The Painter from Shanghai

( 45 )


Reminiscent of Memoirs of a Geisha, a re-imagining of the life of Pan Yuliang and her transformation from prostitute to post-Impressionist.
Down the muddy waters of the Yangtze River and into the seedy backrooms of "The Hall of Eternal Splendor," through the raucous glamour of prewar Shanghai and the bohemian splendor of 1920s Paris, and back to a China ripped apart by civil war and teetering on the brink of revolution: this novel tells the story of Pan Yuliang, one of the most ...

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The Painter from Shanghai

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Reminiscent of Memoirs of a Geisha, a re-imagining of the life of Pan Yuliang and her transformation from prostitute to post-Impressionist.
Down the muddy waters of the Yangtze River and into the seedy backrooms of "The Hall of Eternal Splendor," through the raucous glamour of prewar Shanghai and the bohemian splendor of 1920s Paris, and back to a China ripped apart by civil war and teetering on the brink of revolution: this novel tells the story of Pan Yuliang, one of the most talented—and provocative—Chinese artists of the twentieth century.Jennifer Cody Epstein's epic brings to life the woman behind the lush, Cezannesque nude self-portraits, capturing with lavish detail her life in the brothel and then as a concubine to a Republican official who would ultimately help her find her way as an artist. Moving with the tide of historical events, The Painter from Shanghai celebrates a singularly daring painting style—one that led to fame, notoriety, and, ultimately, a devastating choice: between Pan's art and the one great love of her life.

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Editorial Reviews

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Pan Yuliang was a girl with no dreams. Her parents were taken from her at a young age, then her uncle sold her into prostitution; it was enough for many years just to cope and survive. One day, fate places a kind gentleman in her path, and she begins to discover the city outside the brothel and the world beyond China's borders. As a larger canvas of life emerges, Pan realizes that she has something of value to say -- and a talent through which she can express herself. From Shanghai to Paris, Pan is challenged by the harsh realities in politics, art, and love, and must rely on her own strength to develop her talent. In so doing, she takes a relatively ordinary life and makes it extraordinary.

A work of fiction -- but based on the life and work of a real artist -- The Painter from Shanghai transports readers to early-20th-century China, a culture marked by oppression. Epstein has proven herself a shining talent in this first novel, tackling such weighty questions as: How does a talented artist blossom, even under repressive conditions? What is art, and what is love? What makes a life well lived? The answers form a mesmerizing portrait of one young woman's journey to find herself and to nourish her creative talents despite appreciable odds. (Summer 2008 Selection)
New York Times Book Review
“Luminous . . . irresistible.”
“A sparkling debut . . . lush!”
Chicago Tribune
“Engrossing. . . . Epstein’s spotless pace, vivid characterization and often-breathtaking descriptions elevate the novel above any initial similarities with Memoirs of a Geisha to become its own distinctive canvas.”
Marie Claire
“Epstein’s harrowing—and historically accurate—details show that through darkness comes greatness.”
Sarah Towers
In this age of memoir and thinly veiled autobiographical fiction, writers who take high dives into deeply imagined waters have become increasingly rare—and valuable. What a pleasure, then, to discover that Jennifer Cody Epstein, whose luminous first novel, The Painter from Shanghai, is based on the actual life of Pan Yuliang, a former child prostitute turned celebrated painter, also happens to be one such writer…In an epigraph, Epstein quotes the English painter John Sloane, who wrote that "though a living cannot be made at art, art makes life worth living. It makes starving, living." In the end, this is precisely what Epstein illustrates in her moving characterization of Pan Yuliang…
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Epstein's sweeping debut novel, set in early 20th-century China, fictionalizes the life of Chinese painter Pan Yuliang. Born Xiuquing, she is orphaned at a young age and later sold into prostitution by her uncle, who needs the money to support his opium habit. Renamed Yuliang, she becomes the brothel's top girl and soon snags the attention of customs inspector Pan Zanhua, who makes her his concubine. Zanhua sets her up in Shanghai, where she enrolls in the Shanghai Art Academy and early on struggles with life study, unable to separate the nude's monetary value from its value in the "currency of beauty." She eventually succeeds, winning a scholarship to study in Europe. But when she returns to China, itself inching toward revolution, the conservative establishment is critical of Yuliang, balking as she adopts Western-style dress and becomes known for her nudes (one newspaper deems her work pornography). Simmering resentments hit a flashpoint at a disastrous Shanghai retrospective exhibit, and the fallout nearly destroys Yuliang's artistic ambition. Convincing historic detail is woven throughout and nicely captures the plight of women in the era. Epstein's take on Yuliang's life is captivating to the last line. (Mar.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Journalist Epstein's first novel showcases two turbulent decades in Chinese history (1913-37) as experienced by prostitute-turned-painter Pan Yuliang. This fictionalized account of real-life artist Madame Pan reveals the woman who created some of China's most provocative post-impressionist paintings. Sold into slavery by her opium-addicted uncle, Yuliang survives life in a brothel, rises from maid to top girl, and eventually achieves quasirespectability by becoming a concubine (second wife) to an honorable civil servant, Pan Zanhua. He teaches her to read and write and helps her gain admission to the Shanghai Arts Academy. Throughout her career, Yuliang is criticized for painting nude self-portraits that reflect a Western sensibility. Her modern artistic and political convictions take a toll on her husband's career, and he allows her to follow her own destiny and supports her when she leaves China to study first in Paris and later in Rome. When Yuliang returns to China, she finds her country torn by political factions. Fans of Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha and Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan will enjoy this engrossing story of a woman forced to choose between following her heart and pursuing her art. Recommended for public libraries.-Loralyn Whitney, Edinboro Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib.

