Today’s Google Doodle celebrates the 76th birthday of San Mao, the Taiwanese writer who inspired generations of Chinese women with her poetic writing and adventurous life abroad.
San Mao, the pen name of Chen Mao Ping, was born in 1943—one of the most chaotic periods of contemporary China—and moved to Taiwan with her family at the age of five from southwestern Chongqing, then the capital city of the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist party, before its retreat to Taiwan following its civil war defeat to Communist Party forces. (San Mao changed her birth name to Chen Ping in 1946.)
She began her travels abroad in her 20s and spent most of her life in places distant from her homeland, eventually visiting 59 countries. Over her life, she published 20 books (link in Chinese) based on her experiences traveling across Europe and Africa, from the 1970s to her death by suicide in 1991. Through this writing, San Mao depicted a life unimaginable for most of her readers, and inspired them to look on life with a different perspective.
The doodle depicts her as a long-haired woman holding a pen and paper sitting in a desert, perfectly capturing one of the most important times of San Mao’s life in the Spanish Sahara, at the time a colonial area where administrators from Spain lived in uneasy coexistence with nomadic Sahrawi Arabs.
San Mao wrote about the conflicts and the struggles for Sahrawi’s liberation from colonialism as well as her marriage with José María Quero, a Spanish man she lived with in the Sahara until he died in a diving accident in 1979. She began publishing those stories in 1974 in a major Taiwanese newspaper, and they’ve been translated into different languages, including Dutch, Spanish and Catalan.
“Her vivid prose, independent spirit, and willingness to travel widely in a search for knowledge inspired many of her readers to retrace her steps,” said Google’s doodle notes.
She eventually returned to Taiwan. There, she committed suicide in 1991 after a career setback and a cancer scare, according to one account.
Even though San Mao is no longer with us, her influence has traveled across time as told by the popularity of San Mao’s English name—Echo—which San Mao adopted from the tutor who encouraged her to write and paint. Today, almost all Chinese girls who go by that English name, including this writer, trace the name back to her.
As I’ve written previously:
San Mao is the opposite of everything that Chinese parents teach their daughters to be—obedient, stable, and never staying far from your family. She crossed the oceans for love, lived in a colonized, turmoil-filled land, and wrote of all those experiences.
Update: The story was updated on March 26 to reflect San Mao’s birth name changes.