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China Books & Literature

No Man’s City – A Chinese Blogger’s Powerful Essay About The “Fake Lives” of Beijing Residents

An essay titled “Beijing Has 20 Million People Pretending to Live There” by Chinese blogger Zhang Wumao has gone viral on Chinese social media. The essay describes how Beijing has changed into a city that is overrun by ‘outsiders’ and no longer belongs to the ‘old Beijingers.’ The article has now been censored. Chinese state media say the essay impedes good relations between Beijing’s locals and immigrants.

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An essay titled “Beijing Has 20 Million People Pretending to Live Here” by Chinese blogger Zhang Wumao (张五毛) has gone viral on Chinese social media, sparking wide debate on life in China’s capital. The essay describes how Beijing has changed into a city that is overrun by ‘outsiders’ and no longer belongs to the ‘old Beijingers.’ Chinese state media say the essay, which is now censored, polarizes the relations between Beijing’s locals and immigrants.

An online essay titled “Beijing Has 20 Million People Pretending to Live Here” (or: “There are 20 Million People in Beijing Pretending to Have a Life” “北京,有2000万人假装在生活”, full English translation here) by Chinese writer and blogger Zhang Wumao (张五毛) became a viral hit on WeChat and Weibo after it was published on the author’s WeChat account on July 23.

The essay is a witty yet powerful critique of Beijing and its residents. Over the last decade, and especially over the past few years, Beijing has undergone enormous changes. The city is expanding, high-rise buildings are mushrooming, while old hutong areas are bricked up and familiar neighborhoods demolished for the sake of the city’s metamorphosis in an ‘international metropolis.’

According to Mr. Zhang, the city’s rapid transformation has turned it into a place with no identity; a place that nobody can call home. The essay argues that Beijing has been overrun by migrant workers or waidiren (外地人, ‘people from outside the city’), and that these ‘outsiders’ have turned China’s capital into a place with staggering house prices and heavy traffic that lacks soul. The city no longer really belongs to native Beijingers, Zhang writes, as they cannot even recognize their old neighborhoods anymore.

The essay describes how Beijing has become so big, so full, and so expensive, that life has virtually become unsustainable. The result of Beijing’s transformation, according to the post, is that its residents, both locals and immigrants, just “pretend to live there”, leading “fake lives.”

 

ZHANG GUOCHEN

“It was destined to go viral. It ridicules Beijing + it talks about migrant workers + real estate market + and state of life.”

 

Zhang Wumao, whose real name is Zhang Guochen (张国臣), is an author born in the early 1980s. He is from Luonan, Shaanxi, and came to Beijing at the age of 25 in 2006. A year later he started blogging. He previously published the novels Spring is Burning (春天在燃烧) and Princess’s Tomb (公主坟).

Zhang’s online essay about Beijing spread like wildfire on WeChat and Weibo on Sunday. It was viewed over 5 million times within an evening and soon became a trending article on WeChat. It triggered wide debate across Chinese social media on the lives of people in Beijing.

WeChat’s “Today” overview showing dozens of mentions of Zhang’s essay earlier this week. (via zhihu.com)

On Monday and Tuesday, the essay was also republished by various Chinese media such as Tencent News, iFeng, and Sohu.com.

But on July 25, the full text was removed from all social media accounts and Chinese online newspapers. Its hashtag on Weibo (#北京有2000万人假装在生活#) is now no longer accessible.

On Tuesday, any link for the online essay came up with a ‘404 page’ saying: “Cannot open – you can no longer view this page!”

The article also disappeared from Zhang’s WeChat account.

Zhang’s Wechat account shows that the article from July 23 has now been deleted.

On Quora-like discussion platform Zhihu.com, one person said the essay was destined to become a hype: “This is a typical Wechat viral article. It ridicules Beijing + it talks about migrant workers + real estate market + and state of life. As it contains all of these elements in 1 article, the author just intended for this to become a hit.”

