‘The Painter of Shanghai’ by Jennifer Cody Epstein
Known as the first Chinese woman to paint in the Western style, Pan Yuliang is best described in the words from the book that is based on her life,
“She is strong, but like bamboo. She’ll bend if the wind forces her to. But she will not break”
Born as Xiuqing, she loses her mother at six and is brought up by her opium addicted uncle. To pay off his debts, little Xiuqing is sold to a brothel when she is barely a teenager. The story then takes us through her days there, her relationship with the top girl, Jinling, and how an upright customs official Pan Zanhua paves the way out for her to her true calling.
The real story starts after Zanhua makes her his second wife. The aimless sketches that she has made from time to time catches the eye of Zanhua and slowly Yuliang realizes the passion that she has for this art form. It is only her determination that makes her one of the first women to enter the Shanghai Academy of Arts and from there to Paris and Rome.
The first half of the book is slightly dragging and feels like a documentary. It is as if the author’s passion awakens along with Yuliang’s determination not to give up on what she believes in, in spite of all possible odds and challenges. Imagine a woman painting her own nude portraits in an orthodox China of early 20th Century. Even the displeasure of her husband cannot detract her. She knows without him, she wouldn’t have come this far, yet she cannot but be true to the artist in her. During the initial days of her success, you can see a typical man in Zanhua who supports his wife, at the same time believes that a woman’s true calling is to take care of her home and hearth. The difference is where he realizes this is a spirit that cannot be chained down and he allows his love for her to dominate all other insecurities.
Yuliang’s life in Paris gives us a picture of life as it is for many an artist for whom life itself is their art. The days of penury end in poetic justice when she wins a scholarship to the Royal Roman Art Academy and then finally is invited back to her alma mater in Shang Hai. Circumstances make her return to Paris where she spends the rest of her life.
What catches the reader is one woman’s fight for what she truly believes in. She has moments of apprehension thinking of Zanhua and his expectations, she acknowledges that her love for her art is more than her love for him , at one point in life she almost gives it up for him. Interspersed with her story and in the background is the changing political scenario of China, which in itself is quite interesting.
Verdict – If you can put yourself through the first half which I found a little dry and dragging, the other half will more than compensate for it. You are sure to gain new respect for a true artist. Do get a copy if art and biographies interest you.