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.

36 responses to “From Prostitute to Post-Impressionist: China’s Modern Art Ambassador”

  1. Actually the story of Pan Yuliang has already been made into a film called “Huahun (A Soul Haunted by Painting)” starring Gong Li and directed by a female director, Huang Shuqin.

  2. william andrew albano »
    I heard about that and before I review the book I do plan to see the flick. Thanks for reminding me.

  3. I will look out for your book and will read it. The story sounds interesting. The paintings, however…ykes!!!

  4. I loved the book and am now searching to see her paintings on the internet. Plan to review it in August for my bookclub.

  5. the book was amazing and have recommended it to many people ….
    i think the paintings are amazing too…..

  6. I just finished the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. Kudos to Jennifer Cody Epstein for being intrigued by Yuliang’s life and bringing her story to print. I’m looking forward to seeing the Gong Li movie, too!

  7. Nearly finished the book, but not impressed with Pan Yuliangs paintings. Rather childish drawings. I expected more. Oh! Well! The book was very good though, I am looking forward to seeing the movie.

  8. I just finished reading the painter from shanghai. I love the book and also Pan Yuliang.s paintings. I will try and see the movie. Thank you for writing this book about an important Chinese artist.

  9. One of the best books I have read this year – very moving- beautiful love story -plan to recommend the book to others .

  10. Loved the book – took my time to finish it and loved Pan yuliangs paintings too. Took me back in time.Would love to see the film now…

  11. Just finished the book. Couldn’t stop reading, loved it very very much. Some of her paintings I like…

  12. I loved the book, and learned a great deal as I was not familiar with Pan Yuliang or her art. I hope to read more books from Jennifer Cody Epstein!

  13. I think it’s one of the most moving stories I’ve read in years. Her art is incredible and sincerely appreciated by anyone who knows anything about Post Impressionism

  14. Yes! thank you for the article, I am reading ‘the Painter of Shanghai’ at the moment, and then realized the book was based on a real artist. So, an internet search!

    What an interesting and accomplished woman Pan Yuliang was, also love her work, will be looking out for more.

  15. Just read the book. Fascinating, sad story of determination and confidence of Yuliang and Chinese people. Interesting how it just touched the Cultural Revolution. Will look out for the film.

  16. Just finished the book. Very interesting, sad story. Yuilang’s triumphs and tragedies made for a great novel idea.

  17. Great read. I loved the way she never gave up. I wonder if her works are ever shown in the United States.

  18. I read the book. What a life-story. I would love to see the film. where can I get the VCD?

  19. I loved the book for the incredible life of Pan Yuliang. Her determination,
    her defiant attitude to art was amazing. I wonder though if she really was a prostitute before she became a well known artist? – I also loved the writing style of the author. Her elegant, language and vivid imageries paid
    justice to the story.

  20. I loved the book for the incredible life of Pan Yuliang. Her determination,
    her defiant attitude to art was amazing. I wonder though if she really was a prostitute before she became a well known artist? – I also loved the writing style of the author. Her elegant, language and vivid images ‘painted’
    justice to the story.

  21. I was so fascinated by the book/artist that I felt compelled to look her up. I love her work. The lushness of her figures is wonderful. Thanks for writing the book.

  22. I have just finished this book which has been recorded on 12 c.d.s. I was amazed that it was a first novel: it was so beautifully written, with great surety and wisdom. It wasn’t until the Epilogue I realised this book was a biography, perhaps just as well, for it was heart breaking at times. When I was young, I was lucky to live near Glasgow Art Galleries and in my opinion Pan Yuliang’s paintings could stand beside the masterpieces. I look forward to Jennifer Cody Epstein’s next book: I do so hope she has another in her.

  23. When I first started reading I thought it was strictly a novel. When I realized that this was a true story I was amazed. I absolutely loved the book, and am so proud to be a woman. It shows how a woman can stand against all odds and go ahead with her goals in the face of tribulations. The setting in China was very alien to me and I found the history involved in this story absolutely fasinating.
    Thanks for such a good read and for sparking my interest in this wonderful and daring artist.

