Part Three: The Infamous Outlaw (江洋大盗)

Life Update: I’m tossing up whether I want to do a Masters in Translation/Interpreting.

I’m not sure if it’s worth it (time + money wise). It’ll be minimally helpful for my career (though deeply personally interesting) and I’ve been told by the course coordinator it is not a degree designed for part time study.

Surely 1-2 subjects a semester is manageable though? To be fair, I’m not great with time management and am struggling to manage my life as is, but I’d like to at least explore this idea a little further – watch this space.

Start here for Part One.


The thief looked at the boy in contempt one last time, decides there is nothing worth stealing, and knows it’s finally time for her to head out and test her skills in the wider world.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if her family is full of the poorest souls.

Now that she is making her own way in the world, the budding outlaw saw possibility around every corner. Why she could steal all over the globe from family and friends to complete strangers. The world is so big and much is ripe for the taking.

Filled with gusto, her fingers twitch with excitement.

《白云堂》an ancient Chinese poems gives her the ability to steal mountains and disguise water. Master Shao, a traditional artists gift her gardens filled with lush greens and a wide variety of insects, fish and birds to catch. It’s rare to find 《制乐小集》, a musical album, at the market but she buys some beansprouts instead. “Taipei People” accompanies her to the United States as the thief stealthily chews on modern literature. She tip toes around Old Master Q, a comic-book character, as he snoozes, hoping the English poems jingling about in her rug sack does not wake him.

When Mr Cai, a famous astronomer was not paying attention to the observatory, the thief extends her crimes to the galaxies, stealing the stars and moon to illuminate her path of notoriety.

Fang Xinzheng’s “Sleep on the Gale” led the thieving girl to search for Linda last summer among the willow trees. She watches as a young man whistles out of tune and trims Whitman’s hair, grown into the grass on his grave. Homer began to sing blindly at some point, please don’t tell anyone else it was me who reached into the window and stole his soul. Aesop, previously a slave, I merely ate his flesh but skipped over the quack toad he speaks of.

Sha Linjie hunted in the fields, but he could never catch these precious treasures I have. I justified it all too, why Hemingway, if I didn’t kill him now, he will kill himself in the future anyway. Picasso’s circus, Gauguin’s black girl, Cézanne’s apple, Van Gogh’s sunflower, all were consumed by me on the grass for a well-balanced breakfast. I also pocketed Dali’s melting clock, a useful tool to improve the precision of my crimes.

That was not all. “The Brothers Karamazov” are all stolen one by one. “The Hunter’s Diary” she also took, though her guilty conscience made her refrain from “Crime and Punishment”.

Little by little, her diet became these squares, squiggles and lines that she could swallow whole.

You may ask why this thief is so focused on literature and art. These cheap and rotten things, what use do they have? Oh, don’t look down on her for her hunger, these are just to tide her over, the good stuff is yet to come.

Over the course of the next few years, the girl’s crimes piled up into a small mountain and she truly earnt the title of the infamous outlaw. One day, she stole a plane ticket, said goodbye to her family, crossed the oceans to embrace new adventures that awaited her.

“Oh lord help us, the infamous outlaw is coming!”

The thief chuckled coldly as shrieks from the people pierced the skies.

She meets a fellow thief in a cornfield. A lone wolf by nature, this was the first time the thief has met a colleague. She quickly gave him a handful of her popcorn.

The other thief bursts out in laughter at her offering, “It is not honourable to steal food, that is for the most squalid of creatures!”

“What do you steal if not food then? I am the empty-bellied thief, out to consume all there is for the world to offer.”

“Well you’ve spent all this time and effort to come here, why not steal… a doctorate?”

“A doctorate? What use does that have? Is it more savoury or sweet?”

“Hah, a doctorate is not food!”

“If it is not edible, it is not my style. I do not wish to steal it.” The thief takes a closer look at the man in front of her. Really he was just sallow skin holding onto sharp protruding bones yet on his back was a huge, bursting backpack.

“Is it a doctorate you have in there? Why do you not eat it?”

