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No Tolerance for ‘Wild Imams’ in China – But ‘Weibo Imams’ are Thriving

This week, Weibo netizens voiced their anger about what they deemed an unfair trial for a Xinjiang imam by the District Court. Although Chinese authorities have no tolerance for what they call ‘wild imams’, online imams are thriving on Weibo.

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This week, Weibo netizens voiced their anger about what they deemed an unfair trial for a Xinjiang imam by the District Court. Chinese authorities have no tolerance for what they call ‘wild imams’ – but online imams are thriving on Weibo.

In November 2014, Chinese media and Reuters reported that China was targeting ‘wild imams’, jailing almost two dozen people who preached illegally in the western region of Xinjiang, where the government is countering violent campaigns by Islamist Uighur militants who want to establish a separate state, also referred to as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

This week, Weibo netizens voice their anger about the trial procedures for one imam case. According to one netizen‘s post, the convicted imam’s lawyer did not show up in the Xinjiang district court for the appeal as he would not “defend the guilty”.

China’s Campaign against Religious Extremism

China has implemented several measures the past few years to keep religious expressions to a minimum after a string of attacks allegedly committed by Chinese Muslim extremists. Xinjiang authorities became extra strict about the ‘promotion of religious extremist ideology’. The wearing of the burqa was banned in February 2015, along with the wearing or using of religious badges, artifacts, memorabilia and symbols. This also meant no niqabs, hijabs or large beards in buses.

As part of China’s crackdown on ‘terrorist criminals’ and campaign against ‘religious extremism’, 22 people from Xinjiang were sentenced to jail in November 2014. They were sentenced from 5 to up to 16 years in prison for three different types of religious crimes. The first crime category was that of people engaging in ‘illegal preaching’ – also referred to as ‘wild imams’. The second type was that of people who were still engaged in illegal religious work after being removed from their post, and the third was that of people committing illegal acts while working as a religious person (China News 2014).

40435030 The ‘mass sentencing’ of ‘religious offenders’ in 2014, image via China News.

The case that received attention on Sina Weibo this week was referred to as the “imam teaching Koran case”, and involved an imam from Xinjiang who was reportedly arrested for illegally teaching the Koran to 17 students in the mosque.

This Weibo post, by a user nicknamed Nuh Zam Zam, was first spotted by PhD researcher Tricia Kehoe (see tweet below). She also tweeted the court case document that was uploaded by the original Weibo poster. The document states that the Yili court is reexamining the case because of “inappropriate original punishment” (“原判量刑不当”).

Netizen Nuh Zam Zam, who describes himself as a Muslim “fighting for constitutional rights, defending freedom of religion”, writes on his Weibo page:

[Yili Prefecture in Xinjiang reinvestigates the ‘teaching-Koran case’:] When one imam in Huocheng County taught Koran lessons to 17 citizens in the mosque, he and the mosque Rector were sentenced to five and four years in prison for ‘gathering a crowd and disturbing public order’. The Yili middle court already rejected their appeal before, and affirmed the original sentence. The other day, Yili court hurriedly re-examined the case again because of “inappropriate sentencing”, but the lawyer did not show up because he would “not defend the guilty”. Yili has more similar ‘trials’.

This post was shared over 60 times and attracted dozens of comments that were filtered by Weibo censors. “It’s not like they were lecturing about stoning or whipping, that would’ve really deserved punishment,” one Weibo user responds.

Another netizen says: “If you’re guilty, you’re guilty – that’s the law.” One Weibo user responds: “This is a typical case of policies exceeding the constitution. What a disgrace!”

Islam is permitted in China, as long as it conforms to state-approved principles. Instead of guaranteeing free exercise of religion, the Chinese constitution only guarantees freedom of religious belief. In other words; you can believe what you want, but how you engage with your religion in everyday life has to comply with what the state deems right (also read How Chinese are China’s Muslims?, 2015).

Amnesty International has reported harsh measures taken by Chinese authorities to suppress unrest in the northwest, including unfair trials. “The fight against terrorism is no excuse for repression,” says Amnesty.

Will the ‘Real’ Imam Please Stand Up?

