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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]

From Prostitute to Concubine, then Painter

I first saw Pan Yuliang’s paintings at the National Art Gallery in Beijing back in 2008. According to the curator and museum literature, she was born Zhang Yuliang (1899–1977), the name change was a result of a dark period in her life after the death of her parents when she was 14. Her opium-addicted uncle sold her to a brothel, where she was raised to become a prostitute. She attracted the attention of Pan Zanhua, a wealthy customs official, who bought her freedom. He married her as his second wife and helped with her education; she adopted his name as her last name. After they moved to Shanghai, she passed the exams to enter the Shanghai Art School in 1918, where she studied painting with Wang Jiyuan. After she graduated, she went to Lyons and Paris for further study, sponsored by her husband. In 1925, she won a scholarship to study at the Roman Royal Art Academy in Italy.

In 1926, Pan Yuliang won the Gold Prize for her works at the Roman International Art Exhibition. In 1929, while she was still in Rome, Liu Haisu invited her to teach at the Shanghai Art School and she returned to China. She had a solo exhibit in Shanghai, where she was honored as the first Chinese female artist to paint in Western style. She was also invited to be a professor of the Art Department of the Central University of Nanjing. Between 1929 and 1936, Pan gave five solo exhibitions in China, but government officials and conservative critics severely criticized her works, in part because she featured paintings of nudes. Cold reception from home once again brought Pan abroad. She returned to Paris in 1937 to live and work for the next 40 years. She taught at the École des Beaux Arts, won several awards for her work, had exhibits internationally in Europe, the United States and Japan, and was collected by major institutions. Pan died in 1977 and was buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery of Paris. In 1985, a sizable collection of her works was transported to China, to be collected by the National Art Gallery in Beijing. Her life as an artist has been portrayed in novels and film in China and the United States. But even the movie A Soul Haunted by Painting, starring Gong Li as the artist in 1994, didn’t make the connection for me. Jennifer Cody Epstein, author of The Painter of Shanghai, which I’m currently reading, finally connects the dots. The novel is based on Pan Yuliang’s life.

*Painting: Women in Conversation (1958)

An Exercise

Thanks for all your thoughtful feedback on choosing which book to read. I have in fact finished reading The Uncommon Reader all in one sitting over the weekend. It’s such a slim book that will also satisfy the Novella Challenge. I’ll begin The Painter of Shanghai and read it in a different manner. How many of you take notes, I mean, seriously scribbling down notes, highlighting passages, and making page references? I do for all my readings. So for this new novel, I have decided to conduct an experiment to refrain from taking any notes and see how much of the content I can recall upon finishing the book. This is not a meme but I’d like to hear what your take on note-taking. The Painter of Shanghai coincides with the period of my favorite Chinese contemporary author, Eileen Chang, in the 1930s to 1940s Shanghai, where culture, media, arts, literature, and theater all thrived and flourished as the East truly met the West. It’ll be very interesting to see how the main character of the novel fits into this glory picture of China.

Those who would like a reading challenge can read War and Peace along with my class. Just follow the schedule of readings and you’ll finish the epic in 5 weeks!

Break A Spell, Three Novels

I decide that I need a break from the turmoil of In the Land of Green Ghosts, story of the escape of a Burmese tribal lad, before plunging into The Rape of Nanking. Should I read:

1. The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz. In 1959, then-Crown Prince Akihito of Japan, Naruhito’s (the Crown Prince) father, electrified the nation by marrying Michiko Shoda, a university-educated beauty with refined manners and a stinging forehand. Daughter of a wealthy businessman, she was the first commoner to marry into a family that traces its noble ancestry back to the sun goddess Amaterasu, and within a couple of years she suffered a nervous collapse that rendered her mute for several months.

2. The Painter of Shanghai by Jennifer Epstein. The novel is based on a true story. It traces the life of a young orphan girl in pre-revolution China from small town brothel to Bohemian Paris to the studios of 1930’s Shanghai. Born in 1895 and orphaned as a child, Yuliang was sold into sexual slavery at 14 by her opium-addicted uncle. After seven years in the brothel, she was bought out by Pan Zanhua, a progressive official who made her his concubine, then his second wife, and encouraged her painting. One of a handful of women accepted into the Shanghai Art School, she went on to win fellowships for study in Paris and Rome.

3. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. The title’s “uncommon reader” is Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, who becomes obsessed with books after a chance encounter with a mobile library. The story follows the consequences of this obsession for the Queen, her household and advisers, and her constitutional position.

What do you think?