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Fictional portrait of Pan Yuliang, a real-life 20th-century Chinese prostitute turned successful artist. In the mold of Memoirs of a Geisha, Epstein's debut devotes itself to the exotic life of a woman whose early years were spent in the service of men. Orphaned Yuliang is 14 in 1913 when her opium-addicted uncle sells her into a brothel. Beatings are routine, and escapees are caught and murdered. Having learned to please clients, Yuliang rises to "top girl" and has the good fortune to meet a modern-thinking customs inspector, Pan Zanhua, who buys her freedom, "marries" her (he already has a wife and child) and moves her to Shanghai. There she develops an interest in drawing and becomes one of very few women admitted to the Art Academy. Epstein touches on the shifting political background as Yuliang travels to France and Rome and develops her controversial work, which sometimes uses her own naked body as subject matter. Later she returns to Shanghai and Nanjing where, in 1936, an exhibition of her "Western-style" art is vandalized. In 1937 she abandons Zanhua and leaves once more for France, as war with Japan looms. She dies in 1977, only "modestly successful in the commercial sense," but with awards to her name and a body of some 4,000 works of art. The enlivening spark flickers only intermittently in this professional account of an unusual life.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393335316
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/6/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 522,511
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Jennifer Cody Epstein is the author of the international best-selling novel The Painter from Shanghai. She lived for five years in Japan, first as a student and then as a journalist. She now lives in New York with her husband and two daughters.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 45 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 45 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2012

    One of my favorite books of all time. This emotional story of a

    One of my favorite books of all time. This emotional story of a heroic woman is enlightening and heart-wrenching. I'm 21 years old and I found this book fascinating. I couldn't put it down.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Another example of "inferiority of women" as a curse to overcome

    What is resonant about this book is the child sold into slavery/prostitution having a natural artistic gift that becomes her life's work. She is resented by both her former workmates in prostitution and hated by her classmates in art classes. As a Chinese female, her destiny was determined by her uncle who needed money for opium, thus she became a slave to the desires of misogynistic males. In the end, she becomes a famous artist but never quite overcomes the curse of being inferior to the male artists. But, on the other hand, most women artists don't thanks to cultural influences. Talent means nothing but trouble for them.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 27, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Beautiful story telling