“Oh you swine! All you know to do is to eat, do you really not know the benefits of a doctorate?”

“No, please enlighten me.”

“The stealing of this doctorate took all my blood, sweat and tears but now that I have it, it brings me plenty of benefits. At the very least, I can swap it for a beautiful bride. Do you understand now?”

The thief took a look around for eavesdroppers before she lowers her voice and whispers: “You see, yours truly is an empty-hearted thief. Things I cannot eat, are much too heavy and cumbersome for my tastes. Even if it may be used to purchase love in the future. Thank you for your guidance, farewell now.”

Continue reading “Part Three: The Infamous Outlaw (江洋大盗)”

Part Two: The Infamous Outlaw (江洋大盗)

Hey everyone, sorry for the late post. Happy International Women’s Day! Serendipitously, continuing the translation of Sanmao’s work seemed appropriate for celebrating the occasion.


Part One – After I made up my mind, I decided to get an X-ray.

“Wow, it really is empty!” The doctor exclaimed after taking a look at my results.

“Yet you’ve managed to survive 14 years, truly impressive.”

I grab the x-ray image off him, quickly escaped home and slid it under my bed to keep the slide hidden and safe. I decide that twenty years later, I will go get another x-ray scan and see if by then, I will be a full person.

As I don’t have a heart or any courage inside, my will has always been a weak one. Even after being inspired by the Japanese thieves, I did not tried my own hand at pickpocketing, letting precious time slip through my fingers day by day.

That was until one year, when the neighbours nominated our family to be the district’s model family. Everyone in our district already knew of my parents’ characters but they were still very careful with the selection, coming over and conducting a thorough interview with them.

Question after question cemented the committee’s initial assessment that we were a model family. Alas as the interviews were wrapping up, I walked by the kitchen and was spotted by the interviewer.

He asked my mother curiously, “today isn’t Sunday, why isn’t your daughter at school?”

Mother, trying to protect me, replied “my daughter’s not well, so she has quit school.”

“What type of illness does she have? She looks quite healthy.”

“She has honeycomb shaped holes in her organs. It’s an incurable disease. As you can imagine, it’s very frustrating for us all.”

In the end, because of my strange illness, our family did not make the cut to become the exemplar of a perfect family. According to the interviewer, a family with a mysterious sickness does not set a good role model to others.

That night, tears streamed down my face as I lay there in the silent night. I vowed in that moment to become a thief.

Now out of all the outlaws in the world, I bet you could not name even one driven by anything other than greed or power. I did not have a master in the craft but these basic principles I understood well.

As I scanned my surroundings carefully, not letting even a blade of grass escape my sight, my eyes settled on my parents. As a novice thief, they were fantastic practise targets. If I get caught, the stakes would be much lower. It’s not like they’d actually report me to the police!

I carefully sized up my prey. These two are very principled people who are harsh with themselves and endlessly generous to others. They are responsible in all their actions, supportive of their children, they never speak about others behind their backs, never ones to brag either, they are not insecure nor self-pitying. If others owe them money, they would never chase the debt and often when it comes time to pay, they are the ones footing the bill and then some. I’ve never properly assessed my dear parents before but having taken a look, aside from their above average looks, all this stuff inside them is so outdated! All these old fashioned qualities that nobody wants anymore, they treat them like gold!

It was a decade or so ago where they met a ‘Count of Monte Cristo’ type. Since then, both of them have become more and more foolish. Idiotic buggers beyond all hope! Even to me, an empty person, stealing from them would not be worth my time. From the perspective of an absolute beginner desperate for some practise, I decide that these two chumps just don’t make the cut, no thank you sir.

Continue reading “Part Two: The Infamous Outlaw (江洋大盗)”

Part One: The Infamous Outlaw (江洋大盗)

Backstory: 三毛 (Sanmao) is a Chinese-born Taiwanese writer who was able to capture the imagination of my mother’s generation with her book, Stories of the Sahara, published in 1976.

Sanmao, in a nutshell is “an incurable romantic, a lonely dreamer and a gifted drifter”.

