San Mao

Overall Rating: 7
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Author: San Mao (三毛)
Title: Stories From The Sahara (撒哈拉的故事)
Time: 1970s
Destination: Western Sahara
Length: a couple of years
Type: expat stay

The archetype

[Note: this book is not out in English yet, I believe.]

The story: In the mid-70s, SM is a young woman from Taiwan who adopts the English name “Echo” and spends some time living in the Western Sahara with her Spanish husband José. This book is about her day-to-day adventures among the local population, and more than that, it is about the romantic relationship with her husband. It doesn’t have one continuous storyline, but it’s made up of a number of loosely connected episodes that read like short stories or magazine articles.


The book is a relatively easy read. SM doesn’t go into too much detail about the things that she sees, she likes to keep her writing fast and simple, and she tries to deliver punchlines. And she’s good at it. There is an episode where she gets into a car chase in the desert which is breathtaking, and then there are other stories that are more mellow but make for some nice reading as well. Overall, we get to know SM as a modern independent woman who enjoys her adventurous lifestyle and keeps a humorous outlook on things. She is rather dominant in her relationship with José and likes to gently make fun of him, and the same basically goes for her surroundings as well.

female/Chinese emancipation

This book came on the market in Taiwan, HK and subsequently Mainland China at the end of the 70s, when Taiwan was in the process of opening itself up to the world and Mainland China was just about to do the same. It was an instant best-seller, and it has continued to inspire readers ever since. Mostly female readers, that is. There is something about this SM, brave and stubborn, that must have been amazingly appealing to young women at that time, women who were hungry for for emancipation from all kinds of ideologies, hungry for the world out there, hungry for romance, and hungry for life.If you’re a Western reader, you might find some of SM’s depictions of the local population rather condescending and superficial, and the book as a “travelogue” might not be of that much interest to you. But if you are interested in finding out about the mindset and the inspiration of many of those young women from China, the ones whom you might encounter somewhere abroad, clad in a sort of hippie-attire, wielding cameras and notepads, you might find their archetype in this book, in the literary persona of SM.

San Mao – fake?

There have been some allegations that the adventurous lifestyle as depicted by SM was in fact an exaggeration that had only a limited foundation in reality. In other words: she really wasn’t that brave, and her relationship really wasn’t that romantic. I am not sure if this can be proven true or false, and I don’t think that it’s important anyway. José died in an accident a few years after the publication of this book, and SM eventually committed suicide in 1991.

But she has continued to inspire millions of young Chinese women (and a few men) ever since.

A 7/10.

8 thoughts on “San Mao”

  1. Hello,
    This is my favorite writer of all time. Have you found an English copy of the book? I’d like to recommend it to friends who cannot read Chinese.
    Thank you in advance!

    • I am currently translating Sanmao’s stories and finished four of her stories, if anyone still wants to read in english, contact me.

  2. Hi. May i know where can i find this book, as i am searching for this book for my friend as a christmas gift. Do update me. Thanks. :)

  3. Hi Abby, I am interested in reading San Mao’s books in English. How do I get a copy? Also I am trying to track down a signed copy of any of her books or anything thast might have her signature on it or something she wrote for a friend of mine who loves San Mao.



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