Hillary Jordan’s A Partial Review of Jennifer Cody Epstein’s The Painter from Shanghai

painter from shanghai

The Painter from Shanghai, Jennifer Cody Epstein, WW Norton

That’s partial as in biased, not as in incomplete. Jennifer Cody Epstein, who will henceforth be known as Jenn, is not only a dear friend of mine, but she also entrusted me with three or four (or possibly five) drafts of The Painter from Shanghai during the six years it took her to write it. And vice versa — Jenn was one of the two primary readers for Mudbound, and I hate to think how many versions of it she read and painstakingly critiqued. In essence, we were midwives for each other’s novels. So, this “review,” if it can even properly be called that, will not only be partial, it will be unabashedly so. Painter isn’t my baby, but having assisted in its nurture and birth, I love it almost as much as if it were.

The title refers to Pan Yuliang, a real-life Chinese Impressionist painter who, because of her sex and her provocative subject matter (nudes of herself and other women), was a controversial figure in early Twentieth-Century China. Yuliang’s is a rags to rags story, but with love and self-realization as an artist along the way. Orphaned as a child and sold into a “flower house” at the age of fourteen by her opium-addicted uncle, she endures three brutal years in the incongruously named “Hall of Eternal Splendor,” eventually becoming the brothel’s top girl. Just when the humiliations of prostitution and the murder of her only friend threaten to crush her spirit, she meets Pan Zanhua, a customs inspector, at a banquet. A man of compassion and honor, Zanhua falls in love with Yuliang and buys her contract from the brothel, making her his concubine or “little wife.” Under his patient guidance and care, she begins slowly to regain her self-respect and to open her heart to love. She learns to read and write, and in secret, starts to sketch and then to study painting. She applies to the Shanghai Art School and is one of only a few women to be accepted. Furious at first at Yuliang’s deception, Zanhua eventually supports her artistic ambitions, even though they take her away from him, first to Paris and then to Rome, to study painting. After four years abroad, she returns to China and causes a huge scandal with an exhibition of her Western-influenced nudes. In the end, she must make an agonizing choice between her vocation and her love.

The events of Pan Yuliang’s life, set against the political and cultural upheavals that rocked China in the first half of the last century, are the stuff great stories are made of. But Jenn is equally if not more interested in Yuliang’s inner life, in the complex emotional landscape she crosses during her journey from innocent to prostitute to wife to artist and exile. Describing those emotions, painting a meticulous, fully realized picture of them, is Jenn’s special talent. She deftly uses the details of Yuliang’s observations to inform and horrify us, as in this scene where she is being raped by the man who bought her virginity (which was sold to the highest bidder by the madam of the brothel): “He pushes, two, three, four times. ‘Ahhh. You are sweet, girl. So sweet . . .” His throat is a black tunnel, a dangling glob of glistening pink. She shuts her eyes. She is a melon, and he’s splitting her open. She will break.”

This is an intimate and often disturbing portrait of a woman, not for the faint of heart. It is also a poignant rendering of the artist’s path: the curiosity, the self-doubt and fear of failure, the obsession, the agony of criticism, the pride, the loneliness, the fierce protectiveness of one’s work, and the ultimate willingness to make whatever sacrifices are necessary for it. It is the path Jenn herself took when she was writing this book. I watched her do it. And the result is enduring, inspiring, beautiful, enlarging — everything a piece of art should be.