    Reading The Painter from Shanghai is time well spent. Pan Yulaing overcomes a life of hardships that no one should have to face and reaches her destiny on her own terms. This woman is a lesson to us all. So the story is worthwhile just even on that level. Ms. Epstein's prose is beautiful, almost lyrical. I started this on a cold, iserable Monday and finished Tuesday. I just felt compelled to keep reading. So if you want to read a good book, and I don't mean beach reading or trans-continental jet reading, but a good story excellently written, try The Painter from Shanghai.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 26, 2010


    Pan Yuliang's mind slips back into her past, back into the memories seared into her mind, and she feels the pain of loss. She left Zanhua, she left Shanghai and she left her heart. She drifts back to her days as Xiuqing, a fourteen year old living with her beloved uncle. He believed that modern girls should know the classics and he spent many a pleasant hour teaching her about poetry and politics, encouraging her to use her mind to think for herself. Then he betrayed her in the worst possible way. He sold her to the House of Eternal Splendor, so that he could continue the devastating addiction that was slowly ruining their lives. There, Yuliang learned to use her body for profit and numb her mind to the horrors faced by such a young, innocent girl. But there, she met Zanhau. Her intelligence, knowledge and beauty set her apart, yet she wasn't perfect. Her unbound feet, most unconventional in China at that time, set her apart from the other flowers, but Zanhau paid no mind. He saved her, though that one act nearly destroyed him, and he loved her beyond Yuliang's understanding. From there, her life changed, and even as a concubine, her talent in art began to bloom. In truth, did her uncle really betray her?
    All facets of Pan Yuliang's adult life and career were affected by the politics of the time. Author, Jennifer Cody Epstein's in-depth research is obvious in her thorough documentation of the changing political situation that indeed influenced the populace towards women artists and the western art culture. From acceptance to resistance, Pan Yuliang continued to paint what she felt was true. Detailed descriptions of the art world, its masters, techniques, and materials prove many hours of research. While there exists little information about the life of this intriguing artist, the incredible imagination and storytelling skills of Jennifer Cody Epstein, leave us with a fascinating novel that is definitely worth reading again and again. I look forward to more from this author.

    Highly Recommended

    Reviewer: Elaine Fuhr, Allbooks Reviews

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 26, 2009

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    I thought this book was amazing. I love to read about strong women throughout history. The book is about Pan Yuliang, who at a young age was sold to a whore house. She struggles and fights to get what she wants in life. And that is to be a painter. She was an amazing woman, and artist.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 8, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Courtesy of Mother Daughter Book

    The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein is a historical fiction novel based on the life of Pan Yuliang, a chinese artist born in 1899.<BR/><BR/>Sold into a brothel by her opium-addicted uncle when she's 14, Yuliang learns to cope with the help of her friend and top girl at the house, Jinling. Then Jinling's violent death emphasizes that life in a brothel is always tenuous and under someone else's control. When a local official, Pan Zanhua, becomes attracted to her for her mind and not her body, he buys her freedom from the house and makes her his second wife, or concubine. But the match is clearly one of love, and Zanhua wants Yuliang to develop her mind by learning to read. Soon Yuliang discovers another passion: painting. Defying convention of the times, she is admitted to the local art school, which has created scandal by bringing in nude models to paint. Yuliang wins a scholarship that takes her first to France, then to Rome to study western painting, and she returns home with new ideas about art that don't sit well with many in Chinese society at the time.<BR/><BR/>Epstein tells Yuliang's tale in this epic of a book about a woman who learns to gain control over her own fate. The Painter of Shanghai is filled with rich details of China from the early days of the 20th century into the very beginnings of the rise of communism, revealing the country's ambivalence between moving into a modern world or cleaving to the old ways. Yuliang is a strong woman who never compromises what she believes to be right, even at great cost to herself and her husband. I recommend it for mother-daughter book clubs with girls in 11th grade and up. Readers should be aware of detailed scenes of life in a brothel and other sexual encounters.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

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    trials and tribulations

    A good book it took a chapter or two to get into the characters but, in the end you're not disappointed. . At a young age she was hurled into a world of prostitution. In the end she makes a name for herself

