Jennifer Cody Epstein’s first novel The Painter from Shanghai is a richly imagined portrait of Pan Yuliang, one of China’s most controversial twentieth century artists. Born into poverty, sold into a life of prostitution, and later a government official’s concubine and art student, Pan Yuliang challenged gender roles and artistic convention in mid- twentieth century China.

Pan Yuliang was fiercely committed to her artistic vision and her talent and determination enabled her to study abroad in Paris, Lyon, and Rome. Like many women artists, however, Pan Yuliang died poor and under appreciated in Paris in 1977.  Jennifer Cody Epstein has done a remarkable amount of research to bring Pan Yuliang’s story to life for western readers.

She deftly illustrates how one woman threw herself into history’s rushing tides as she witnessed changing artistic styles, political convictions, and social conventions in both the East and West. However, despite its rich description of Paris, Shanghai and many places in between, Jennifer Cody Epstein does not write her way out of stereotypes.

While Pan Yuliang worked to challenge artistic convention, the author deals in images of China and Chinese society that feel familiar and expected for westerners; The misery, the poverty, the political corruption, the cruel treatment of women, and the prevalence of repressive feminine ideals such as foot binding and prostitution are among the most frequently described. The danger of the genre of novels that “imagine a life” is that it leaves readers wondering what is real and what is inferred, embellished and made-up. Often under-privileged characters serve the needs of a privileged writer’s artistic vision.

While some would argue that all biography is fiction, this reader was left with the impression all she really knew about Pan Yuliang after 400 pages is that she existed and created nearly 4,000 works of art. By this alone Jennifer Cody Epstein has rendered western audiences an important service, but one this reviewer hopes will open the doors for greater scholarship and a factual biography on the work and life of Pan Yuliang.

Eleanor Whitney is a writer and educator living in Brooklyn, New York. She Co-edits riffrag.org and blogs at killerfemme.blogspot.com. 

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