  24. je n’ai malheureusement pas lu le livre ne maitrisant pas la langue .mais je me nourrie de tous les commentaires et suis très heureuse que Jennifer Cody Epstein ai réussi à retranscrire avec beaucoup d’émotion
    la vie de madame Pan Yu Lin, car je l’ai bien connue.Elle n’a vécu que pour sa peinture , l’amour de son mari et de son pays.J’espère que la France à son tour va reconnaitre son talent et qu’un jour elle puisse reposer en chine près de son époux.

  25. Mrs Ludmilla
    we are fed up with talking nonsense about your gomother pan yu liang in a French blogs about PAN YU LING. Nobody believes you and a lot of people are laughing in my classroom, and Chinese are laughing too! regarding the novel that people love it is a pure fiction ( wikipedia).. so Pan YU LIANG WAS DEPICTED AS A POP CULTURE.. WE DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS BOOK IN CHINESE CIVILIZATION, BY THE WAY THE BOOK WAS NOT TRANSLATEDINTO FRENCH, NOT APPRECIATED( LAND OF MANET, IMPRESSIONIST AND LAND OF PAN YU LIANG). AMERICANS DO NOT KNOW HOW TO DEPICT ART!! we have a French writer, expert in Chinese who was able to depict the TRUE LIFE OF PAN YU LIANG.. she is French and Chinese, thanks..

    Ludmilla, arretez de dire que Pan yu liang etait votre marraine.. on rit dans les cours de chinois.. SVP.. VOUS PARLEZ COMME UNE MITOMANE

  26. I THInk you are wrong about PAN YU LIANG, she made scandal like Manet with Olympia in China ( venus). Her dream was to be like MANET beause like Manet she was misunderstood. at the end of her career, her style changed.. again the book is a pure fiction, a hollwyood, a pop culture that the Europeans, especially French people do not appreciate.we love art, imagine Manet depicting in hollwyood way. the author does not speak Chines and French, how can she understand Pan yu liang. Only a French or a CHinese writer can depict pan yu liang, not an American pop culture writer. sorry, I am a professor from China, and I did not appreciate the novel, it is a pure liar, a pure fiction.I am teaching in France and I understand why the novel was not translated and accepted..

  27. ludmilla
    you are wrong, pan yu liang never lived in paris with her husband, zhang hua… i am Chinese and I know very well the life of Pan yu liang.. she wanted to be famous in France, and was accepted in 1920 because she made scandal in China. in THE united states, there was a famous law which hampered Chinese from Working, so Pan Yu liang was only admitted in France. when i read this novel, i say: well an American who does not master French and Chinese and do not know culture, art.. she is an American popular culture writer, vulgar like most writers from this country which invade EUrope. no she was not able to depict the treu life of Pan yu liang and his art, but as hollywood painter. again we deplore the vulgarity of America, its culture which lower the level of education in Europe. true writers cannot compete with this pop culture, so please why did the American writer depict pan yu liang as a hollywood painter and not like CEZANE OR MANET. PAN YU LIANG WILL NEVER BE RECOGNIZED IN THE LAND OF IMPRESSIONIST BECAUSE OF THIS NOVEL!!! AGAIN VULGAR MADE IN HOLLYWOOD

  28. I read the painter from Shanghai, and I am disappointed . It is a pure fiction and Mrs Epsein americanized Pan Yu Liang! . She does not know very well the French art and Chinese calligraphy at all. I will not recommend this novel. Imust admit that Pan Yu Liang is not seen as a great painter at all! She is not Cezanne. you read the novel and you wonder why the writer thinks she is Cezanne or Monet! I only see Pan yu liang as a glamour, a star who wants to be famous in France!!! Thanks to her husband, Pan Yu Liang became a post impressionist artist( It is very shallow view of talent). Without any information about her life, the author was able to write a pure fiction and now we have wikipedia which apologizes for having given us wrong information about Pan Yu Liang’s life. By the way, visit wikipedia and you will see the Painter from Shanghai is the section: Pop culture, so it is not serious!.
    There is a novel in French and it is very serious ( the writer is an expert in Chinese language) and wrote about Pan Yu LIANG, la Manet Chinoise. too bad I do not speak French.. her novel is a success and very realistic…