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2008

    The Painter from Shanghai

    Xiuqing grew up believing that she was destined to become an artist, the next great female poet or perhaps a talented painter. When her mother died, little Xiu was taken in by her uncle. While he fanned her dreams, his own opium addiction would take the young girl on a very different path. Thus, at fourteen, Xiuqing became Yuliang, one of the girls working at The Hall of Eternal Splendor. For several years, Yuliang¿s existence was dictated by the whims of the Godmother who ran The Hall and the men who frequently the establishment. However, after the murder of her best friend, Yuliang¿s life suddenly changed. She met a man who appreciated and encouraged her natural curiosity and love of learning so that Pan Yuliang¿s true talents could eventually surface. If you liked Memoirs of a Geisha, you¿ll love The Painter of Shanghai. Both stories share the stories of young girls thrown into a world beyond their comprehension who rise above their circumstances. However, I have to admit that I actually preferred The Painter of Shanghai. In life, Pan Yuliang was a courageous woman who followed her truth no matter what the consequences. Her strength and perseverance is an inspiration to us all.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2012


    The storyline was good but the characters were undeveloped, scenery and setting minimal and there were major jumps in time that left me feeling that I had missed a chapter. The research is apparent and there were parts that were great but just so-so overall. Im bummed that I paid16$ for this.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 25, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    The Painter from Shanghai

    This was a great book I enjoyed it very much.
    The story was great and I liked the authors writing style.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 27, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    I've wanted to read this book for such a long time.

    I like to refer to it as 'The book that got away', as I've never been able to really get my hands on it. I very much hope to read it soon. I'm sure it will be fantastic.

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 2008

    An Instant Classic

    If you are the type of reader who enjoys the novel - you'll love this book! If a fan of historical fiction - you'll love this book! Enjoy non-fiction? You'll love this book! It's easily the best book I've read in 10 years. Destined to become an instant classic. Often compared to Memoirs of a Geisha, but much better. Jennifer Epstein is one of the great new American writers! Vivid descriptions, captivating plot, fascinating, colorful characters. I can't wait for Jennifer Epstein's next book. Hurry up!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2008


    My sister told me to read this book. What a great book. It combines the wonderful imagination of this outstanding author with the perfect amount of history. This is a great novel.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 11, 2008

    Wonderful glimpse into Pan Yuliang's life

    Pan Yuliang, one of China¿s finest and most controversial painters, lived in the early part of the 20th century. Forced into prostitution when her uncle sold her to pay for his opium habit, she is later unexpectedly rescued by a man who comes to love her and make her his second wife. Though she is only a concubine, he treats her with love and respect, and encourages her to study painting, both in China and in France. ¿¿no matter how we long for the past, we are rooted in the present,¿ Pan Yuliang tells her husband, Pan Zanhua. Jennifer Cody Epstein brings this concept home to us in her use of present tense in telling Yuliang¿s story. Based on the limited knowledge of the painter¿s life, she has captured this turbulent time period in China, and some of the experiences she imagined Yuliang may have had. The Painter From Shanghai pulls the reader into Yuliang¿s life, sharing the horrors of Hall life, the joy in discovering her ability to paint, and the hunger and loneliness of her life in France. Though most of the public never understood her need to paint nudes, Epstein suggests her monsters were what produced her art. In creating beautiful female bodies on canvas, she may have been able to deal with the memories of offering her body in a way no fourteen year-old girl should. Haunting, compelling, and masterfully written, The Painter From Shanghai invites the reader into Pan Yuliang¿s world. Although this a work of fiction, you¿ll feel you¿ve had a glimpse into the life of this intriguing and talented woman. Reviewer: Alice Berger, Bergers Book Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2008

    'Artists are after life's reflections, not life itself.'

