim silhouette and her bold determination, gripping the pen with exhausting force. I didn’t understand that writing was happiness to her, nor did I know that other people loved her stories. Least of all on my mind was that I would one day use my own words to write about her. That night, we didn’t speak much about anything. She wrote relentlessly while I watched, sitting up at first, then lying down, until the warm fragrance of her room lulled me into slumber.
Auntie had been a young woman when she met José Maria Quero, the love of her life, while studying abroad in Spain in the late 1960s. This was also when she began keeping a record of her experiences in distant lands. Years later, she and José would reunite and marry in the Spanish Sahara, where she lived and wrote the book that launched her career, Stories of the Sahara. This book has now been translated into English, Spanish, Japanese, Dutch, Norwegian, Vietnamese, and other languages. I didn’t actually read Stories of the Sahara until high school, the year before Auntie passed away. “Child Bride,” the story about a ten-year-old girl forced into marriage, left the deepest impression on me. It really upended my worldview, whereas Auntie, who had experienced many different kinds of culture shock, simply accepted the reality of the local culture she wrote about. She was a different person in her books, unfamiliar to me in some measure: a woman who’d lived in far-off lands, learned fortitude, and honed the tougher side of her personality. Meanwhile, at home with family, she was tender through and through. This was what we loved about her.
Sanmao. Photo courtesy of Jessica Chen.
She moved back to Taipei for good in 1979, after José’s untimely death. The first time I remember meeting her was in front of Grandma’s house. I was in elementary school then, so shy I couldn’t look her in the eye. I hid behind Grandma while stealing furtive glances at this family member whom people said had returned from the ends of the earth. She was a stranger who exuded an altogether Western air. Within a few days, thanks to childhood adaptability and Auntie’s own childlike side, we became close friends and playmates. She drove my sister and me everywhere. She would take us to Chinese Culture University on Yangmingshan, where she taught classes, and show us to her office with all her students’ assignments. In her desk were two drawers with red pens and paper exclusively reserved for me and my sister. We would write our comments on her students’ homework in red pen. She knew that kids wanted to play the teacher’s role sometimes. To us, holding a red pen was like gaining control of our own fate.
At home she was just a regular person, someone we understood not through her writing, but by the rhythms of our daily lives and the familial love we’d nurtured over many years. She was our grandparents’ special daughter, the most imaginative and precocious of her siblings. To us kids, Auntie was a fascinating and beloved figure, so unlike the other adults. At the same time, she was simply part of the fabric of our childhood and adolescence. We were surprised to discover how many admirers she had. We often ran into her readers, who would yelp upon seeing her; our teachers in school adored her. And so we began to sit up and take notice of this companion of ours, this person that we kids had to go wake up close to noon each day—a big kid herself. We gradually realized she was a character that others knew, whom people vied to see at public events. In hindsight, it’s understandable that her work touched so many people: in the 1970s, Auntie allowed the Chinese readers of the world to live vicariously and see the world through her eyes. She blazed a trail in the most distant of places. As an ordinary person who blended Chinese and Western culture in the quotidian, she was simply living earnestly and by her own standards. But she ultimately embodied the dreams and aspirations of millions of that era.
One time, our whole family went on a trip to Japan. As we were packing our suitcases, I realized that Auntie was even more excited than us kids who were going abroad for the first time. She encouraged us to pay careful attention to local customs and our surroundings, to have fun and enjoy every meal or object we encountered. In this way we would expand our horizons, just as she had when she took the opportunity to live in the beautiful Sahara desert. She had done so to taste the unknown, to satisfy her yearning for freedom and her curiosity about other cultures. Over the course of my travels as an adult, I have always remembered Auntie’s exhortation: “Travel with an open heart, then bring back home the feelings that you find.” Her words have stayed with me and become my mantra. She allowed me to discover my own destination.
I was a junior in high school when she passed away. I was burnt out from my studies at the time, could barely think of anything else. On January 4, the house was unusually empty when my sister and I arrived home. This almost never happened. Even though my sister and I found it strange, we also felt relieved to have that unexpected serenity and settled into different corners of the dining room. There were no cell phones back then, so we could only wait for the adults to show up. We left the television on in the background.
When the evening news happened to come on, Auntie’s picture was on the screen: a huge photo of her radiant smile, hands folded together, lightly curled hair falling over her shoulders. She was even wearing her favorite blue shawl. I was struggling with my classical Chinese homework, trying to prepare for a test the next day. I didn’t even put the textbook down because I assumed the news report was about another one of Auntie’s talks or events—a very normal occurrence. Just then, the orange phone affixed to the wall began to rattle and ring urgently. I stood up lazily and made my way toward the phone. I heard my mother’s voice when I picked up.
