The Painter from Shanghai

Written by Jennifer Cody Epstein
Review by Diane Scott Lewis

At fourteen, the future Pan Yuliang is sold into prostitution by her opium-addicted uncle. Yuliang determines to run away, but disobedient “flowers” are beaten or murdered. Steeled to her fate as chattel to be bargained by men in early 1900s China, she rises to become the Top Girl. When a young customs inspector arrives to clean up corruption, Yuliang is offered to him as a bribe for a night. He refuses to bed her, but takes pity and buys her out of her debt. Pan Zanhua makes her his concubine, falls in love, and encourages her growing interest in art. Yuliang is offered a scholarship to attend art school and realizes her immense talent. Accepting a scholarship to Paris, she becomes involved with a young Chinese revolutionary. When her scholarship money is withdrawn because of governmental shifts, she struggles and starves for her art. On her return to China, Yuliang disdains Chinese traditional painting and follows the French post-impressionists. Her nude self-portraits fascinated Paris but scandalize the Chinese, who are undergoing dramatic changes as their imperial nation falls to the warlords, the Japanese, and eventually the Communists. Yuliang teaches art at the university, but her reputation as a former prostitute threatens her career and, to her despair, Zanhua’s position with the government.

This fictionalized account of Pan Yuliang’s life is told in sensuous prose that illustrates the determined spirit of a painter who refused to be subjugated by her gender or era. The history of China’s revolution, the world wars, along with the travesty of foot-binding—all seen through this brave young woman—make this a page-turner. A stunning debut novel.