Course:ASIA351/2021/Stories of the Sahara

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Stories of the Sahara (Chinese: 《撒哈拉的故事》) is an autobiographical travel account of the Chinese author Sanmao, whose career was mainly based in Taiwan which, at the time, came under the control of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) after World War II. The book consists of a series of stories that happened while she was living in the Sahara desert with her husband, José María Quero y Ruíz.

The book was published in 1976, though one of the earlier stories A Desert Diner (沙漠中的饭店) was first published in the United Daily News (联合报) in 1974.[1] It has been translated into English, Spanish, Japanese, Dutch, Norwegian, Vietnamese, and other languages. [2]

Sanmao, as both the narrator and protagonist, depicted her experience living in the desert with her husband. They built their house from scratch, and despite the harsh conditions in Sahara, they encountered friendly neighbors and managed to establish a home as a loving couple in a foreign land. It can be read as a travelog or a memoir. Her interactions with the people and nature in the desert gives a unique, underlying spiritual element to her works. To the Chinese readership, the exotic story and the energy in her plain and relaxed descriptions were novel and engaging, characteristics that still draw an audience to this day. [3]

The influence of this work, as one of the most famous books by Sanmao, extended beyond the literary community. Her distinctive style and the image of a woman deviating from the traditional sense created a phenomenal fever among her audiences in the 1980s.

Stories of the Sahara
book cover for the stories of the Sahara
book cover for the Stories of the Sahara, first English edition
Author Sanmao
Title Stories of the Sahara
Country China
Language Standard Chinese
Genre travelog, memoir
Published 1976
Media Type

Historical background

Stories of the Sahara was first published in Chinese in 1976, with its essays priorly being serialized in the Taiwanese United Daily News.[4]

Taiwan Under the KMT Rule

When the Second World War ended in the year of 1945, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) took over Taiwan, which then became a province of the Republic of China (ROC). In the year of 1949, the KMT-controlled ROC central government retreated from the Chinese mainland to take refuge in Taiwan since the KMT lost the civil war against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  

Before the transition to democracy began in the late 1980s, Taiwan, under the authoritarian KMT party-state controlled by Mainlander elites, underwent the so-called White Terror, which involved severe political repression of dissidents, especially those of local Taiwanese background .[5] Taiwan’s political and cultural landscape under KMT rule was imbued with a form of exilic mentality characterized by the unpleasant sense of living in a state of adjusting oneself to one’s temporary abode while keeping faith in the possibility of returning to one’s old home.[5] The promotion of historical narrative based on a “Great China” outlook, which was in turn buttressed by the official historiography of imperial dynasties, was an integral part of the political control, cultural ideology, and exilic mentality under the KMT.[5]

Sanmao, in her letter to the editor of the Taiwanese magazine that first began publishing her stories, wrote, “I’m Chinese; I have a Chinese heart; this part can never change."[6] The distinctive Chinese-ness, exposed by the narration of exoticism filtered through a highly personalized vision, has partially contributed to the phenomenal popularity of Stories of the Sahara and can be said to have been informed and shaped by Taiwan’s political-cultural landscape that reinforced a Chinese identity rather than a Taiwanese one under KMT rule during the 1970s.[6] On the other hand, the quest for self-fulfillment and self-expression, along with a breezy literary quality, that is incorporated by Sanmao’s writings in Stories of the Sahara forms a sharp contrast to the prohibitive political atmosphere in Taiwan during the White Terror era and thus can be said to have made the work itself a symbol of a countercultural movement.[7]

Early Democratization

The democratization and dramatic change of national identity in Taiwan can be well understood in the context of the trends of political and cultural “indigenization” (bentuhua) or “Taiwanization” (Taiwanhua), which began in the 1980s.[5] Indigenization, one of the main thrusts of which is Taiwanese nationalism, can be clearly traced to the debates on “Taiwanese consciousness” (Taiwan yishi) in the early 1980s; but its origins can be found even in the early 1970s, when a Nativist or “return to native soil” (huigui xiangtu) trend appeared in literature and culture, accompanied by a political opposition movement mainly composed of local Taiwanese.[5]

Such an ideological transition inevitably prompted a process of re-negotiation, centered on discourses of self-identification. Identity reformation, however, requires the juxtaposition of self and other; a multi-cultural context, in other words, is essential to cultural identification.[8] Stories of the Sahara provides personal reflections of an exotic cultural landscape that at the same time testify a lucid identification with the indigenous cultural identity.[8] From this perspective, the work itself can also be said to have been influenced and informed by the ideological tendency of identity reformation in Taiwan during the 1970s.