At that very second, the newscaster announced the grim news about Auntie. For a moment I just stood there, stupefied and frozen. “You’ve found out about Auntie, haven’t you?” asked Mom, struggling for composure. She couldn’t manage to stifle the whimper in her voice. I was very introverted back then. Hearing the news from both the newscaster and Mom, I was struck dumb. I had never experienced anything like this before.
“Is it true, then?” I asked timidly, with a thread of hope.
“Yes, it’s true. We’re all at Taipei Veterans General Hospital. You kids stay at home. Heat up the food in the fridge.” Mom hung up the phone after these instructions. It sounded as though she wouldn’t be able to hold back tears any longer if she said anything more. And crying in front of her children is the last thing a mother wants to do.
That day in 1991, the adults had already been at the hospital for a long time. My sister and I had been completely unaware at school, still feeling grumpy over the parts of math we couldn’t figure out, eyes baggy from never getting enough sleep. Eventually we realized how trivial it all was in the grand scheme of things. Our most beloved family member had chosen to leave this world. The adults kept calm to sort out funeral arrangements; they had no choice but to momentarily freeze their feelings for the sake of our grandparents, for Auntie’s sake. They would only be able to find release after returning home. And the next morning, they’d have to don the armor of calm maturity once again.
In the following days, my sister and I often found ourselves floating in emptiness, without family or companions by our side. Our classmates were genuinely concerned. One day I was asked to see my tutor in her office for a chat. I hoped she wasn’t about to discipline me for my miserable grades. It turned out the kindly teacher only wanted to comfort me before the entrance exams and give her recommendation on how to face not only the demands of school, but also my life’s first great loss, along with the news reports and journalists who were lurking by our home day and night. I barely remember what she said to me, but she seemed heartbroken and got choked up several times. Auntie had given a few talks at school before, and everyone there felt like she was one of our own.
When I finally went back to my classroom, I felt many gazes on me as I sat down at my seat. A small pile of paper slips was on my desk, white and yellow and pink, folded into cranes and other things. That day in English class, I didn’t hear a single word that was spoken. When the bell rang and class ended, I opened up the slips of paper and discovered line after line of comfort and condolences. I was truly touched by the kindness of my classmates and teachers. Auntie had chosen this school for me six years before; today, everyone at school was consoling me while thinking of her and missing her.
Sanmao. Photo courtesy of Jessica Chen.
For a while after school, I was too afraid to go to my grandparents’ house, where I used to spend time every day. I didn’t know what to do or how to face them, my grandparents who had fiercely protected Auntie for so long. Eventually I squeezed out all the courage I had in me and accompanied my parents to my grandparents’ home. I was ashamed to not be of more help. Standing there in silence was all I knew I could do.
Grandma had a handkerchief in her hand, the tears still pouring out of her relentlessly. “Meimei [Little Sister], how could you have left us already?” she wailed. Grandpa sighed next to her. He and Auntie had been very close. He bore the pain of discussing the funeral with Big Auntie, Dad, and my uncles in order to accompany his youngest daughter, whom he loved so much, to the very end. He hoped she would be satisfied with this final act of love and acceptance that he could perform as a parent.
There were many reporters at the funeral, a lot of crying and commotion. Is this too noisy for you? I asked Auntie, feeling conflicted in my heart. She never liked too much of a crowd. At the same time, I hoped she could see all those who loved her and would remember her. This was like a play without a script; after an unexpected turn, there was no choice but to accept this ending that would never have a sequel.
Although Auntie has been gone for nearly thirty years, I see every January 4 [the anniversary of Sanmao's death] that there are so many people who have not forgotten her, people who share their favorite passages of her work or memories of her on WeChat groups, Weibo, Tieba, among close friends and the public alike. There are even many young people who know her stories through and through, sing her praises and share her goodness. Sanmao’s works—books and films, musicals, lyrics, audio recordings and interviews—are her life itself, her faith. The love she and Uncle José made from scratch, the roads she traveled, her yearning for family and home, these are all her footprints, things that she carefully left for us to turn to when we miss her. Perhaps my words here will make you miss her again, but I want to say something to Sanmao’s readers, something that Auntie may have wanted to say herself, but never had the opportunity to: Thank you for your remembrance and care. I’ve gone to find José. You all must live your greatest lives. When you think of me, please remember to smile and keep your free spirit. Though I’ve already exited the stage, you must continue to live on.
During an interview, Grandpa once said that Auntie had simply gotten off the train of life sooner than we expected. Every person has her own final stop. To find a companion on the journey is fate and fortune. In her own funny and creative way, Sanmao led the way for us to experience the exquisite and the sorrowful things in life. But her story isn’t over, nor have her footprints disappeared.
If you miss her just like I do, maybe you’ll look up on a busy night and think of her name when you see the stars. She has always been with us, in the garden of dreams that we have been silently cultivating—there beneath the olive tree that has, over the years, blossomed and bloomed.