Mind-Dancing the Loneliness of Freedom: The Life-dance-story of “Sanmao”1943-1991

The song lyrics were from an undated San Mao poem, set to music posthumously by 李泰祥, but not first performed live until 2002 in Hong Kong, after a substantial revision in the U.S by the above writer. The change substituted in the current (above) words for the original 为了天空的小鸟,为了小毛驴,为了西班牙的姑娘,为了西班牙的眼睛”,可见描写的是对自由的渴望,对美好事物的憧憬,同时突显了三毛的西班牙情结 (“Because I am as the sparrow aflight in the sky… … because I am as a little mountain donkey, because I am as a Spanish maid, because I am as if with Spanish eyes…” )with the current words. The music however was left unchanged – which is why the chord changes are distinctly Andalusion (Jaen was Jose’s home): the refrain “I wander, wander, to far off places wander?” is set in descending sequence: A minor G major F minor E major D minor, a sound-marker of most S. Spanish melody. The “wander” takes us to a point of resolve, but then recycles (no such journey is ever complete). The melody and words thus are a recarved gravestone – a fantasy of she herself becoming “from” (or rather journeying as spirit or in dream to) another land (Spain)” home of the eponyomous olive tree (a metaphor for Jose’s grave at Las Palmas). The date thus must be 1979, the start of her life-ending mourning.

When first performed in Hong Kong for a student audience (2002), it was an immediate hit, and has remained so. I can think of two reasons. First, Qi Yu’s Baez-like voice elucidating (as does Baez) mourning from her lungs down, Spanish. Mexican or otherwise. Set to our own (US) folk-revival balladsong (Barbara Allan etc) timbres, which had to that date had little or no presence in Chinese “folk”. It was a musical breakthrough.

And of course second because the words (as ballad) painted a sound-picture of dwindling away: of a lure (the dead Jose and Andalusia) that is drawing the poet further and and further from her once-firmrooted soul (“home”) in Taiwan and memory, into the invisible distance, no return. Of course all of this is Anglo-German Romantic in the early 19th century mode, when love was another word for (a premonition of) loss and irrecoverable barrenness. But no surprise there, for “Sanmao” had started her adult career with a Ph.D. in German philosophy. Did not Goethe come later in life to rue the number of suicides his Youhg Werther had inspired?

If there is a search among Chinese educated young for an exit, one can see why “Echo” echoes.

Because, as one immediately senses, her bravery and freedom of impulse tells us – told even as early as the 70s- – what her readers knew they were not, what they lacked, what they could never be or even try to be: instead thus becoming enunciants of a kind of masochistic worship of the Who-We-Are-Not, and because NOT, in need of a writer whose confessions revealed that she too had been a NOT until by sheer force of will and an instinct to break away, she was able to become a NOT NOT, perhaps the only woman woman writer able to thus metamorphose. (But then too, she hadn’t been through the post partem let-down and self-demeaning that GPCR activists had experienced – she was through it all in Taiwan then off to Germany, never having to feel cowardly or self-disappointed). How much her life and sanctification thus tells us about the sense of confinement and impotence among her admirers… even when her admirers speak of her compassion (an ambivalent term: duoqing can also mean promiscuous) they are telling us that she went out of her way never to scorn weakness or bourgeois disappraval.)

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