Taiwanese travel writer and translator Sanmao (Three Hairs), who in 1976 became famous with the autobiographical account Stories of the Sahara, committed suicide in Taipei Veterans General Hospital on January 4th, 1991 by hanging herself with a pair of silk stockings.
Her pen name was adopted from the main character of Chinese comic artist Zhang Leping’s (1910-1992) most famous work, published in 1935. In English, she was also known as Echo Chen after a minor female Greek deity.
Born as Chen Mao-ping on March 26th, 1943 in Chungking, China’s provisional wartime capital, to wealthy lawyer Chen Si-ching and his wife, Miao Chin-lan, both devout Christians from Chekiang who already had a daughter, Chen Tian-hsin.
After the end of World War II, the family moved back to then-capital Nanking, but following the Communist takeover in 1949 it relocated to Taiwan together which the Nationalist government under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975).
Sanmao developed a very early interest in both Chinese and Western literature. Due to her preoccupation with reading, her grades suffered in middle school, particularly in mathematics.
When she suddenly got very good grades after realizing that there was a certain pattern in the exams, but a math teacher who still suspected her of cheating drew black circles around her eyes, humiliating her in front of her classmates, Sanmao stopped going to school in 1955 for a year.
Considering the importance of academic achievement in a Confucian society like “Free China” back then, her dislike of the lack of freedom in its educational system probably had its origins in these rather traumatic experience.
Her parents decided to let her attend the local American School instead and hired tutors to teach her ikebana, piano as well as classical painting and poetry.
At the end of 1962, after officially abbreviating her given name to Chen Ping because she had difficulties writing its first, quite complicated character, she published an essay and was introduced to Taipei’s literary and artistic circles.
In 1964, as she hadn’t finished a Taiwanese high school, Sanmao began to study philosophy at the recently opened Chinese Culture University with a special permit for gifted individuals.
Her love affair with fellow student Liang Kuo-ming ended when she left the island in 1967 for Spain to learn Spanish and enter the Complutense University of Madrid. In the Spanish capital she met José María Quero Ruíz (born 1951), whom she would later marry.
She achieved the proficiency to translate Spanish-language comic strips like Mafalda, created by Argentinian cartoonist Joaquín Salvador Lavado Tejón, alias Quino (1932-2020).
In Berlin, Sanmao studied German very intensively and within nine months earned a qualification to teach it. At the same time, she developed a strong interest in ceramics and visited different European countries, including some under Soviet rule for which her passport theoretically wasn´t valid.
Afterwards she attended the University of Illinois en Chicago, before going home in 1971 to work as German and philosophy lecturer at her alma mater using her good connections.
Overcoming strong resistance from her family, Sanmao decided to marry painter Teng te-chwan, only to find out that he already had a wife. She then got engaged to an older lector from Germany working in Taipei, but he died from a heart attack the day they picked up the wedding cards.
Escaping from the continuing social pressure to find a suitable husband, Sanmao returned to Madrid and began teaching English at a primary school.
Soon she rekindled her relationship with Quero Ruíz and both fell in love. They got married in 1974 in Laayoune, a town in the north of then Spanish-controlled Western Sahara, where he had found work at the port as a professional diver and she started cooperating regularly with the United Daily News in Taipei.
The Green March into that territory, organized in November 1975 by the Moroccans under King Hassan II (1929-1999), accelerated the end of its colonial status and in early 1976 the Spaniards hastily left for good.
The couple settled on the nearby Canary Islands in Tenerife, where she wrote her first novel. The narration of life and love in the desert from a unique perspective was an immense success in Taiwan, Hong Kong as well as China, and remains popular today.
Sanmao´s early writings, from the period when she studied abroad, were collected into a book called Gone with the Rainy Season. Her experiences in that inhospitable African region and the Spanish outpost in the Atlantic were the topic of several more books.
After her beloved José drowned while diving near the island of La Palma on September 30th, 1979, Sanmao returned to Taiwan to live temporarily with her parents.
Having retaken her former teaching position, in late 1981 she traveled to Central and South America on commission from Taiwanese publishers and recorded these experiences in subsequent writings.
From 1984 on, Sanmao dedicated herself fully to writing. Her work is lauded for its endurance through generations, inspiring young Chinese women yearning for independence from conservative cultural norms.
Sanmao wrote the script for Red Dust, a 1990 drama film by Hong Kong director Yim Ho (born 1952), but failed to win at the Golden Horse Film Festival Awards, a loss that apparently she took very poorly.
While being treated for endometrial hyperplasia, a condition of excessive proliferation of the cells of the endometrium, or inner lining of the uterus, and having been plagued by severe depression since adolescence, Sanmao ultimately took her own life in early 1991.
In August 2020, the documentary Sanmao: la novia del desierto (Bride of the desert), directed by Marta Arribas and Ana Pérez de la Fuente, premiered at the Málaga Film Festival, four years after the novel on which it’s based had finally been translated into Spanish.