Sold into a brothel by her opium-addicted uncle when she's 14, Yuliang learns to cope with the help of her friend and top girl at the house, Jinling. Then Jinling's violent death emphasizes that life in a brothel is always tenuous and under someone else's control. When a local official, Pan Zanhua, becomes attracted to her for her mind and not her body, he buys her freedom from the house and makes her his second wife, or concubine. But the match is clearly one of love, and Zanhua wants Yuliang to develop her mind by learning to read. Soon Yuliang discovers another passion: painting. Defying convention of the times, she is admitted to the local art school, which has created scandal by bringing in nude models to paint. Yuliang wins a scholarship that takes her first to France, then to Rome to study western painting, and she returns home with new ideas about art that don't sit well with many in Chinese society at the time.
Epstein tells Yuliang's tale in this epic of a book about a woman who learns to gain control over her own fate. The Painter of Shanghai is filled with rich details of China from the early days of the 20th century into the very beginnings of the rise of communism, revealing the country's ambivalence between moving into a modern world or cleaving to the old ways. Yuliang is a strong woman who never compromises what she believes to be right, even at great cost to herself and her husband. I recommend it for mother-daughter book clubs with girls in 11th grade and up. Readers should be aware of detailed scenes of life in a brothel and other sexual encounters.
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Jennifer Cody Epstein steps into the pantheon of fine contemporary writers with her first book THE PAINTER FROM SHANGHAI, a work of 'historical fiction' so polished in research, so rich in detail not only of the turbulent period in China during the first half of the 20th century, but also in the mysterious social customs of that country, and a source of insight into the changes in the manner in which the visual world was captured by artists as East and West met and married in the art capital of the world - Paris. Yet overriding all of this fascinating information is Epstein's gift for delivering a story of passion and love with a poetic prose style that comes together in this novel in a manner not unlike creating the painting technique that this novel's heroine describes her world. It is a grand feat and a work worth repeated readings.
Westerners may not be familiar with the name Pan Yuliang, one of the more important Chinese artists who influenced the Post-Impressionist art movement, but in Epstein's eloquent novel we grow to know this gifted artist from her birth as Xiuqing in 1895, and her early years as an orphan protected by her opium-addicted uncle who sold her into a brothel at age fourteen. Enough space is allotted in this tale to allow us to learn the traditions of the 'flower houses' and the brutalities and consequences of life as a prostitute, but Epstein is careful to balance the sad with the radiant in the relationship between the newly renamed Yuliang and her beautiful 'teacher' Jinling with whom she has her first love affair, and Yuliang's subsequent rescue from the brothel through the kindness and concern showered upon her by a handsome gentleman Pan Zanhua - the man with whom she not only enters into the relationship of being his concubine, but also benefits from his support of her position as a woman and as an artist.
The story spans Pan Yuliang's life from these early beginnings to her death in 1977, a life that brought her exposure to the West, with awards from the schools of art in China, Italy and France resulting in renown as a gifted artist who just happened to be a woman with a past, the many private and public pains she endured as her native country moved from the reign of the Emperors through the rise and fall of Chiang Kai-shek, the invasion by the Japanese, and the new order of Communism, and the influence of the world perception of art that included defeat of some of the finest artists as the battle of the sexes altered the perception of painting the nude figure as an acceptable subject matter in a climate of global turmoil.
Epstein manages to write as intricately about history and Chinese tradition as well as luminously about the act of creativity. Few writers can match the descriptive language of the emergence of the visual: 'But true art must contain an emotional range that speaks to the viewer. Speaks...not by lulling them into a false sense of complacency, but by probing. Challenging. Even hurting, if need be. Anything to force us beyond life's easier thoughts.' 'Has it ever occurred to you that our wounds are what drive us to create?...What if those who've lost something compensate for it in their work? In that case the damage helps them. It's what compels them to create...And it might explain why the best artists tend to be the poorest.'
THE PAINTER FROM SHANGHAI begs to become a film. But until that happens, this elegant and passionate book is one to treasure repeatedly. It is a work of art.
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"Publishers Weekly Review"
by Publishers Weekly,
"Epstein's sweeping debut novel, set in early 20th-century China, fictionalizes the life of Chinese painter Pan Yuliang. Born Xiuquing, she is orphaned at a young age and later sold into prostitution by her uncle, who needs the money to support his opium habit. Renamed Yuliang, she becomes the brothel's top girl and soon snags the attention of customs inspector Pan Zanhua, who makes her his concubine. Zanhua sets her up in Shanghai, where she enrolls in the Shanghai Art Academy and early on struggles with life study, unable to separate the nude's monetary value from its value in the 'currency of beauty.' She eventually succeeds, winning a scholarship to study in Europe. But when she returns to China, itself inching toward revolution, the conservative establishment is critical of Yuliang, balking as she adopts Western-style dress and becomes known for her nudes (one newspaper deems her work pornography). Simmering resentments hit a flashpoint at a disastrous Shanghai retrospective exhibit, and the fallout nearly destroys Yuliang's artistic ambition. Convincing historic detail is woven throughout and nicely captures the plight of women in the era. Epstein's take on Yuliang's life is captivating to the last line." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
by Sarah Towers, New York Times Book Review,
"In this age of memoir and thinly veiled autobiographical fiction, writers who take high dives into deeply imagined waters have become increasingly rare — and valuable. What a pleasure, then, to discover that Jennifer Cody Epstein, whose luminous first novel, The Painter From Shanghai, is based on the actual life of Pan Yuliang, a former child prostitute turned celebrated painter, also happens to be one such writer."
by Hold All,
'A historical novel on a grand scale . . . a dark love story, a triumphant tale of survival.' '"Maureen Howard
Reminiscent of , a re-imagining of the life of Pan Yuliang and her transformation from prostitute to post-Impressionist.
Down the muddy waters of the Yangtze River and into the seedy backrooms of "The Hall of Eternal Splendor," through the raucous glamour of prewar Shanghai and the bohemian splendor of 1920s Paris, and back to a China ripped apart by civil war and teetering on the brink of revolution: this novel tells the story of Pan Yuliang, one of the most talented--and provocative--Chinese artists of the twentieth century. Jennifer Cody Epstein's epic brings to life the woman behind the lush, Cezannesque nude self-portraits, capturing with lavish detail her life in the brothel and then as a concubine to a Republican official who would ultimately help her find her way as an artist. Moving with the tide of historical events, The Painter from Shanghai celebrates a singularly daring painting style--one that led to fame, notoriety, and, ultimately, a devastating choice: between Pan's art and the one great love of her life.
by Hold All,
Down the muddy waters of the Yangtze River, through the raucous glamour of prewar Shanghai and the bohemian splendor of 1920s Paris, and back to a China teetering on the brink of revolution: this is the epic story of Pan Yuliang, one of the most talented'"and provocative'"Chinese artists of the twentieth century.
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