After falling in love with the Sahara from an article she read in National Geographic, Sanmao, a non-traditionalist even by 21st century standards, follows her heart to the great desert. Stories of the Sahara is a window into the life she builds there and her musings on the interactions she has with her Spanish husband and Sahwari neighbours in this completely different world to what she or her audience has ever experienced before.

More than four decades later, I am one of many young women who are finding and quickly falling in love with the unique blend of kindness, wisdom and freedom present in her work. It is such a pity that more of it is not translated into English as I truly believe many will resonate with this gentle force of nature of a woman now and into the future.

I won’t say much more about Stories of the Sahara except that you absolutely should get your hands on a copy. Currently, I’m on book 4/15 of her entire collection with the intention of reading them all. I wanted to share one of my favourite stories so far from 稻草人手记/A Scarecrow’s Scribbles from Sanmao’s time in the Canary Islands.

Please forgive any unintended errors or creative liberties I’ve taken in this translation. I hope you enjoy 江洋大盗/The Infamous Outlaw.


If you want to hear about the Chen family, I have to begin with our ancestors.

We had generations of scholars with not much to their names. The Chens are all known to be humble in possessions guided by a wealth of morals and principles.

You see, we didn’t just record people’s names in our family tree. Our trusty scribe/accountant diligently keeps track of everyone’s ethical income and expenses and the balance sheets he kept were never wrong.

Such is the family I grew up in. Logically speaking, you’d expect my parents to be fielding marriage proposals left, right and center ever since I was a little girl. Alas, that was not the case.

To borrow a phrase from the bible – if my parents were a grape vine, I would not be an off-shoot. In my own words, if a fortune teller was ever to try and predict my future, by the time he gets halfway through his calculations, the disgraceful daughter that I am would’ve already lost the entire family fortune.

Ever since I was born, I’ve locked away a huge secret in my heart. After I learnt how to speak, I’ve made sure to keep my lips sealed tight about this matter. They say blood runs thicker than water but even my parents have not heard nothing about this matter.

What terrible secret do I hold that’s making me act all mysterious now?

Fine, I’ll tell you, but only you. And only if you promise you won’t turn around and tell some John Smith or Jane Doe. Even if you are in a tight spot and decide to sell me out…just remember that Sanmao isn’t anyone special and you will get pennies for this information.

As I said earlier, ever since I was born, I knew this truth about myself. Even though on the surface, I don’t look any uglier or different in any discernable way from anyone else, that’s actually far from the truth.

I am a fraud. Not only am I a fraud, I am also empty inside. I’m so goddamn hollow I don’t even have any posters up on the barren walls of my insides. I don’t have a brain, heart, bravery or courage. I am well and truly a big black hole.

To give you another example of my condition, I’m like one of those scary aliens that have come to Earth on their UFOs and have blended into humanity seamlessly. They look just like all these other happy people living happy fulfilling lives. If you didn’t have any special powers to spot these aliens, you’d never be able to catch them out. Well, I am one of those aliens.

I should let you know that I don’t enjoy being an empty person. Being hollow inside makes it much harder to go about every day life. When the wind blows, or a stranger accidentally bumps into me, or even when a small branch brushes against me, I would be knocked onto the ground, unable to get back up.

From the first memory I have to when I turned fourteen, I was constantly falling over. My body was covered in bruises and everyone was laughing at me. Even though I had nothing else inside me, my tear ducts and temper never let me down. Every time I fall, they’re there to keep me company.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past fourteen years and have decided I simply cannot go on like this. If this continues, surely before I hit my twenties, I would have had a final fatal fall to my death. If I don’t want to die young, I need to find another way to save my life.

What can I do about this? After careful consideration, I decide to copy those shameless Japanese neighbours of mine and become a thief.

This world is so big and crowded, I figured. Everyone else has so much ready-made stuff. If I take a little from here and nip a little from there to fill up my empty hole, after a while, wouldn’t I become a full person?

After I made up my mind on the matter, I decided to get an X-ray.

(to be continued)