Gerund's Reviews > The Painter of Shanghai

The Painter of Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein
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Mar 02, 2009

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bookshelves: china-and-chinese
Read in January, 2008

IT would be quite accurate to judge this book by its cover: a tasteful if generic depiction of blossoms and sampans, along with a sticker announcing "If you liked Memoirs Of A Geisha, you'll love this".

Like the 1997 bestseller by Arthur Golden, this is a debut novel written by a Western author who has no firsthand experience of those particular aspects of Eastern culture being written about.

Also like Memoirs, this is a painstakingly researched novel by an educated writer which succeeds in making the reader emphatise with, rather than exoticise, the characters and their world.

Based on the life of 20th century Chinese painter Pan Yuliang, American author Jennifer Cody Epstein did not have to do a lot of embellishing when it comes to giving her protagonist an eventful life. Born in 1895 as Zhang Xiuqing and orphaned at a young age, Pan would become a prostitute, concubine, and an artist known for her Western-influenced self-portraits, before dying alone in Paris in 1977.

In the novel, we follow Yuliang as she is sold at the age of 14 by her opium-addict uncle to be a prostitute at the grandoisely named Hall of Eternal Splendour in Wuhu. Renamed Yuliang, her life selling her body is regimented and grim.

Fortunately, her trauma is eased somewhat through her friendship with the establishment’s "top girl", Junling, whose beauty is glamourously and decadently aided by the eating of crushed seed pearls. It is Jinling's mutilation and murder, just when she had saved enough money to buy herself free, which is depicted as the heartbreak at the core of Yuliang's life and art.

Unlike her friend, Yuliang is freed after seven years when she meets Pan Zanhua, a handsome and progressive official who is impressed by her knowledge of Chinese poetry and her obvious intelligence. His buying of her as his concubine is depicted as rather heroic -- he is reluctant to take advantage of her as a prostitute sent to him as a "gift" by by his business contacts, but she tells him that she will be beaten if she returns to the brothel without having "finished the job".

Their relationship is depicted as a marriage of true minds. Not only does he physically free her from the brothel as well as from her bound feet, but he moves her to cosmopolitan Shanghai, teaches her to read and write, and encourages her in her inherent talent, painting.
She becomes one of a handful of women accepted into the Shanghai Art School.

However, her true artistic awakening, ironically or appropriately, comes about when she starts painting herself nude: "And for the first time in years, she truly sees herself. She sees herself as finally free of the white ant's probing fingers, of strange men's hands. Of jewelry that binds it, chainlike, to debt..."

Other artists, Chinese and foreign, are impressed with her work; not so much the public. Comparisons to whores ensue. There is further drama in how being true to herself compromises the professional standing of her husband. Meanwhile, her search for identity is backgrounded by modern China's own turbulent, bloody coming-of-age.

You can already imagine the film version: in fact, this book, while satisfying to read, might actually work better as a film, due to the visual nature of painting and the dramatic but relatively uncomplex nature of many of the characters and emotions.

But it is also a thoughtful meditation on what it is to be an artist. Early on in the book, Yuliang's uncle says of the poet Li Bai's death by attempting to embrace the moon in the water: "Artists aren't interested in sense. They're interested in the senses... They're after life's reflections, not life itself." Yuliang's story is about how the chasing of one can sometimes justify the other.
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