Sammao (Chinese: 三毛) was the pen name of Chen Ping (陈平) or Echo Chan, a Chinese writer and translator. She was born on March 26, 1943, in Chongqing, Sichuan, but her original family home (祖籍) was from Zhoushan, Zhejiang. Her birth name was Chen Maoping (陈懋平), which was later changed to Chen Ping because she tried to avoid the character “懋”. The pen name Sanmao was adopted from Zhang Leping’s famous comic, Sanmao.

In 1948, she and her family moved to Taiwan, and she later attended Chinese Culture University (中国文化大学) to study philosophy. At age 20, she moved to Madrid, Spain and studied at the University of Madrid, where she met her future husband, José María Quero y Ruíz. She subsequently studied in Germany and worked at Illinois State University.

Sanmao (Chen Ping)

Sanmao returned to Taiwan and got engaged to a teacher from Germany who died from a heart attack before they could marry.[9] She then returned to Madrid and reunited with Ruíz. They moved to Spanish-controlled Western Sahara and had a wedding in 1974.

In 1979, her husband drowned in a diving mission. Sanmao returned to Taiwan in 1980.[7] Sponsored by the United Daily News, she traveled to Central and South America. The experiences were recorded in her later works.

On January 4, 1991, she committed suicide at the Taipei Veterans General Hospital.[7]

Main Works

Stories of Sahara was her first published work in May 1976, and she used the pseudonym Sanmao for the first time. Stories of the Sahara records the detailed life stories and relationships with locals that she and her husband experienced after they got married in the Sahara. In the same year of 1976, she also published Gone With the Rainy Season, accounting the earlier experience of her study years.

She continued to write on her experiences in Sahara and the Canary Islands in the two books she successively published in 1977, Straw Manpower Records and Sob Camel.[10]

Other major works include Never Dream in Never Land, in which she recorded her sorrow after her husband’s death, which was published in 1981. She threw herself into her writing after her husband died, publishing her travelogs and proses. Near the end of her career, before she committed suicide, Sanmao finished her first and only work of film script, Red Dust, published in 1990.

Synopsis/Plot Summary

Stories of the Sahara is structured as a collection of different stories, as Sanmao and José make their way through the Sahara. These stories mainly document the experiences they witnessed, the people and friends they met and got to know, and Sanmao's personal sentiments she felt while traversing the Sahara.[11] The most recognizable elements in the novel is the local culture in the Sahara, married life with José, and the juxtaposition between the Sahara's poverty and Sanmao's inner peace while living there. Sanmao reads like an open book in her words; she conspicuously displays her enthusiasm for the Saharan culture, her energetic emotions, her care and empathy for others, and her righteous indignation to inequality/ injustice.[11] Different components of these stories reveal how satisfied and happy Sanmao and José are as they explore and take up adventures in the Sahara. The stories about the unprecedented desert, the fun life in the Sahara, the giant worn-out tent, the house that was made with shabby iron, groups of camels and goats, their simple wedding, and the house they built up on their own all come together to illustrate their passion and love to each other and to the Sahara.[12] Stories of the Sahara teleports the reader as they follow different the adventures Sanmao and José come across while living in the Sahara which appeal to different emotion ranges throughout the stories - detailing breathtaking and tense moments during “night in the wasteland” while sharing intimate and touching sentiments in “looking for love” and “nice neighbors”. Each story conveys the curiosity and wonder of her cross-cultural experience in the Sahara, with each device in the stories wonderfully precious and remarkable as is.