 

A SENSITIVE ESSAY

“What Beijingers increasingly feel is the suffocation of the smog and the high cost of housing. They cannot move, they cannot breathe.”

 

Zhang’s essay is divided into five paragraphs. In the first part, he explains that Beijingers often seem inhospitable; the city is so huge and congested, that people simply cannot find the time to see their friends in other parts of the city.

“Beijing is really too big; so big that it is simply not like a city at all. It is equivalent to 2.5 times Shanghai, 8.4 times Shenzhen, 15 times Hong Kong, 21 times New York, or 27 times Seoul. When friends from outside come to Beijing, they think they’re close to me. But actually, we’re hardly in the same city at all.”

“For 10 years, Beijing has been controlling housing, controlling traffic, and controlling the population. But this pancake is only getting wider and bigger, so much that when a school friend from Xi’an calls me to say he’s in Beijing and I ask him where he is, he tells me: “I am at the 13th Ring.” Beijing is a tumor, and no one can control how fast it is growing; Beijing is a river, and no one can draw its borders. Beijing is a believer, and only Xiong’an can bring salvation.”

The second part, which is titled ‘Beijing actually belongs to outsiders’ (北京其实是外地人的北京), claims that Beijing is one of the most beloved cities in China because of its rich cultural heritage and long history, but that this is something that is only of value to people from outside the city.

“In the 11 years since I’ve come to Beijing, I have been to the Great Wall 11 times, 12 times the Imperial Palace, 9 times to the Summer Palace, and 20 times to the Bird’s Nest. I feel emotionless about this city’s great architecture and long history. (..) Going into the Forbidden City, I only see one empty house after the other – it’s less interesting than the lively pigsties we have in my native village.”

“Upon mentioning Beijing, many people first think of the Palace Museum, Houhai, 798; they think of history, culture, and high-rise buildings. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s good! Does it make us proud? It does! But you can’t make food out of these things. What Beijingers increasingly feel is the suffocation of the smog and the high cost of housing. They cannot move, they cannot breathe.”

He then goes on to mock the old residents of Beijing, who still have the upper hand in the real estate market despite the flood of new immigrants, all owning “five-room houses.” The old Beijingers lead very different lives from the migrant workers, who are caught in a negative spiral of hard work, no social life, and finding a place to settle down.

“In Beijing, the migrant workers, who have no real estate from previous generations, are destined to be trapped in their house for life. They strive for over a decade to buy an apartment the size of a bird cage; then spend another decade struggling to get a house that has two rooms rather than one. If that goes well, congratulations, you can now consider an apartment in the school district.”

“With a house in the school district, children can attend Tsinghua or Peking University. But Tsinghua graduates will still not be able to afford a room in that district. They will then either need to stay crammed together in the old shabby family apartment, or start from scratch, struggling for another apartment.”

 

“For Beijing’s new immigrants, the city is a distant place where they can’t stay; for Beijing’s old residents, the city is an old home they can’t return to.”

 

In the final part of the essay, however, Zhang shows his sympathy for the old residents of Beijing:

“I once took a taxi to Lin Cui Road. Because I was afraid the driver wouldn’t know the way, I opened the navigation on my phone to help him find the way. He said he did not need the navigation because he knew that place. There was a flour mill there 30 years ago, he said, it was demolished 10 years ago, and they built low-income housing there. I asked him how he knew this so well. “That used to be my home,” he said, the sorrow showing in his face.”

“I could hear nostalgia and resentment from the driver’s words. For Beijing’s new immigrants, the city is a distant place where they can’t stay; for Beijing’s old residents, the city is an old home they can’t return to.”

“We, as outsiders, ridicule Beijing on the one hand, while on the other hand, we cherish our hometowns. But in fact, we can still go back to our hometown. It is still there. (..) But for the old Beijingers, there really is no way to go back to their hometown. It has changed with unprecedented speed. We can still find our grandfather’s old house. The majority of Beijingers can only find the location of their old homes through the coordinates on a map.”