A ‘wild imam‘ (野阿訇) is an ‘imam’ without an official position as a religious person. These imams are thus not appointed or approved by the government.

According to Wang Hong, director of China’s Research Center for National Security, there can be no place in China for ‘wild imams’ and their illegal preaching activities. The root cause of terrorism, Wang writes in Chinese media outlet Global Times, is its nature as an ideology. Wang suggests that Muslim separatist group ETIM uses “distortions of Islam” ideology to gain their followers, and that this is mostly done by ‘wild imams’. This explains China’s zero tolerance policy towards imams preaching in communities and ‘influencing people’ without the consent of (local) authorities.

Through social media, the Public Security Office of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region warns netizens for the dangers of underground lecture classes run by ‘wild imams’ who could potentially harm children both mentally, by influencing them with extremist ideas, and physically, such as the wild imam who allegedly beat a 4-year-old pupil to death for not knowing the scriptures (see featured image and image below, both by


On the Xinjiang Review blog, Professor Ma Haiyun, specialised in Islam and Muslims of China, writes that China’s definition of ‘wild imams’ asks for new basic definitions of what an imam is, and calls for further investigation into the legal processes for becoming an official imam in China.

According to Ma, an imam basically is a Muslim religious worker and/or a Muslim theological intellectual. Although the “ideal imam” has both the career and the knowledge, an imam could also be a Muslim intellectual without the official post. But in China, Ma writes, this definition does not hold, as only those imams who have been officially appointed count as the ‘real’ ones. The so-called ‘wild imam’ arguably does have the knowledge and community leadership that can potentially influence people, but has no official job as religious worker.

Ma writes that the distinction between real imams and wild imams is problematic, as many Uighur Muslims might have more trust in so-called ‘wild imams’ than in the ‘real’ ones that are approved and appointed by government authorities.

But it is very likely that Chinese authorities, in their turn, have no trust in those powerful imams who are most respected by local communities. This triggers the question of who the ‘real’ imam is actually is.

Preaching Online: ‘Weibo Imams’

Although ‘wild imams’ are generally not tolerated in the PRC, ‘Weibo imams’ are. There are quite some imams who have verified Weibo accounts from which they post videos or microblogs about Islamic teachings.


One of Weibo’s imams is Imam Mu Huaidong, a Beijing-based imam from the Deshengmen Mosque with over 8100 followers. Mu Huaidong uses his Weibo page to share different news items and to talk about the mosque’s charity work.

Li Haiyang from Henan has nearly 8000 followers. One of his most popular recent posts is about Islamic diet, titled “Raising some Awareness about Islamic Dietary Law” (“关于清真食品立法的几点认识“). The blog, that was posted on March 10, talks about imposing national standards on halal food in China. Li Haiyang writes that all Muslims should follow the classic rules and abide by their beliefs, of which Islamic dietary laws are an important part, and that the PRC cannot discriminate against Muslim ethnic groups by refusing to legally protect Muslim halal food.

The imam’s post was shared over 460 times and attracted many comments, also of many netizens who strongly oppose the imam’s views: “China is a secular country ruled by an atheist Party, and firmly boycotts Islamic laws!”, some netizens say. But others support the imam saying: “Please don’t let the nonsense here get to you, imam, just stand firm.”

Another example of a Weibo imam is Imam Ma Guangyue from Gansu, who has over 15400 fans on his Weibo account. His most recent post, that was shared 413 times, is a video where he addresses the question ‘is it allowed for Muslims to marry Han Chinese?’. In the video, he explains how Chinese Muslims are only allowed to marry other Muslims and should not marry Han Chinese who have not converted to Islam.


“Stoning people, beheading people and oppressing children and women – such an evil cult,” one netizen responds on the imam’s page. “No matter what religion or ethnicity,” another Weibo user responds: “There will be good and bad people everywhere.” The imam’s Weibo page is a collection of hundreds of comments of netizens discussing and arguing over Muslim religion, with many attacking it and others supporting it. The imam’s posts, nevertheless, are well-read and shared collectively by Weibo’s netizens.

