Jennifer Cody Epstein

The Painter from Shanghai

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The Painter from Shanghai Summary

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Jennifer Cody Epstein’s 2008 novel The Painter from Shanghai is a fictionalized biography of Pan Yuliang, China’s preeminent and critically acclaimed Postimpressionist painter, whose life began in poverty and prostitution. Set primarily in early twentieth-century China during Pan Yuliang’s childhood and early years as an artist, the novel traces her life from a small village, to Shanghai, to Paris, considering how creativity can develop in a repressive environment. However, although the novel has come in for some praise, many critics point out that Epstein’s approach shortchanges Pan Yuliang’s art and talent. As Lauren Groff puts it in a review, “The descriptions of Yuliang’s paintings are so vague that it is impossible to know what they look like, and the story is told in straightforward realism when perhaps a more daring structure and style would have suited the painter’s gutsy calligraphic Postimpressionism.”

The novel opens with a Prologue set in 1957. The sixty-two-year-old Yuliang, now a moderately successful painter, considers whether her time has passed and whether the newest trends of the art market have left her behind: “People don’t want girls and flowers right now. They want splashes and gashes. Inkblot tests. Fingerpaintings…What was it that dealer from the avenue Montaigne said? ‘Our clients want work that goes beyond the figurative. They want’ – and this with a straight face – ‘metaphorical multivalence. Humor. Puns on form. You understand?’”

The novel then flashes back to 1901, when six-year-old Chen Xiuqing loses both parents and is adopted by her scholarly, drug-addicted uncle, Wu Ding, who renames her Pan Yuliang. When he sees a glint of promise in the way she uses colors when she embroiders, he teaches her poetry, going against contemporary ideas about keeping women uneducated. When Yuliang is fourteen years old, her uncle sells her into prostitution to feed his increasing opium habit.

Even when she is in the depths of despair in the brothel, where girls are beaten and runaways are murdered, Yuliang can’t help but perceive colors in a special way. During her three years at the brothel, Yuliang leans to do whatever makes clients happy, a skill that gets her promoted to “top girl.”

However, in a lucky break, one of her clients is the modern-minded, almost proto-feminist customs inspector Pan Zanhua. Zanhua is an idealistic follower of Sun Yat-sen. Zanhua and Yuliang bond over their shared love of poetry, and he is blown away by her ability to recite the poems her uncle had taught her. Eventually, Zanhua buys Yuliang’s freedom and despite already having a wife and child, marries her in a bigamist ceremony. Together, the couple moves to Shanghai.

In the big city, Yuliang realizes for the first time that her affinity for visual art means something. Against all odds, in 1920, she becomes one of the very few women admitted to the Art Academy. There, she meets fellow travelers: Jinling, another female artist, whose beauty and creativity amaze Yuliang; and Xing Xudun who believes that art must be subjugated to politics, eventually using his talents to help the rising Chinese Communist Party.

However, Yuliang’s newfound talent pushes Zanhua away; he gives her an ultimatum about either pursuing her passion or her love. A heartbroken Yuliang moves to Paris in 1925 after winning a scholarship to study there—she realizes that she needs to see her dreams through. In Paris, despite Zanhua’s financial support, she struggles with poverty, loneliness, and culture shock. Nevertheless, eventually, she finds her style. Her paintings revolve around portraiture, and she often uses herself as a subject—sometimes in the nude.

The novel skips over the years the real Yuliang spent perfecting her art in Rome after winning yet another prestigious scholarship, instead, jumping forward to 1936. Pan Yuliang returns to Shanghai and Nanjing in order to stage what should be a triumphant comeback exhibition. However, because she paints nudes at a time when Chinese were scandalized by the idea of women wearing pants, Yuliang’s artwork is attacked and vandalized for being too “Western.” A year later, she leaves China for good, settling in Paris once again.

We learn little about her life there, and the novel doesn’t dwell on events from the real Yuliang’s life. Critics complain that Epstein skips over events of both professional and personal importance. On the one hand, we don’t see her becoming one of the few female teachers of color at the École des Beaux-Arts, which had earlier rejected her application to be a student. On the other hand, we also don’t learn much about friendships or relationships that don’t culminate in sex; nor do we learn about her experiences living through WWII in France.

The novel ends in 1977 with Yuliang’s death. She leaves behind four thousand works of art.