Story by Manya Koetse, photo-reportage by Maarten van der Meer.
Perhaps Jewish history is not the first thing that springs to mind when thinking about Shanghai. Yet the vibrant city harbors a rich history of Jewish heritage – a history that has recently seen a revival in Chinese media and entertainment.
The increased attention for the Jewish community of Shanghai and the history of Jews in China comes at a time when relations between China and Israel are at a new height. The two countries recently signed a visa deal that has encouraged mutual travel. Tel Aviv and Beijing are also making plans to establish a free trade zone.
“While bulldozers are rumbling, discoveries of historically important buildings make the news.”
The ‘memory revival’ of China’s Jewish history also comes at a time when old Jewish neighborhoods in Shanghai are being demolished. A reviving Jewish community in the city of Kaifeng is facing an ongoing crackdown by the government, as Judaism does not belong to China’s five state-approved religions of Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity and Protestantism.
Shanghai’s northern district of Hongkou is at the heart of Shanghai’s old Jewish neighborhood. Although many buildings are well-preserved, large parts of the neighborhood have been demolished over the past few years. Residents are located to other, more remote, areas of the city.
While bulldozers are rumbling, discoveries of historically important buildings sometimes make the news. In 2014, an old residence set for demolition turned out to be a meeting place for Sun Yat-sen and other well-known people during the 1910s. The building was preserved after a Weibo user asked for help to save it.
In February 2016, another Hongkou building remained intact after it was discovered to be be a former ‘comfort women’ house used by Japanese troops during WWII.
While parts of the old neighborhood are disappearing, new initiatives are keeping its memories alive.
NEW WAYS OF REMEMBERING
“China has seen a ‘revival’ in remembering China’s and Shanghai’s Jewish history.”
Just 3 kilometers from Shanghai’s famous Peace Hotel (its Victor’s Café was named after famous Shanghai Jew Sir Victor Sassoon) lies the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum; opened in 2007 to commemorate the Jewish refugees who lived in Shanghai during WWII. The museum frequently holds new displays and events to catch the audience’s attention.
But the history of Jews in Shanghai is kept alive through more than only the museum. Over the past few years, China has seen a ‘revival’ in remembering China’s and Shanghai’s Jewish history. Its historical revival mainly takes place outside museums, namely in popular culture and cyberspace.
China’s first animated movie about the Jewish history of Shanghai premiered in 2010. A Jewish Girl in Shanghai (犹太女孩在上海) tells the story and hardships of Jewish girl Rena who flees Nazi persecution by traveling to Shanghai during the WWII. The film has been described as “China’s first homegrown Jewish film”. A sequel to the anime appeared in 2015.
In the same year (2015), the first musical themed around the Jews in Shanghai saw the light at the Shanghai International Arts Festival in October. The musical Jews in Shanghai (犹太人在上海) revolves around the blossoming love between a Jewish man and Shanghai woman during the chaos of WWII. The Chinese-Israeli musical premiered in Beijing in June of 2016 (Yuan 2016: 30).
Shanghai’s Jewish history is also being commemorated through digital channels. On September 28, Shanghai’s Hongkou district government released a multilingual website telling different stories of the Jewish diaspora in Shanghai during the World War II. The project, launched by Shanghai International Studies University and the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, has collected stories from the time Jews fled to Shanghai to escape Nazi persecution.
E-learners can now also learn about the Jewish history in China through Coursera. Nanjing University has started offering an online course on Jewish Diaspora in China , taught by Dr. Xu Xin – an expert on the history of Judaism in China. The course requires enrollment but is offered for free.
JEWS IN CHINA/SHANGHAI: A SHORT HISTORY
“They have entirely lost their religion and are scarcely distinguishable in any way from the Chinese.”
China has a long history of Jewish diaspora, although it is not entirely clear when and where this history began. What is clear, however, is that China is the only country in East Asia where Jews have consecutively lived for the last 1000 years. Marco Polo already mentioned the presence of Jews in China in 1286, and there is historical evidence that Jews lived in the old city of Kaifeng since the 11th century (Xin 2010: 133).
Although the city of Kaifeng once had a lively Jewish community, it gradually diminished throughout the 19th century. By the early 20th century, it had become nearly non-existent. When a bishop of the Anglican church visited the city in 1867, he already noted about the Kaifeng Jews that “they have entirely lost their religion and are scarcely distinguishable in any way from the Chinese” (Rhee 1973: 118).