He concludes his article by highlighting the recent demolishment of old Beijing shops and restaurants, saying that the city is being renovated but is becoming less livable.

“Those who chase their dreams of success are now escaping [Beijing]. They’re off to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or the West Coast of the United States. Those who’ve lost hope of chasing their dreams are also escaping. They return to Hebei, the Northeast, their hometowns.”

He ends by writing: “There are over 20 million people left in this city, pretending to live. In reality, there simply is no life in this city. Here, there are only some people’s dreams and everybody’s jobs.”

 

CHINESE MEDIA RESPONSES

“The contrast between old Beijingers and new immigrants is exaggerated, and it polarizes the relationship between locals and outsiders.”

 

Despite censorship of the actual text, Zhang’s essay is widely discussed by Chinese official media.

State media outlet People’s Daily (@人民日报) writes on Weibo:

“The essay ‘Beijing Has 20 Million People Pretending to Live There’ is a viral hit but is not approved of. There really is such a thing as the “Big City Disease”, and we do not need to pretend as if people in first-tier cities are not struggling and facing hardships. But in Beijing, both locals and outsiders are alive and kicking; they are all the more real because of their dreams. Making a living is hard, but it is the days of watching flowers blossom and wilt that are full of life. The city and its people don’t have it easy, but they have to show some tolerance for each other and then they can both succeed.”

Xinhua News Agency also published a response to the article titled: “Lives in the City Cannot Be Fake” (“一个城市的生活无法“假装“).

Lashing out against Mr. Zhang, they write that: “Beijing has no human warmth, Beijing is a city of outsiders, old Beijingers can’t go back to their city – behind every one of these sentences is not the ‘fakeness’ of Beijing, but the clamor of the author’s emotions about ‘coming to Beijing.'”

State broadcaster CCTV (@央视新闻) also responds to the essay on Weibo, saying:

“Over the past few days, the essay ‘Beijing Has 20 Million People Pretending to Live There’ has exploded on the Internet, but how the text portrays the contrast between old Beijingers and new immigrants is exaggerated, and it polarizes the relationship between native Beijingers and outsiders. In reality, Beijing is not as cold as it is described in the essay. Everyone already knows that it’s not easy living in a big city. The future of Beijing is in the hands of competent, daring and hardworking people who pursue their dreams.”

 

A STORM OF DEBATE

“I am one of these 20 million people, and my life is not fake – I am living it.”

 

On social media, many netizens commented on the state media’s responses to Zhang, saying they were tired of the repeated emphasis on “people’s dreams.” One person said: “My belly is empty, what are you talking about dreams for?! Dreams cannot guarantee our most basic needs for survival.”

Many people on Weibo and QQ also applauded Zhang’s essay for being “well-written”, “honest”, and “real.”

But there are also those who do not agree with the essay and take offense at how it describes Beijingers leading “fake” or “pretense” lives. A Beijing resident nicknamed ‘Little Fish’ (@小小的爱鱼) commented: “What on earth gave him the courage to speak on behalf of 20 million Beijing people? I am one of these 20 million people, and sorry, but my life is not fake – I am living it.”

“I work overtime until 9 pm, then take the bus and subway and won’t arrive home before 23:38, then quickly rinse my face and brush my teeth and roll into bed. But it’s still life. What life and being alive is all about ultimately is a personal issue,” one other netizen from Beijing says.

“Mr. Zhang,” one angry commenter writes: “You can leave this cold and big city of Beijing, and go back to your ‘real’ live in that pigsty of yours that’s supposedly more imposing than the Forbidden City.”

The recent hype surrounding Zhang’s essay somewhat resembles the overnight buzz over the autobiographical essay of Beijing migrant worker Fan Yusu. This essay also described various hardships in the lives of Beijing migrant workers.

Fan Yusu’s essay and posts related to it were also taken offline after several days when discussions on the account spread across Chinese social media.