There are more examples of Weibo imams, such as, amongst others, Han Daoliang from Zhengzhou, or Imam Yong Shengmu from Xi’an.

All of Weibo’s popular verified imams are from outside China’s muslim region Xinjiang. This is possibly because China’s strict religious policies are mainly aimed at the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, while there are softer approaches to religion in other provinces of China (Ma & Chang 2014). This status quo means that it’s uncommon to see news of ‘wild imams’ outside Xinjiang, just as it will be less likely to see a ‘Weibo imam’ from Xinjiang.

Except for ‘Weibo imams’, there are a myriad of Weibo accounts that support them and propagate Islam. Meanwhile, on the Weibo page of Nuh Zam Zam, the discussion on the trial of the Xinjiang imam continues. There may be no place for ‘wild imams’ in China, but these ‘Weibo muslims’ make the religion alive and kicking on China’s social media.

– By Manya Koetse

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at


Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, Sino-Japanese relations and gender issues. Contact at, or follow on Twitter.


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Anorexia in China – Same, But Different

What’s on Weibo gives an overview of how anorexia nervosa is discussed in China and on Chinese social media.

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Although discussions on anorexia nervosa are limited in Chinese (online) media, anorexia does in fact exist in Chinese patients; some studies even suggest that levels of occurrence are not much different from Western countries. There are big differences, however, in the way anorexia is experienced and/or described in China.

“Does anorexia exist in China?” is one amongst the millions of questions recently posted on the Chinese Quora-like platform It is a question that pops up on Chinese social media every now and then, as the eating disorder is not often discussed in a Chinese context.

The empty dialogue page on is telling for the general discussion of anorexia in China today. Anorexia nervosa, commonly called anorexia, is an eating disorder characterized by low weight that receives relatively little attention on Chinese online and social media compared to the English-language online environment, where there are countless support groups, discussion forums, and even the so-called unhealthy ‘Pro Ana’ communities where the behaviors related to anorexia are promoted.

Both anorexia in general, and the pro-ana communities in specific, received ample attention from Western media over the past few years. ITV recently reported about an “alarming rise in social media sites encouraging anorexic sufferers to starve themselves,” and that social media worsens the condition of people with anorexia who flock to these kinds of websites.

How come that on Chinese social media platforms, which see a different ‘skinny hype’ every year (from the ‘iPhone6 legs‘ to ‘A4 waist‘), there are few online discussions about anorexia nervosa?



“Eating disorders seem to be an exotic phenomenon to many Chinese, but it actually is not.”


General discussions of anorexia nervosa on Weibo, China’s biggest social media platform, mostly relate to cases of the disease in Western, Caucasian women. The young Australian model and performer Phoebe Combes attracted some attention on Weibo in 2017 for suffering from anorexia. “How come every time I read about [this disease] it concerns foreign women?”, one netizen wondered.

Sporadically, speculative discussions do arise on social media about Chinese celebrities who may or may not be suffering from anorexia. Talk show host Chen Luyu (陈鲁豫), for example, became a topic of discussion when netizens started worrying about her frail appearance and said she was “too thin.”

Online commenters often call talk show host Chen Luyu (陈鲁豫) “too thin.”

Talk show host Chen Luyu.

For many netizens, however, the issue is often simplified to a mere “they should just eat more.” Despite general public unawareness about anorexia in China, more doctors and specialists are stepping forward to talk about the issue.

“When a Chinese doctor raised the issue of anorexia in China some twenty years ago at an international conference, foreign experts doubted if eating disorders existed in China,” one professional support site dedicated to anorexia and bulimia in China says: “We now want to promote awareness about eating disorders to patients and their families.”

In 2017, deputy director Ma Yongchun (马永春) of a hospital in Tongde, Zhejiang, spoke out to Chinese media website, saying that although eating disorders seem to be an exotic phenomenon to many Chinese, it actually is not. She also warned about the negative effects of social media platforms promoting unhealthy body images or unhealthy eating patterns.



“Her condition spiraled out of control when she spent days on end watching live streams on Chinese social media that promote unhealthy eating habits.”


