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[364] The Painter of Shanghai – Jennifer Cody Epstein

” Whether I like it or not, my skin will always tell the truth. And unlike my clothes, I can’t take it off. ” [32:368]

Set in the early 20th century years when China was plagued by political chasms, as new republic relinquished the age-old imperialism, as modernist thinking bombarded traditions, The Painter of Shanghai, based on a true story, tells the captivating story of one woman’s journey from a life of prostitution to the pantheon of post-Impressionist painter in Paris and Shanghai. Pan Yuliang was born Zhang Xiuqing in 1899, in Anhui Province. Orphaned at a young age, she was raised by an opium-addicted uncle who sold her to a brothel, where she was re-named Yuliang (meaning “fine jade”), and pruned to be a prostitute, at the age of fourteen.

At the Hall no one cares if a flower has longevity or not. Certainly no one expects love or respect. [5:64]

Such is the life fate has dealt Yuliang. Escape is out of the question. The arrangement a flower (euphemism for prostitute) shall yearn for is the simplifying of life, sex, and expenses. Saving money to buy one’s freedom out of the brothel is the happy ending every pines for. An offer to become a concubine is still better than demotion, dictated by natural course of aging, to tangential position in the hall. Balancing the sad is the radiant—in the form os an authentic friendship between young Yuliang and her mentor, Jinling, the hall’s top girl, who constantly reminds her to disengage her mind and body from any pleasure of sexual act with clients.

But here’s a secret: you don’t have to let them into your head. Your thoughts are yours alone. You must just think of something else. [7:82]

A tendril of hope unfurls when a refined government inspector, who comes to fight corruption and exploitation of society’s vulnerable members, falls in love with her and takes her as his concubine. Unlike his arranged marriage to his first wife, Pan Zanhua’s union with Yuliang is everything he’s ever wanted in a marriage. It is, however, not without struggle because Yuliang’s childhood was stripped away with such brutal efficacy that her wounds, healed but not forgotten, have continued to fuel her distrust. As she begins to realize her talent as a painter, she also sees that her refusal to compromise with national spirit and standard of decency will cost her a life of safety.

You trust your instincts. You aren’t afraid to stand up for yourself. You don’t let paltry boundaries of custom or etiquette stand in the way of self-expression. [21:248]

If art compensates for what an artist has lost, then Pan Yuliang has certainly gained dignity and respect posthumously. In her bold works that feature nudity, neither is she tainted by shame nor fazed by political censorship. Her self-exile to France after a ruckus erupted at a solo show in Shanghai is an expression of love to her husband, to whom she is forever indebted. Her departure is meant to protect him from being purged, as the Communists settled on social realism as the ideal art form for the new nation. Western romanticism is deemed reactionary. Well-written and historically accurate, The Painter of Shanghai traces Pan’s life from early beginnings to her death in France in 1977, a life that brought her exposure to the West, with awards and accolades from schools of art in her homeland as well as in France and Italy, resulting in renown as a gifted artist who just happened to be a woman with a past. Her private and public pains testify Matisse’s saying that “another word for creativity is courage”, as Pan demonstrated that art makes life worth living. The book has such gravity in both writing and story that it is to be savored for years to come.

487 pp. Penguin UK Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


12 Responses

  1. Glad you liked this book. I have now moved it up to my to-be-read list.

  2. This looks scrumptious! I love books about artists almost as much as I love art itself. Great stuff!

  3. I think this one is just begging to be read.

  4. Sounds like an amazing story. Thanks for giving us the thumbs up on this one.

  5. This is definitely one I will be adding to my list. Having just become a member of the DeYoung Museum again I am finding myself interested in all things having to do with art.

    • After I finished the novel, I read reviews that equated this to Memoirs of a Geisha and The tea House Fire. Personally I think Jennifer Cody Epstein’s writing is excellent. She has done very good research on her subject, that is, madame Pan Yuliang. This historical novel is par excellence.

  6. […] [364] The Painter of Shanghai – Jennifer Cody Epstein […]

  7. […] The Painter of Shanghai didn’t get much noise here in the United States, but the book, based on a true story, has stayed with me. When I heard about Epstein’s new book I have kept my fingers cross for the release date. The novel is based on the actual life of Pan Yuliang, a former child prostitute turned celebrated painter, also happens to be one such writer. In The Painter From Shanghai, Epstein concentrates on Yuliang’s time in the brothel — chillingly named the Hall of Eternal Splendor — and her early years with the devoted Pan Zanhua when, as Epstein imagines, Yuliang’s understanding of herself as a (relatively) free woman and artist began to emerge. Anyway the new book, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is set in Japan during the Second World War. It revolves around people and events leading up to the bombing of Tokyo. Narratives are told through the perspectives of a downed bomber pilot, an Occupation soldier, and a gifted architect who helped modernize the Tokyo skyline is now charged with destroying it. […]

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