The Painter From Shanghai
With this fictionalized account of the life of the famous painter Pan Yuliang, Epstein presents a lush, exquisitely detailed portrait of China during the early 1900s. An orphan who is forced into prostitution by her opium-smoking uncle, Yuliang suffers one hardship after another as a child. In the brothel where she works, she eventually becomes one of the most popular girls, attracting the eye of Pan Zanhua, a customs inspector. She soon becomes his concubine and leaves the brothel behind for Shanghai, where she takes classes at the Art Academy. As a painter, Yuliang proves a natural, and she wins a scholarship that enables her to study in Europe. The time abroad inevitably changes her. When Yuliang comes back to China, she finds that the country is on the brink of revolution, and that its officials disapprove of her nude paintings, which are viewed as pornographic. Conflicting political and artistic beliefs lead to trouble at an exhibit of Yuliang's work in Shanghai, and she comes close to turning her back on the thing she loves mosther art. This is a remarkable novel, the dramatic story of a woman who is forced to choose between art and survival, passion and politics. Writing with authority about China's turbulent history, Epstein clearly has a gift for bringing the past to life.
A reading group guide is available online at wwnorton.com.