The AcFun article featured the story of one of Ma’s patients named Yun (alias), a 33-year-old former athlete from Zhejiang who weighed only 36 pounds with a height of 160 cm when she was at her lowest point – and on the verge of death.

She told AcFun that she became anorexic after being forced to eat a restrictive diet by her grandparents during her teens. When her entire athlete team suffered from gastroenteritis, her grandmother only allowed to her to eat bean curds and rice for months on end.

The story of ‘Yun’ who suffered from severe anorexia was featured in Chinese media.

Unable to continue eating her forced diet and not allowed to eat anything else, the young Yun developed an eating disorder. At the age of 19, she was diagnosed with anorexia by doctors at the Tongde hospital – a diagnosis that was followed by years of ups and downs. Yun’s condition spiraled out of control when she spent days on end watching live streams on Chinese social media that promote unhealthy eating habits.

Weighing only 36 pounds at her low point, Yun was barely able to move. One day, when she was alone with her sister’s small baby, she found herself too weak to pick up the infant went it was desperately crying. For Yun, it was a turning point in her decision to beat the illness.

Although many doctors gave Yun low chance of survival, a team of doctors including Ma Yongchun eventually were able to give Yun the help she needed. She now maintains a healthy weight.



“Vomit Bars are online forums where netizens nicknamed ‘Rabbits’ encourage each other to vomit after eating.”


Doctors such as Ma Yongchun are part of a growing group of specialists in China raising awareness on eating disorders in China and warning against unhealthy online trends – which are on the rise.

Over the last years, online discussion boards such as Baidu Tieba have seen the phenomenon of ‘Vomit Bars’ (催吐吧) – a phenomenon somewhat comparable to the online ‘pro-ana’ movement on English-language internet sites.

‘Vomit Bars’ are online forums where netizens nicknamed ‘Rabbits’ (兔子) encourage each other to vomit after eating. Several live streaming sites also have people promoting weird or unhealthy eating habits, such as eating non-food products or binge eating – something Dr. Ma strongly condemns.

A girl binge eating on a live stream.

On Chinese social media, organizations helping those suffering from anorexia or other eating disorders are present, but not popular.

Although the Chinese Eating Disorder Recovery Web (@进食障碍康复网) only has a weak following online, their offline mission is strong: “China’s health care system can no longer ignore the growing group of eating disorder patients in China.”



“There are no official statistics on the occurrence of anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders in China in the past and present.”


The topic of anorexia in China has also received more attention in international media and academic publications over the past decade.

Some English-language media, such as the LA Times, suggest that with changing beauty standards, skinny trends, and more influence from Western popular culture, eating disorders are “on the rise” in China.

Whether or not this is actually true is hard to say; there are no official statistics on the occurrence of anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders in China in the past and present. A study from 2013 among Chinese female college students in Wuhan, considered one of the best estimates of national rates, however, found levels similar to Western countries (Tong et al 2014).

In Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines are Changing a Nation, the authors (French & Crabbe 2010) also suggest that eating disorders such as anorexia are indeed present in society and that an increasing number of urban Chinese, mainly young women, are suffering from it (171).

Even if anorexia were to occur as much in China as in the West – which has neither been refuted nor confirmed – the way in which the disease is described and/or experienced seems to be significantly different.



“Chinese patients showed few, if any, of the classical concerns associated with anorexia.”


Various studies over the past years have established that there are differences between Western countries and China in how anorexia develops with regards to patients’ preoccupations concerning appearance and body image.

In “The Myth of Chinese Barbies: Eating Disorders in China including Hong Kong” (2014), researcher M. Getz writes that eating disorders are traditionally conceptualized as a Western mental health issue, specifically because the ‘fat phobia’ aspects of the illness are often stressed the most. According to study, this attention towards appearance seems to be less important to Chinese patients (746-747).

This idea is further strengthened by Sing Lee, an expert in eating disorders in Chinese communities, who argues that Chinese patients “showed few, if any, of the classical concerns associated with anorexia” (747).

A major way in how anorexia in China is often different than in other (Western) countries is that it is somaticized. This relates to the fact that mental illnesses in China still carry a stigma and often go undiagnosed due to the lack of mental health care institutions.