Zhang’s hit essay shows that the combination of writing about “migrant workers + Beijing + real estate + state of life” = indeed one that is bound to attract wide attention and debate on social media. Although it is also a recurring topic in China’s official media, those channels prefer to focus on the idea of hardworking people who pursue their (Chinese) dreams, rather than to spread a narrative about people living “fake lives” in a cold city.

One commenter says: “Whether you fake it or you try hard, it’s all okay: this is Beijing. It’s not livable, but you sure can make a living.”

By Manya Koetse

Special thanks to Diandian Guo.

©2017 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. 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 manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Books & Literature

Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower by Roseann Lake

In a new book on China’s Leftover Women, author Roseann Lakes highlights the strength and merit of China’s unmarried women.

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With Leftover in China – The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower, author Roseann Lake brings a deeply insightful and captivating account of China’s so-called ‘leftover women’ – the unmarried females who are shaping the future of the PRC. A must-read book for this Spring Festival holiday.

As the count-down for China’s most important event of the year, the Spring Festival, has started, countless unmarried daughters and sons anticipate the reunion with their parents and relatives with some horror. “Why are you still single?” is amongst the top-dreaded questions they are facing during the New Year’s dinners at the family dining table.

More so than the bachelor sons, it’s China’s unmarried daughters in their late twenties and early thirties who came to be at the center of a media storm over the past decade. The so-called ‘leftover women’ (剩女 shèngnǚ) have become a source of critique, banter, worry, fascination, and inspiration for the media, both in- and outside China.

The term shèngnǚ became a catchphrase ever since the Chinese Ministry of Education listed it as one of the newest additions to Chinese vocabulary in 2007. The shengnü label is mainly applied to unmarried (urban) women in their late twenties or early thirties who are generally well-educated and goal-oriented, but who came to be associated with ‘leftover food’ because of their single status and long-standing beliefs about the right age to marry.

One 2015 survey by Chinese dating site Zhenai, that was held amongst 1452 single men and women, shows that 50% of Chinese men think that women who are still single at the age of 25 are ‘leftovers.’

 

SILVER LININGS

“I’m pro-active about finding a partner, but not to the extent that it gets in the way of other ambitions.”

 

After the success of much-acclaimed books such as Factory Girls (Leslie T. Chang 2008) and Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (Leta Hong Fincher 2014), Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower  (2018) by Roseann Lake, Cuba correspondent for The Economist, brings fresh insights into the role and position of young women in a rapidly-changing society.

At the root of the ‘leftover women’ phenomenon and the media frenzy around it lies China’s One-Child Policy (1979-2015), the country’s imbalanced sex ratio, and traditional perceptions on wives and mothers being the building blocks of Chinese families and the nation at large.

Leftover in China is Roseann’s Lake first (non-fiction) book.

Lake describes how the onset of China’s One-Child Policy and a traditional preference for sons, together with the available ultrasound technology in the late 1980s, led to an enormous rise of abortions on female fetuses. The gender imbalance it brought about is most severe in China’s rural areas; in places such as Tianmen, Hubei, the gender ratio is a shocking 176 males to 100 females. It leaves villages full of men who are unable to find a bride and start a family. Guānggùn (光棍), they’re also called, literally the “bare branches” of their hometowns.

While the ‘bare branches’ reside in China’s more rural areas, the ‘leftover women’ live in China’s more urban areas. The ‘bare branches’ and ‘leftover women’ both have difficulties in finding a partner, albeit for radically different reasons. For the rural men, there simply are not enough marriage candidates, whereas for the urban women, there are not enough suitable marriage candidates. A major difference between the countryside and the urban environment is that China’s cities have seen a much better-balanced gender ratio, with parents pampering and pressuring their only child – whether it was a boy or girl.