The reason for the Jewish demise could be explained through their complete assimilation in China. Throughout time, they took on Confucianism, practiced patrilineal descent, intermarried, and identified with Chinese culture so much that they were no longer really considered “Jewish” at all (1973: 115).
In Shanghai, however, something different was happening. After China was defeated by Britain during the first Opium War (1839-1842), Shanghai became an open port where foreign trade was allowed and where Britain could establish settlements. It was at this time that the first wave of Jewish people came to Shanghai, along with British merchants, to start businesses there. This early Jewish community of modern China, who were Sephardi Jews, settled down in Shanghai and other cities (Hong Kong, Tianjin) to make money and establish companies.
The second wave of Jewish came to Shanghai in the early 20th century. These Ashkenazi Jews came from Eastern Europe and Russia, and also settled down in the bustling city to start small businesses. Together with the first wave of Jews in Shanghai, they had a thriving Jewish community with Jewish synagogues, cemeteries, and institutions.
But the history of Jews in Shanghai is mostly known for the third wave of Jewish diaspora: German and Austrian Jewish who came to Shanghai as refugees before and during the WWII.
THE SHANGHAI GHETTO
“Shanghai became their destination not by choice, but because they had no other choice.”
Why Shanghai? For many Jews at the time, Shanghai became their destination not by choice, but because they had no other choice (Xin 2016). As anti-Jewish violence grew strong in Nazi-ruled Germany and Austria, many Jews wanted to leave the country. But despite the 1938 Evian Conference in France, that was joined by 32 nations to resolve the Jewish refugee crisis, other countries remained reluctant to take in Jewish refugees. Without the required visas needed to enter countries such as America, many Jews were desperate.
Shanghai, however, was an exceptional place: it was an open port under the control of foreign powers, and it already was home to two relatively large Jewish communities. There was no need for a visa. For those who could afford to go on a boat to China, it was the best refugee haven (Gao 2011: 203; Meyer 2000: 71). After the anti-Jewish pogroms during the 1938 Kristallnacht, many Jews arrived in China. In the 1933-1940 period, approximately 20,000 European Jews came to China, of which a large majority arrived in Shanghai per boat (Xin 2016; Gao 2011: 203)
The fourth and final wave of Jewish arrived in China via the Japanese city of Kobe. It was a Polish Jewish community who had ended up in Kobe via Siberia, but left again after the outbreak of the Pacific War. By the early 1940s, four different Jewish communities, coming from four different “waves” of diaspora, lived in Shanghai together at the same time.
It was Shanghai’s Hongkou district (also spelled as ‘Hongkew’) that became the main Jewish neighborhood. Since it was amongst the lesser developed areas of Shanghai, the cost of living was cheap there. But under Japanese control, the area’s Tilanqiao neighborhood (提篮桥) turned into a “designated area for stateless refugees”, simply a “ghetto”, where around 20,000 of its 50,000 residents were Jewish. Japanese authorities controlled the district and prohibited Jews from leaving the “Hongkou ghetto” without the required papers, which were hard to obtain.
According to Evelyn Pike Rubin, one of the German-Jewish refugees who survived in Shanghai during the 1939-1947 period, the designated area only came in 1943. She told What’s on Weibo: “Until 1943 we could live anywhere. As a matter of fact, I lived with my parents on Avenue Joffre. It was not until May of 1943 that the so-called ‘ghetto’ was established. Mr. Ghoya gave out the passes – sometimes with difficulty. My mother got a pass and did business outside the ghetto and I and my friends got passes to continue attending the Shanghai Jewish school in the former International Settlerment on Seymour Road.”
Evelyn Pike Rubin later published a book about her experiences in Shanghai, titled Ghetto Shanghai (1998: link).
Despite suffering hardships, the Jews in the Shanghai Ghetto were safe and far removed from the horrors of Europe. Jewish children attended school and could freely play around the streets with their Chinese friends.Nina Admoni, a Polish Jew who spent her childhood in the ghetto, told Times of Israel in 2012 that she looked back on her experience in Shanghai fondly and even idyllically: “The Chinese people in Shanghai were very kind, that’s what I remember.”
GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
“The last synagogue of Shanghai stopped its services in 1956.”