Main characters

Sanmao: the primary protagonist and narrator in her autobiographical novel. Sanmao, as the narrator to her own story, not only controls what gets said, but how the events she experiences are portrayed. There is a certain openness in Sanmao’s description, especially with the detail she writes and her “self-deprecation”. Her writing “[charms] the reader” into exploring the Sahara desert alongside her.[13] However, this style also reveals the innate darkness of the desert, showcasing the struggles of the villages, the discrimination from local communities, and the mistreatment people face in the name of ancient, even somewhat barbaric, practices. Throughout the entire novel, she draws the readers in with her personality and stories, but the audience can also recognize the “self-awareness” and “unsettled loneliness” Sanmao carries herself with as she travels the Sahara desert.[13]

The creative, skillful, optimistic, and happy Sanmao in Stories of the Sahara reflects her genuine self. Even when she has very little material supplies available in the Sahara, she utilizes the limited resources to cook different foods for her Saharan comrades. Her love life with Jose preserves a high level of satisfaction in the Sahara. She thinks “At any rate, married life is all about eating” which reflects her happiness and satisfaction with her married life.[14] She’s adventurous and smart, as exemplified when a girl in the Sahara does not dare go see the doctor just because the doctor is male. Therefore, Sanmao treats her with Chinese medical therapy and Chinese medicine, from which she proclaims, “‘I’m an African witch doctor’”.[14] She loves the Sahara; she loves the land and the people there. Even though culture shock confuses her at times, like the ladies and children who always borrow appliances or other random items from Sanmao without returning them in the chapter “Nice Neighbors”, she obtains friendship, or at the very least a fairly close relationship, with her neighbors through her generosity, mercy, and kindness.

José María Quero y Ruíz: Sanmao’s husband who accompanies her in the desert. His and Sanmao’s desert adventure ends in 1979 when he dies in a diving accident.[13] Jose is Sanmao's soulmate, as he knows exactly what she likes. Sanmao, in the chapter “A Desert Dinner”, mentions that “I’m not involved in the women’s lib movement, but I wasn’t willing to toss aside my independence and my carefree spirit”, which distinguishes how different Sanmao is compared to other girls.[14] On her wedding day, Sanmao receives the best gift ever from José - “a camel skull, white bones neatly assembled, with a huge row of menacing teeth and two big black holes for eyes”.[14] He is the biggest fan of Sanmao, as he is always amazed by Sanmao’s wisdom in the Sahara, like how he admires Sanmao’s Chinese dishes and even invites his supervisor for dinner.[14] He is the most loyal follower of Sanmao, protecting Sanmao even during dangerous scenarios. When Jose stepped into the quagmire, he was still worried about Sanmao’s safety when the temperature was about to drop to zero, “‘Sanmao, get in the car,’ José called, sounding angry”.[14] José is such a charismatic figure who always prioritizes Sanmao.

Various secondary characters: Sanmao meets a variety of local persons on her travels in the Sahara desert.  

The theme(s) of the work

Sanmao’s story comes from a unique perspective, one that she is very clear on in her letter: “I’m Chinese. I have a Chinese heart; this part can never change”.[6] Her Chinese background lays the foreground in which she displays her story. She is not overtly concerned over the abstract, big picture life of Spain’s hold over the colony or the dynamics and implications of the tribes who live in the Sahara. Instead, she engages her open, frank personality to detail the everyday realities of the people, unapologetic but still self-aware of the dangers that lay ahead in her pursuit to become “the first female explorer to cross the Sahara”.[6]

The very environmental nature Sanmao interacts with also plays a significant role in the novel. Sanmao falls in love with the landscapes, describing it in such detail as to make the scene almost tangible. In these descriptions, a sort of kinship is implied that Sanmao shares with the terrain, “she and the Sahara Desert have consensus and share the same soul”.[15] However, just as there is order in the natural world, so too is there a “social ecology” between the people.[15] Like Sanmao’s connection to the environment, she also shares a connection with the people. And similar to how she loves the landscapes, she equally loves the people, adapting and molding herself to blend into the environment. In nature terms, she is not trying to be an invasive plant conquering a new area and pushing existing plants aside, but rather a cool breeze that encounters, interacts, and mingles with the local flora.[15] Lastly, nature plays a role in the “spiritual ecology… between human and nature and social environment”.[15] The environment has an innate, inner virtue of harmony and balance, just as humans do. At times in the novel, Sanmao feels a pull to death, a pull that is buried deep in her subconscious. There is inner turmoil within her that has upset the internal, rational aspects of her consciousness. When Jose, her husband, enters the picture, there seems to be an inner calm flourishing from their love that draws them to their most natural selves, a place of harmony and peace. Not only do they return to their internal sanctuary, but theirs “is the most supreme romance in love”.[15]