Since physical problems are more socially accepted in China than mental health issues, people who suffer from anorexia in China are more prone to talk about their problems in the form of somatic symptoms such as distaste for food and not being hungry, or abdominal problems (Getz 2014, 750).

Levels of industrialization, media influence, eating habits, societal pressure to be thin, family pressure to succeed, etc., all may play a role in the occurrence of anorexia. Especially One-Child Policy generation children allegedly experience more pressure in their lives to perform.

As the development of anorexia in China goes hand in hand with social stigmas and superstitions regarding mental health issues, a traditionally strong food culture, a general unawareness on eating disorders, and many other cultural factors that may influence the manifestation of the disease, one can see why studies have found that “eating disorders are not culture-bound or culture-specific, but rather culture-reactive.” The reasons why patients develop anorexia and how it is manifested can, therefore, radically differ per culture (Pike & Dunne 2015).



“I simply can’t eat any food. I have no interest in food. Even if I am starving I still do not want to eat.”


These findings are also apparent on the various anorexia support message boards in China, where people suffering from the disease share their experiences. Rather than talking about fear of being fat, many commenters only discuss their loss of appetite and stressful lives.

One netizen on writes:

I am suffering from anorexia right now. The pressure at school is too much for me. I don’t have any time to relax. It’s all about studying. I simply can’t eat any food. I have no interest in food. Even if I am starving I still do not want to eat.”

Another person writes:

I think I have anorexia. But I am not sure. (..) I simply do not want to eat. If I see food, I have no desire to eat it. I only eat some breakfast and some dinner, an egg at 7.30 and some rice at 17.30.”

A new study on anorexia in China by Zaida Aguera et al (2017) confirms the idea that anorexia in Chinese patients is often experienced or communicated physical rather than psychological, as they are “culturally encouraged to use denial and minimization to cope with conditions deemed taboo” (9).

Because the way anorexia presents itself is different, researchers argue that its treatment also requires a different approach in China than in other countries that have developed own national standards on treating eating disorders.

The treatment options in China, however, are still limited. The first and only closed ward for eating disorders opened in Beijing six years ago. But the recent increased media attention raised by doctors such as Ma Yongchun and heightened focus on mental health care in China indicate that there will be more options for Chinese anorexia patients in the future.

As for the Zhihu poster who asked about anorexia in China – they are still waiting for an answer. In the meantime, they have suggested an own solution in the underline, writing: “There just is so much tasty food in China, that  anorexia in China is probably is much rarer here than in any other country in the world.” No one else responded.

By Manya Koetse


Agüera, Z., Brewin, N., Chen, J., Granero, R., Kang, Q., Fernandez-Aranda, F., & Arcelus, J. 2017. “Eating Symptomatology and General Psychopathology in Patients with Anorexia Nervosa from China, UK and Spain: A Crosscultural Study Examining the Role of Social Attitudes.” PLoS ONE, 12(3), 1–13.

French, Paul, and ‎Matthew Crabbe. 2010. Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines are Changing a Nation. Imprint: Anthem Press.

Getz, M.J. 2014. “The Myth of Chinese Barbies: Eating Disorders in China including Hong Kong.” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 21: 746-754.

Pike, Kathleen M., and Patricia E. Dunne. 2015. “The Rise of Eating Disorders in Asia: a Review.” Journal of Eating Disorders 3:33. Available online [17.1.18].

Tong, J., Miao, S., Wang, J. et al. 2014. “A Two-stage Epidemiologic Study on Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Female University Students in Wuhan, China.” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 49(3): 499-505.

Are you suffering from an eating disorder and need help? For information on eating disorders and how to help if you are worried about someone, Beat (UK) or ANAD (US) has advice for sufferers, friends and family.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at

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Remembering San Mao – the Bohemian Writer That Captured the Hearts of Millions of Chinese

27 years after her suicide, bohemian writer San Mao still strikes a chord with Chinese netizens.

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Renowned author and world traveler San Mao (三毛) was one of the first Chinese mass media celebrities. Exactly 27 years after her passing, Weibo netizens collectively commemorate her free spirit, inspirational life, and tragic death.

