Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The Painter from Shanghai: A Novel by Jennifer Cody Epstein - 2008 - 416 Pages

The Painter from Shanghai: A Novel by Jennifer Cody Epstein - 2008 - 416 Pages

I offer my great thanks to Elaine Chiew, author of The Heart Sick Diaspora and other stories for recommending The Painter of Shanghai.

I suggest anyone interested in contemporary literature by Asian authors follow The Asian Book Blog

Exquisite Video Collage of works by Pan Yuliang 

Website of Jennifer Cody Epstein 

The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein is historic fiction done at the highest level.  Based on the life of Pan Yuliang (June 14, 1895 Yagzhou, China - July 22, 1977 Paris) who was the first woman from China to paint in a western style.  In 1930s her work drew severe criticism in China for her nude portraits of women and for deviating from tradition.  She moved to Paris in 1937 and spent forty years there painting and teaching.  She produced over 4000 works.

Epstein begins the work with Pan Yuliang at age 14.  Her mother has passed and she lives with her uncle.  She learned embroidery from her mother.  Her uncle tells her he is taking her to Shanghai to do embroidery but he sells her to a brothel keeper to pay his debts to opium dealers. The brothel is a place of great cruelty, nothing but a commercial value is put on the girls. Pan Yuliang was innocent of the nature of sex but was indoctrinated by the “number one  girl” of the  brothel.  The girls can buy their way out but records are kept and padded. There are vivid descriptions of sex in the brothel. The workers seek methods of preserving a sense of self-worth.  Escape is virtually impossible.  A few lucky girls meet a client who buys them out to be a  personal concubine.  I do not want to go into much detail on her brothel times  but as I empasized with her so much, as others I think will, it was painful to read.

There is a new customs Inspector in Shanghai.  In an effort to corrupt him and get “dirt on him” a group of merchants whose income depends on low customs duty, sent Pan to his house, without telling him first. Pan is told not come back without “his seed inside her”.  He is not interested in this, being married to a wife in another town, but he likes Pan and asks her to show him around Shanghai.  This encounter will change her life.

It was wonderful to see Pan learn about Chinese politics but thrilling to watch her develop a passion for painting.  

There just is so much Chinese political  history in this book.  We sit in on Pan’s art lessons.  Her relationship with the customs Inspector, who bought her out, is complicated. They develop passion and perhaps love.  He has mixed feeling about her art which some conservatives call pornographic.  

We follow her on her first trip to Paris.  

There is so much detail I felt I was in Shanghai in the 1930s.

This is a great novel.  I loved it.  

From the author’s website

“I am the author of the USA Today bestseller Wunderland, now out in paperback. My prior works include The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, winner of the 2014 Asian Pacific Association of Librarians Honor award for outstanding fiction, as well as the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai. I have also written for The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, The Nation (Thailand), Self and Mademoiselle magazines, and the NBC and HBO networks, working in Kyoto, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok as well as Washington D.C. and New York. I’ve taught at Columbia University in New York and Doshisha University in Kyoto, and have an MFA from Columbia, a Masters of International Relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a BA in Asian Studies/English from Amherst College.

I currently live in Brooklyn, NY with my husband, filmmaker Michael Epstein, my two amazing daughters and an exceptionally needy Springer Spaniel.”

Epstein has published two other works of historical fiction, I have added both to my Amazon wish list.


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