Although Lake does explain the “gruesome cloud” of China’s One-Child Policy and female foeticide and the demographic problems it has triggered, she especially focuses on the “silver lining,” which is that the sociopolitical circumstances have also ‘forced’ parents to value their daughters more than ever before. Over the past decades, millions of Chinese daughters have been given the opportunities and liberties their mothers and grandmothers never had. Their increased educational and professional prospects have made marriage somewhat less of a priority for them.

While China’s unmarried, urban woman are often stigmatized by Chinese state media for being too ‘spoilt’, ‘picky’, or ‘promiscuous’ to marry, Roseann Lake casts an entirely different light on China’s urban bachelorettes as being determined, independent, and self-assured. “I’m pro-active about finding a partner,” one of the ‘leftover women’ in Lake’s book says: “But not to the extent that it gets in the way of other ambitions.”

 

CHANGING TIMES, CHANGING LOVE

“Leftover women are resisting ultimatums to wed because they want to marry for love, and not just for the sake of being married.”

 

Lake’s strong connection to Chinese culture and society jumps off the pages of Leftover in China, in which she playfully and compellingly offers a window into the female experience in modern China, explaining fascinating concepts that are unique to modern-day society. One such example is the ‘phantom third stories’ phenomenon; two-story houses with an unfinished ‘fake’ third story, built by unmarried men and their family to make the house appear more grandiose in the hopes of attracting a wife.

The interest in China started when Lake took a sabbatical from her job with the French government in New York, and went to Beijing. “I was only supposed to stay for three months,” she tells What’s on Weibo: “But shortly into my stay I bought a hot orange electric – Chinese – ‘Vespa’, and that changed everything.”

Journalist Roseann Lake.

As Lake was riding her scooter, which she lovingly nicknamed ‘Fanta’, she took in the city and all of its aspects, including its love and romantic relationships. On what first caught her attention within this field, she explains that it started one afternoon as she was riding her scooter in Beijing and spotted a very angry Chinese woman on the side of the road, screaming profanities at a man who appeared to be her romantic partner. The altercation turned violent, and it was not the first time Lake had witnessed such a scene between couples in public.

“I felt that something seemed afoul with the state of romantic relationships in China,” she says – which was a start of her interest and research into romance, love, and the role of Chinese women in this. “For thousands of years, marriage has largely been a mercenary, transactional agreement in China, made with the best interests of the key stakeholders – the parents – in mind.”

Romantic love as a reason for marriage in China, Lake says, is a relatively new concept. She tells What’s on Weibo: “Down the line, this better helped me understand the situation of leftover women – many of which, as I discovered, were resisting ultimatums to wed because they wanted to marry for love, and not just for the sake of being married.”

The topic of China’s changing marriage values and the generation gap in perceptions on love and marriage between parents and their daughters recurringly comes back in Lake’s book, for which she followed the lives of various ‘leftover women’ over a period of several years. Through the stories of women such as Christy, the CEO of a successful Beijing PR firm, or June, a “return turtle” who came back to the mainland after graduating from Yale, readers can get a grasp of the pressures and problems many single women are facing in China today.

An important lesson to draw from this book is that the phenomenon of China’s ‘leftover women’ cannot be explained through a unidimensional lens. Lake highlights China’s historical, societal, cultural, and economic dimensions in her approach of why this large group of unmarried women, despite all of their personal, academic and professional achievements, are still being labeled through their single status.

 

THE TOAST OF THE NATION

“There is irony and absurdity in the fact that these women are referred to as “leftover” but are really such an important part of China’s future.”

 

In 2016, an ad campaign by skincare brand SK-II titled ‘She Finally Goes to the Marriage Corner’ (她最后去了相亲角) gained huge popularity on Chinese social media. The short video showed how women, pressured to get married by their families and society, pluck up the courage to speak out and get their message heard.

The video received much praise, with many women protesting against the derogatory ‘leftover women’ label. CCTV recently also posted a feature article on social media in which various women plead for the elimination of the “leftover woman” or shèngnǚ label.