In a time when Beijing’s first fast-food restaurants opened their doors, people were hooked on Teresa Tang’s sweet voice, and television sets entered Chinese living rooms, pirate editions of books by the wildly popular Chinese author San Mao first started spreading all over mainland China.

Before this time in the late 1980s, the female author was already a celebrity in Taiwan and Hong Kong since the 1970s; not just because of her many books, newspaper columns, song lyrics, and public lectures, but also because of her free, cosmopolitan, and “legendary” life that captured the imagination of many Chinese eager to look beyond their own borders.

Researcher Miriam Lang (2015) describes San Mao as “one of the first mass media celebrities in the Chinese-speaking world” (440).

On January 4th 2018, the 20th-century writer became a trending topic on social media when various media commemorated her. Chinese state media outlet People’s Daily dedicated a post to the iconic author on Weibo, titled “Today, we cherish the memory of San Mao.”

People’s Daily writes:

She was born in Chongqing, moved to Taiwan, studied in Spain, and settled in the Sahara. All of her life she pursued freedom and touched the hearts of many with all of her words. Her love-story with Jose stirred people’s emotions. Her mother said that maybe her life was not perfect enough for her, but we now know that her life-long pursuit of her dreams has already become romantic legend. Today, in 1991, writer San Mao committed suicide.”

Besides that the post itself attracted thousands of comments and was shared nearly 3800 times, many other media outlets and netizens also posted their own commemorations to the author on Weibo. One post by the Communist Youth League received more than 100,000 comments on January 4th.

“She was the first author I really loved,” one person comments: “Whether she was in the Sahara or Madrid, the way she describes her love has become like a little gemstone in my own life.”

A Woman Writer Named Chen, Echo, and San Mao

San Mao is known as the wandering writer. Throughout her life, she moved from place to place; a life pattern that already started forming in the early years of her childhood.

San Mao was born in Chongqing, China, in 1943. Her parents, mother Miao Jinlan and father Chen Siqing, named their little girl Chen Mao Ping (陈懋平). Chen, however, later preferred to be called Chen Ping, and gave herself the English name of ‘Echo’ to honor her painting teacher. Once she started writing, she used the pen name San Mao (三毛), which is how she came to be remembered.

Chen Ping aka San Mao during her time in the Sahara.

San Mao’s early years took her from wartime Chongqing via Nanjing to Taiwan, where the 6-year-old girl had trouble fitting in at school. She preferred reading books over doing schoolwork, and while she read literary classics such as Don Quixote at an early age, she failed in mathematics and received low grades.

After a teacher at her Taipei school embarrassed her in front of her classmates by drawing a ‘0’ grade on her face and making her parade around, she refused to continue her classes there and was home-schooled by private tutors and her own father, who was a lawyer (Chen 2007).

San Mao as a young girl.

After studying Philosophy at the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan, the 20-year-old San Mao set out to broaden her horizons and moved to Spain, where she enrolled at the University of Madrid. It was the start of her bohemian lifestyle, that brought her from Spain to Germany, from the Sahara Desert to the Canary Islands, and from Central and South America back to Taiwan.

San Mao experienced many adventures but also had to face many difficult times. Her first great love whom she was to be married to, a German teacher 19 years her senior, died of a heart attack when San Mao was 26 old.

Chen Ping aka San Mao with her good friend Father Barry Martinson, a Jesuit priest.

Ten years later, her Spanish husband Jose Maria Quero Y Ruiz, whom San Mao lovingly called ‘He Xi’ (荷西) and with whom she had spent six years in the desert, tragically died during a diving accident.

San Mao and her Spanish husband ‘He Xi’ (荷西).

Miriam Lang, in her study of San Mao (2015), describes her as “unusual for a woman of her time and place”; she traveled far from home, married a non-Chinese man, and remained childless. Nonetheless, Lang notes, San Mao was also traditional in that she represented herself as a “happy housewife” while married, and expressed conservative feminine values in her books (443).

San Mao and Jose.

Although San Mao published her first book at the of 19, she did not really gain fame until the release of her first book The Stories of the Sahara (撒哈拉的故事) in 1976. This work revolves around San Mao’s personal experiences in the Sahara desert together with her husband Jose (Ying 2010, 162).