  29. lisheng April 11, 2011 at 9:48 am
    Mrs Epsein, I am from China and your book bothers me a lot. The Painter from Shanghai is a pure fiction and is not informative! . I THInk you are wrong about Pan Yu Liang, she made scandal like Manet with the Olympia in China ( Venus). Her dream was to be like Manet, Cezane, Monet beause like most impressionists in France, she was misunderstood and rejected by the elite and the male dominated Chinese society. I read the novel ( the Painter from Shanghai) and in any case, you mentioned her true life in China and you only focused on her love affair with Zhang Hua. I was wondering if Pan yu LIang was talented and how the French recognized her talent in that time! .I was also surprised to hear Pan Yu LIang spoke Chinese to the French models? According to your reliable information, we learned that Pan Yu LIang did not speak French at all!. However,she had lived in Paris for 30 years and had taught art in one of the top schools in Paris! Do you think the French students talked CHinese in her class? your book does not reflect the novels that I read in China.. it is a pure deception to me. I wanted to learn more about Pan Yu Liang in the United States. I wonder if this artist will be seen as a great painter in the western world. I am dubious. Any thoughts, any ideas will be welcome? I am disappointed with the novel, and again it is soap opera! ..

  30. 29 monalisa April 11, 2011 at 9:55 am

    You are wrong, Pan Yu Liang never lived in Paris with her husband, zhang hua… I am Chinese and I know very well the life of Pan yu liang.. she wanted to be famous in France, and was admitted in one of the top schools in Paris As her paintings were regarded as vulgar and inappropriate, she had to flee the country! unllike France, Pan Yu Liang was not allowed to live in the United States because of the Chinese exclusion act(so an American writer can talk about Pan yu liang, give me a break)! Pan Yu Liang’s paintings can be found in a lot of museums in Paris, do you think the United States would have done the same thing ( the land of pop culture and hollywood?) NO.. , you said that PAN YU LIANG did not speak French in your novel! how is it possible? I read her biography and I learned that she mastered French better than Chinese mandarin! She also attended the top school in France.i was very frustrated to read this pure fiction novel, filled with wrong information about Pan Yu Liang’s life!

    IT IS POP CULTURE, HOLLYWOOD, SO…. BAD..now if you look at wikipedia, we have wrong information about Pan Yu liang’s novel because of this novel..

  31. Vu la polémique que certaines personnes sont entrain de créer pour des raisons qui nous échappent.Nous avons décidés avec mon avocat que nous sommes à la disposition de toute personne qui en fera la demande en envoyant par e-mail leur coordonnées et le motif qui justifie qu’on leur adresse la preuve que Madame Pan Yu Lin est bien ma marraine.

  32. Please calm down , Miss Mona-Lisa-my-teacher-knows-best. And be very careful to check your sources before launching into crusades by which you will soon be ridiculed. I’ve had so many students like you …
    Jennifer’s book is a fiction based on Pan yu Liang’s life, as so many were written about so many artists. Nevertheless, it is extremely interesting and, which is the main positive result, it gives readers the longing to go and find out, and admire what the painter produced.
    It is far from vulgar. From the start, the emphasis is laid on the major importance of the senses in the child’s, then the adult’s perception of the world. Shapes, colours, sounds and smells, all the olfactive environment , always at work. Action scenes are brilliantly described.
    This is not a historical essay nor a scientific biography. It is an excellent novel.

    The worst in your wild criticism is the fact that you extend the so-called vulgarity(?) to the whole of American literature. Stop, stop, little greenhorn.

    Please sit down and start reading. That will do you good.

    I am presently translating the book into French. I love every bit of it. This work makes me get very close to the writing and its richness.

    You do not detain THE TRUTH.
    Don’t worry, you will maybe get a good mark for your project. But again, be very careful what and who you are blindly attacking.
    By the way, Ludmilla Cheng IS Pan’s goddaughter but, again, who needs to give you any kind of justification? Do we have to prove, for your own little sake, that Paul Auster is a good writer ?

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