There is a world of difference between what once was the “Shanghai Ghetto” and the same area today. The first synagogue of Hongkou, from the 1920s, now houses the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum. The Jewish community is no longer active here. The last synagogue of Shanghai stopped its services in 1956.
After WWII ended, Jews in China gradually left the country. It was not possible for them to become Chinese nationals, as the country did not have a naturalization procedure. The upheaval of the Chinese Civil War followed by the communist victory in 1949 meant that the Jewish could no longer continue to do business in China. As many left for North America, Australia, New Zealand or Palestine, only a few hundred Jews were left across China by the 1960s (Xin 2016).
What once was a home and safe haven for thousands of Jews has now turned into a quiet neighbourhood with local shops and a street market. Many parts are being deconstructed for renovation.
Shanghai still has a small Jewish community, but it is not comparable to what it once was.
The Ohel Rachel Synagogue on North Shaanxi Road is now regulated by the Chinese government. The Jews in Shanghai are allowed to hold a religious ceremony no more than three times per year.
In Kaifeng, once home to China’s oldest Jewish community, a revival of Judaism amongst around 1000 residents who claim to be of Jewish ancestry has been met by opposition from the local government. It has shut down Jewish heritage organizations and has prohibited residents from gathering to worship for Passover and other holidays. Signs and relics of the city’s Jewish past have been removed from public places.
China’s Jewish communities have changed through time. They have grown smaller, they have become Chinese, or they have vanished altogether.
Although the visibility of Jewish history might be disappearing from the streets of Shanghai, its stories are kept alive through books, museums, musicals, cinemas and on the internet. Its presence may be gone, but its history will never be lost.
About the photographer:
Maarten van der Meer is an independent/freelance photographer focusing on photographic stories, both fictive & real. He likes to mix various image styles and tries to find the narrative and excitement within everyday scenes. Besides his story projects, Van der Meer shoots portraits & landscapes.
References (news article sources in links)
– Gao, Bei. 2011. “The Chinese Nationionalist Government’s Policy Toward European Jewish Refguees During World War II.” Modern China 37 (2): 202-237.
– Meyer, Maisie J. 2000. “The Interrelationship of Jewish Communities in Shanghai.” Immigrants & Minorities 19 (2): 71-90.
– Rhee, Song Nai. 1973. “Jewish Assimilation: The Case of Chinese Jews.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 15(1): 115–126.
– Xin, Xu. 2010. “Tracing Judaism in China.” Social Sciences in China 31 (1), 130–161.
– Xin, Xu. 2016. “Jewish Diaspora in China” [online course]. Coursera. https://www.coursera.org/learn/jews-in-china/home/welcome [1.10.16]
– Yuan, Kang. 2016. “Jews in Shanghai: Love is Boundless.” Women of China (July): 30-31.
©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
“Does anorexia exist in China?” is one amongst the millions of questions recently posted on the Chinese Quora-like platform Zhihu.com. 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 Zhihu.com 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.
A “WESTERN” PHENOMENON
“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.”
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 AcFun.com, 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.
THE STORY OF YUN
“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.
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.
UNHEALTHY ONLINE TRENDS
“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.
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.”
ANOREXIA ON THE RISE OR NOT?
“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.
SAME DISEASE, DIFFERENT MANIFESTATIONS
“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 Zhihu.com 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.
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 https://jeatdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40337-015-0070-2 [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.
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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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
Sources & References
Chen, Shaoshua. 2007. “San Mao – Taiwan’s Wandering Writer.” Women of China, November 30. http://www.womenofchina.cn/womenofchina/html1/people/writers/8/8989-1.htm [4.1.18].
Huang, Echo. 2017. “The brave, tragic adventurer who inspired generations of Chinese girls to adopt her nickname.” Quartz Magazine, April 24. https://qz.com/963273/the-world-traveling-writer-san-mao-inspired-generations-of-girls-to-adopt-her-nickname-echo/ [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.
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UCA News. 1991. “PRIEST SAYS WRITER WHO COMMITTED SUICIDE WANTED TO BECOME CATHOLIC NUN.” UCA News, February 21. https://www.ucanews.com/story-archive/?post_name=/1991/02/19/priest-says-writer-who-committed-suicide-wanted-to-become-catholic-nun&post_id=32086 [7.1.18].
Ying, Li-hua. 2010. Historical Dictionary of Modern Chinese Literature. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press.
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