An Unhappy Ending

In the decade following her husband’s death, San Mao first set out on a 6-month journey to America but then traveled less and finally settled in Taiwan in 1982, where she started teaching literature and creative writing at the Chinese Culture University.

San Mao in the US.

Being a celebrity, her classes were always packed – students lined up to attend her lectures.

In 1989, she first visited mainland China again since her childhood, where she started working on the screenplay of Red Dust, a love story set during the Sino-Japanese war. Although the film eventually received much acclaim – even winning the prize for Best Film at the Golden Horse Awards of 1990 – San Mao received criticism for creating a “too positive picture” of the leading male character, who was perceived to be a traitor to the Chinese nation (Lang 2015, 442).

Despite all of her activities in her later career, San Mao never parallelled the success she had with her stories about the Sahara. In 1990, San claimed she had won a literary prize in Spain for novella written in Spanish, but the work appeared to be non-existent (Lang 2015,442).

In early 1991, San Mao admitted herself to a hospital in Taiwan where she was tested for cancer. The results turned out negative, but San reportedly asked the nurse for a sleeping pill for the night and asked her not to wake her (Chen 2007).

San Mao ended her own life by hanging on January 4, 1991, at Rongmin General Hospital. She was 47 years old.

Father Jerry Martinson, a Jesuit priest who knew San Mao for years as the brother of her close friend Barry Martinson, told UCA News two weeks after her suicide that San Mao “desired to escape from her fame’s pressure and emotional entanglements, and to reunite with Jose (..). His death was a trauma in her life.”

He also said that Antoine Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince was San Mao’s favorite reading: “At the end of the story, the Little Prince wanted to go back to his planet, reachable only through short suffering.”

Throughout her life, San Mao visited over 54 countries and wrote a total of 26 complete works (Chen 2007; Lang 2015, 442; Huang 2017). An English translation of her work Stories of the Sahara (1976) is expected to be released by publishing house Bloomsbury in 2018.

Online “San Mao Fever”

The suicide of San Mao generated a new wave of “San Mao fever” in the 1990s. And now, more than two decades after her death, the Chinese celebrity still has major appeal to social media users, who post her quotes, photos, and audio segments.

“How I love San Mao,” one person writes: “Her every word is just immersed with her wisdom.”

But not all commenters are equally positive. Some say that San Mao is representative of a time when Chinese women “blindly followed” western values, adoring foreign men.

For the majority of commenters, however, San Mao is a name that brings out new inspiration or old memories. “Whenever I think about her stories from the Sahara, it just moves me.”

One Weibo user honors San Mao by posting one of her quotes*:

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

If you are interested in this story you might also be interested in reading the story of Li Xianglan, the superstar who was caught between China and Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The Stories of the Sahara (in Chinese) can be purchased from Amazon:
The story of the Sahara (Chinese Edition)

The complete works of San Mao can also be purchased in Chinese online:
The Complete Works of Sanmao (Chinese Edition)

iTunes also offers The Stories of the Sahara in Chinese:

By Manya Koetse

Sources & References

Chen, Shaoshua. 2007. “San Mao – Taiwan’s Wandering Writer.” Women of China, November 30. [4.1.18].

Huang, Echo. 2017. “The brave, tragic adventurer who inspired generations of Chinese girls to adopt her nickname.” Quartz Magazine, April 24. [4.1.18].

Lang, Miriam. 2015 (2003). In Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A.D. Stefanowska (eds), Biographical Dictionary of Chinese women – The Twentieth-Century 1912-2000. London/New York: Routledge.

Treichel, Tamara. 2013. “The Echo Effect.” Global Times, March 10. [4.1.18].


Ying, Li-hua. 2010. Historical Dictionary of Modern Chinese Literature. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press.


* “常常,我跟自己说,到底远方是什么东西。

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What’s on Weibo provides social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China. What’s on Weibo sheds light on China’s digital media landscape and brings the story behind the hashtag. This independent news site is managed by sinologist Manya Koetse. Contact ©2014-2017


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