The campaign by SKII in 2016 ignited a movement that protested the ‘leftover’ label.

Why, then, would Lake still refer to the ‘leftover’ label on the cover of her book? About the book’s title, Lake says: “There was a different title that I preferred, but my publisher disagreed with it, so we compromised on ‘Leftover in China.’ It has grown on me. I’m told that for non-fiction books, the subtitle is just as important as the title itself, and I think “The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower” is apt. It underscores the irony and absurdity of the fact that these women are referred to as “leftover” but are really such an important part of China’s future.”

Throughout the course of writing this book, Lake spoke to many experts on the importance of China’s young (unmarried) women in shaping Chinese economics. One of them is Dr. Kaiping Peng, the founding chair of the Department of Psychology at Tsinghua University, who is quoted as saying: “The Chinese economic miracle has two secrets. The first are migrant workers, and the second are young, educated women.”

All the love, time, and money that Chinese parents and grandparents have invested in their only (grand)daughter has now paid off – not just for them, but for the economy at large. These well-educated and hard-working women play a powerful role in running China’s economic engine.

 

THE FUTURE OF CHINA’S LEFTOVER WOMEN

“Few people know that the most imbalanced year for sex ratio at birth in China was actually 2005.”

 

When talking about the future of China’s ‘leftover women,’ Lake suspects that they will continue to get married later in life or not at all – on trend with what is also happening in countries such as Japan or South Korea. “This would be much to the dismay of the Chinese government” Lake says, “- which desperately wants babies, but hasn’t done much to incentivize or make it easier for women to have them.”

Social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat also play an important role in the lives of these women: “When I was living in China and writing the first drafts of this book, there were a few groups on Weixin [WeChat] where women would chat, share articles, and plan gatherings. They’ve dramatically multiplied! More content is shared, more ideas are exchanged, and the ease of these platforms means that Chinese women abroad can easily remain a part of the conversation.”

Lake is more worried about the so-called guānggùn, China’s ‘bare branches’: “We all may imagine that the worst years for gendercide were in the 80s and 90s, when population controls were stricter in China, but I think few people know that the most imbalanced year for sex ratio at birth in China was actually 2005. That means that boys who are now 13 years old will likely have a harder time finding a wife than any generations of men before them.”

This Spring Festival, Lake is anticipating the launch of her book (release February 13, 2018), which has already been listed as one of the must-read books for 2018 by the South China Morning Post.

For China’s many bachelorettes, they’ll just have to face the nagging questions at the New Year’s dining table, but they need not worry too much about being called ‘leftover women.’ Through books such as these, the term loses its derogatory tone – it is becoming a badge of honor instead.

 
Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower by Roseann Lake is now available for pre-sale:
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By Manya Koetse

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

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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. 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.

Treichel, Tamara. 2013. “The Echo Effect.” Global Times, March 10. http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/767044.shtml [4.1.18].

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.

Images

http://www.baike.com/wiki/%E4%B8%89%E6%AF%9B%5B%E4%BD%9C%E5%AE%B6%5D
http://designblog.rietveldacademie.nl/?tag=mask
http://cq.people.com.cn/GB/365409/c24845560.html
http://www.360doc.com/content/14/0623/15/700274_389097947.shtml
https://www.lemiaunoir.com/san-mao-mujer-escritora/
http://www.sohu.com/a/142240780_767795
http://www.sohu.com/a/130964781_488738
https://elpais.com/elpais/2016/10/25/inenglish/1477405923_390849.html

* “常常,我跟自己说,到底远方是什么东西。
然后我听见我自己回答,说远方是你这一生现在最渴望的东西,就是自由。
很远很远的,一种像空气一样的自由。
在那个时候开始,我发觉,我一点一点脱去了束缚我生命的一切不需要的东西。
在那个时候,海角天涯,只要我心里想到,我就可以去。
我的自由终于在这个时候来到了.”

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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 info@whatsonweibo.com. ©2014-2017

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