From Prostitute to Post-Impressionist: China’s Modern Art Ambassador

Today we have a guest, Jennifer Cody Epstein, whose new book, The Painter from Shanghai, is a fascinating fictionalized account of the life and times Pan Yuliang, a prostitute who became one of the first truly modern artists in China.

The ultimate underdog, Xiuquing was orphaned at a young age and later sold into prostitution by her uncle. Renamed Yuliang, she excells at the sex trade, becomes the lover of a customs inspector, enrolls in the Shanghai Art Academy and even travels to Europe to study art! This is an amazing tale with endless twists.

I’ve already started reading the book and will report back when I finish. But in the meantime, I asked Jennifer to write a little about this unorthodox artist (though I guess all artists are) and why she decided to tackle such a complex and mysterious character for her first novel.

Painting Yuliang

Ten years ago, when I still thought my first novel would be the prerequisite autobiographical coming-of-age saga, my husband and I went to a show of modern Chinese art at the Guggenheim. It was there that I saw my first Pan Yuliang painting: lush and Cezanne-esque, it fascinated me. Particularly Pan’s face—so sad and wistful against her Parisian window scene. When I read the accompanying biography my jaw dropped.

“Look,” I exclaimed. “Look at this AMAZING woman.”

My husband Michael—a filmmaker with a good eye for plot and image—took Pan’s image and her stunning lifeline (prostitute-turned-concubine-turned-post-Impressionist-icon) in. Then he turned to me.

“This,” he announced, with characteristic certainty, “is your first novel.”

“You’re crazy,” I told him.

And I really thought he was. It was true that I had Masters in international relations; that I’d lived in Japan and China. But I knew nothing about Asian art, or even about art in general. And I’d only started seriously writing fiction. Not even good fiction.

And yet in coming months, what had seemed a startling proposal slowly took root; I started seeking out pieces of Pan’s life and work like the parts to some enormous puzzle. In some ways, the more I learned the more daunted I became. And yet, I was also strongly drawn to Pan’s story. While dire, reality-defying, even shocking at points, it was also a universal tale of a fellow artist, finding her way. This was a process I—a struggling and largely unformed writer myself—desperately wanted to understand: how does one become an artist? How do you overcome the innumerable discouragements and hurdles (in my case mundane, in Pan’s catastrophic) and create?

I found both my answer and inspiration, in part, in Pan Yuliang’s own work: the gorgeous and defiantly Western images (often nude, often herself nude) that had so shocked her countrymen in the last century. The images—whether lush pears or lithely curved female bodies—spoke to unrepentant fascination with beauty; with female strength; with sexuality. with the often-fuzzy lines that delineate culture, nationality, morality. If her somber self-portraits (in only one I’ve seen is she actually, openly smiling) gave me a clue to her temperment, her vibrant palette and fanciful blendings of post-Impressionism and guohua (traditional Chinese watercolors) granted insight into her dreams, longings, her unique artistic eye. Or at least, so I liked to think. At any rate, there wasn’t much else to go on: little is known about Pan’s true story, even in China.

In some ways, then, Pan’s own brush was the strongest source I had. It helped me hear her voice (vibrant, rich, defiant, sad) and feel her passion, her singular determination to reach her goals. And in the end, it inspired me in my own (perhaps wildly over-ambitious) goal, of showcasing her life in words with just as much flair as she did on canvas. Though—truth be told—if the The Painter from Shanghai does nothing more than shine a light on an astonishing woman and her lovely, forgotten artwork, I’ll feel I’ve painted at least an adequate picture.

In the end, my goal in writing The Painter from Shanghai was to showcase Pan’s life in words as she perhaps might have on canvas: with beauty, drama, a hint of darkness, a lush love of form and color. The jury is still out on whether I’ve achieved that; but so far the novel’s reception has—happily—been positive: the New York Times called it “luminous” and “vivid;” Publishers Weekly and Library Journal both gave it starred reviews, and the South China Post called it “refreshing,” “authentic,” “like a cross between Zhang Yimou’s movies and Chen Yifei’s oil paintings”—praise that Pan Yuliang herself, perhaps, might have appreciated.

-Jennifer Cody Epstein

I personally think this story would make an incredible film and for all those Hollywood producers out there I’ll mention that Oscar has a thing for hookers since in 2003, Charlize Theron was the 10th actress to win an Oscar for playing a prostitute in Monster. Her predecessors were Anne Baxter in The Razor’s Edge (1946); Claire Trevor in Key Largo (1948); Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity (1953); Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden (1955), Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind (1956), Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8 (1960), Jane Fonda in Klute (1971), and Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite (1995)….I’m just sayin’.

Here are some of Pan’s paintings, most of her known works are at Anhui Provincial Museum in Beijing, China.

And a picture of her grave in Paris, France. Pan was eventually forced to move to the French capital to continue her art since in China it was still controversial for artists (never mind female ones) to paint nudes. She died there in 1977.

Now, buy the book!

All photos courtesy JCE or the internet.