Influences in the Literary Circle

Although Sanmao was not the one to open up a new field of contemporary travelogue literature, she did push this genre of literature to an unprecedented peak. Sanmao introduced new and creative material to readers by bringing them the vast, desolate, majestic reality of the Sahara Desert and the traditional culture and folk customs of the locals there by way of text. Her wandering and bohemian life and literary style have attracted much attention in the literary world. Although the literary nature of her works is constantly debated in the literary world, the impact of her literary works on the Chinese community in general, and mainland readers in particular, is undeniable. [16]

The enduring influence of Sanmao's style, which was so different from the literary world of the time, on both readers and the critical community, resulted in what is now called the "Sanmao phenomenon" and caused a great deal of resonance. It is this fascination that has driven the so-called Sanmao phenomenon. From this term, the so-called "phenomenon" is of course an influential superficial fact involving a wide range of people and the whole society, but from the perspective of the Sanmao phenomenon, it also involves the reflection on the spiritual state and cultural choice of the whole social group, and the repositioning of the inner characteristics of literature. From this perspective, the “Sanmao phenomenon” is not simply a superficial image, it also holds a deep and complex connotation. [17]

Influences in the Cultural Circle

As a young Chinese woman who abandoned the traditional pathways laid out for her, Sanmao was a kind of revolutionary example for people in her native Taiwan and mainland China, both of which were beginning to open up to the rest of the world and take off economically.[18] "San Mao Fever" in mainland China was part of a general "Culture Fever" that emerged after Deng Xiaoping announced his "Reform and Opening" policy in late 1978. China had just escaped from the cultural starvation of the Cultural Revolution, and inevitably headed toward the summit of reading. San Mao Fever wasn't independent; at the same time emerged 'Aesthetics Fever,' 'Literature Fever,' etc. This was a transition period from a time without books to a time when people swarmed to books.[19] People were also starting to fantasize about what the outside world was like and about ways of life that varied from the ones they led in their own societies, and Sanmao’s works offered a glimpse of that.[18] Sanmao's legendary experience of traveling over thousands of mountains and rivers, her heartfelt transnational marriage, and the optimistic attitude of her works all exude a romantic spirit that has infected countless young people with dreams, which is in a way the source of the charm of Sanmao's works.[8]

The exotic adventures of the "wandering girl" became a cultural symbol of contemporary social life and literary history in the mid and late 1980s, and its influence cannot be underestimated. Sanmao gambled her own happiness to pursue and fulfill what other ordinary people only dared to fantasize about, although reality was filled with loneliness and misfortune and she lost a lot as a result, what she conveyed in her texts were always happiness, comfort, and an energetic optimist in the face of difficulties. This is one of the important factors that made Sanmao a cultural symbol that became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the significance that brought Sanmao back into the spotlight in contemporary times. [8]


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  3. 胡, 轶男 (2012). "谈三毛创作《撒哈拉的故事》的文化心态". 辽宁经济职业技术学院学报. 01: 46–47 – via 百度学术.
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  9. "奇女子三毛:一生情痴恨几许".
  10. "三毛作品明细".
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  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Hong, Terry (16 Jan 2020). "'Stories of the Sahara' celebrates a singular voice in travel writing". The Christian Science Monitor.
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  16. Ward, Sandi P. (2017). "San Mao: Oasis or Mirage? The Phenomenon of the 'Chinese Woman in the Desert'" (PDF).
  17. Wu, Enzhu (2010). ""Sanmao Phenomenon."". Dang Dai Xiao Shuo. no. 9: 37–38 – via
  18. 18.0 18.1 Zhang, Han (March 31, 2020). "Rereading Sanmao, the Taiwanese Wayfarer Who Sold Fifteen Million Books". The New Yorker.
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