The brave, tragic adventurer who inspired generations of Chinese girls to adopt her nickname

The Taiwanese writer Chen Ping, whose pen name was San Mao, was also known as Echo.
The Taiwanese writer Chen Ping, whose pen name was San Mao, was also known as Echo.
Image: Focus Taiwan
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I got my English name—Echo—from a tragic, romantic Taiwanese writer.

When I was 14, in my second year of middle school in my hometown of Guangzhou, China, my teacher introduced me to the writer San Mao, although she advised caution: “San Mao’s books can ‘misdirect’ a young girl,” she said, “but you are very like her.”

San Mao was the pen name of Chen Ping, a bold and glamorous world traveler who had published 20 books (link in Chinese) in China based on her experiences traveling across Europe and Africa, from the 1970s to her death by suicide in 1991. Her Stories of the Sahara are now being translated into English for the publishing house Bloomsbury, and are expected to be released in 2018.

“I admire San Mao for her blithe bravura and polyglot existence at a time when it was rare, to say the least, for a Chinese woman to live on her own in Europe, let alone Africa,” says Mike Fu, a New York-based writer who is translating the stories.

San Mao’s work was translated into Japanese and Korean in the 1980s and 1990s, Fu says, and the rights to certain titles were sold in English, Dutch, Spanish, and Catalan in late 2015.

A life of adventure, and one to aspire to

San Mao’s writings may have “misdirected” me, but I fell in love with them as a teenager. Holding those exotic stories in my hands, I found myself enthralled by San Mao’s adventures. She was living a totally different life than mine, which was stuffed with textbooks and exam papers. A young, brave Chinese woman living in far-away lands, she embraced a life saturated with compassion, and she gave me a different perspective on my own life and its possibilities.

San Mao had taken Echo as her English name, to honor her teacher. And after reading her work, I paid her the same honor by naming myself Echo. And I wasn’t the only one: Whenever I meet another Chinese Echo, they can usually trace the name back to San Mao.

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.

In 1943, San Mao was born in Chongqing, then the capital city of the Nationalist Government Kuomintang (KMT), which later fled to Taiwan after a civil war in 1949. San Mao and her family also moved to Taiwan in 1948.

Growing up, San Mao was never a well-behaved girl. She was drawn to literature at a young age and performed badly at school. Once, she recalled later, her math teacher drew two big black circles around her eyes and made her parade around the school compound because San Mao scored a zero in a math test—an experience that drove her to home education. She then was tutored by her favorite painting teacher, Gu Fusheng, whose English name was Echo. Gu encouraged San Mao to write and paint. Out of admiration, San Mao took Echo as her English name.

In 1967, San Mao began her journey outside Asia. She studied in Spain, Germany, and the US, and picked up Spanish and German. In 1973, San Mao married a Spanish man, José María Quero, who she met during her time in Madrid. They lived in the Spanish Sahara, a colonial area where Iberian administrators lived in uneasy coexistence with the nomadic Sahrawi Arabs, until Quero died in a diving accident in 1979.

Since 1974, San Mao had recorded her explorations in lands distant from her country of birth—the tales that became known as Stories of the Sahara, which were published in the United Daily News, a major daily newspaper in Taiwan. In her stories, she recorded the struggles for Sahrawi’s liberation from Spanish colonialism. San Mao had visited 59 countries before she committed suicide in 1991.

“Writing herself into the political situation of the mid-1970s Sahara, San Mao positions herself at the heart of the story, observing, acting and reacting, and presenting the capacity to be ‘moved’ by events as action in itself,” wrote Miriam Lang, former researcher of Asian History at Australian National University. “San Mao has ‘made’ Saharan history by establishing a relationship for it with Chinese readers.”

Echoing San Mao

Later, I learned that the Echo in Greek mythology was a sad character. In the tale, Echo was an Oread who was only able to speak the last few words spoken to her, so she was unable to say how much she loved Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image.

In China, however, the Greek mythology is not as influential as San Mao, whose works have gripped generations of girls and women, especially. ”If you meet a Chinese girl who has Echo as her English name, I think there’s a fair chance that she’s a fan of San Mao,” says Fu, who himself has met four Echoes.

Of a dozen Chinese Echoes I talked to recently, all cited San Mao as their inspiration. “Her free, easy lifestyle and kindness has encouraged me to pursue my dream, when I felt lost,” says the 24-year-old Shanghai-based illustrator Echo Lee. “It was San Mao and her work that gave me the courage.”

Another Echo, surnamed He, is a New York-based gallery owner and milliner who participated in a translation project of San Mao’s work. She says the name “brought a cross-dimensional relationship between the legendary writer who gave her the name, and her.”

“To me, the eerie and beautiful thing about this phenomenon is that all of you are, in a very physical, tangible sense, echoes of a woman named Chen Ping, or San Mao, in today’s world,” says Fu. “Even though she passed away more than a quarter of a century ago, she lives again in all of you, and in the new translations of her work.”