    Jennifer Cody Epstein steps into the pantheon of fine contemporary writers with her first book THE PAINTER FROM SHANGHAI, a work of 'historical fiction' so polished in research, so rich in detail not only of the turbulent period in China during the first half of the 20th century, but also in the mysterious social customs of that country, and a source of insight into the changes in the manner in which the visual world was captured by artists as East and West met and married in the art capital of the world - Paris. Yet overriding all of this fascinating information is Epstein's gift for delivering a story of passion and love with a poetic prose style that comes together in this novel in a manner not unlike creating the painting technique that this novel's heroine describes her world. It is a grand feat and a work worth repeated readings. Westerners may not be familiar with the name Pan Yuliang, one of the more important Chinese artists who influenced the Post-Impressionist art movement, but in Epstein's eloquent novel we grow to know this gifted artist from her birth as Xiuqing in 1895, and her early years as an orphan protected by her opium-addicted uncle who sold her into a brothel at age fourteen. Enough space is allotted in this tale to allow us to learn the traditions of the 'flower houses' and the brutalities and consequences of life as a prostitute, but Epstein is careful to balance the sad with the radiant in the relationship between the newly renamed Yuliang and her beautiful 'teacher' Jinling with whom she has her first love affair, and Yuliang's subsequent rescue from the brothel through the kindness and concern showered upon her by a handsome gentleman Pan Zanhua - the man with whom she not only enters into the relationship of being his concubine, but also benefits from his support of her position as a woman and as an artist. The story spans Pan Yuliang's life from these early beginnings to her death in 1977, a life that brought her exposure to the West, with awards from the schools of art in China, Italy and France resulting in renown as a gifted artist who just happened to be a woman with a past, the many private and public pains she endured as her native country moved from the reign of the Emperors through the rise and fall of Chiang Kai-shek, the invasion by the Japanese, and the new order of Communism, and the influence of the world perception of art that included defeat of some of the finest artists as the battle of the sexes altered the perception of painting the nude figure as an acceptable subject matter in a climate of global turmoil. Epstein manages to write as intricately about history and Chinese tradition as well as luminously about the act of creativity. Few writers can match the descriptive language of the emergence of the visual: 'But true art must contain an emotional range that speaks to the viewer. Speaks...not by lulling them into a false sense of complacency, but by probing. Challenging. Even hurting, if need be. Anything to force us beyond life's easier thoughts.' 'Has it ever occurred to you that our wounds are what drive us to create?...What if those who've lost something compensate for it in their work? In that case the damage helps them. It's what compels them to create...And it might explain why the best artists tend to be the poorest.' THE PAINTER FROM SHANGHAI begs to become a film. But until that happens, this elegant and passionate book is one to treasure repeatedly. It is a work of art. Grady Harp

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2008

    A fictionalized novel of the life of Pan Yuliang¿

    The Painter From Shanghai is a fictional account of the life of Pan Yuliang. She was born Xiuqing in 1895, orphaned at five, and raised by an opium-addicted uncle. At fourteen, he sold her to a brothel, The Hall of Eternal Splendor, where her name was changed to Yuliang. Jinling becomes her mentor, friend, and lover, helping her to adjust to her new life. A government official, Pan Zanhua, buys her contract and makes her his second wife. It was during her marriage that she began painting. The influence of her younger life was a factor in her art. The culture she lived in did not appreciate her great talent for painting female nudes. Her work was considered shameless and pornographic. She was forced to move to France where she resided until the time of her death. The details in Painter From Shanghai are amazing. Jennifer Cody Epstein uses words to paint a stunning portrait of Yuliang and the China she lived in. Written with beauty and intelligence, Painter From Shanghai will mesmerize readers. In this novel, her husband deeply loves her, but Yuliang was never truly capable of returning that love. Painter From Shanghai is a work of epic proportions.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2008

    Wonderful insight...

    This book provided wonderful insight of China in the early 1900's and women's role during that time period. It painted China as such a beautiful country with its own difficult times and politics. The journey with Pan Yu-Liang was moving and had the reader cheering for her success with painting as well as her ability to overcome difficult circumstances.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2008

    Amazing and Poetic

    Painter from Shanghai is one of the greatest portrayls of China during WWII from a woman's point of view. Unlike other novels, this protaganist trys to be and wants to be a traditional woman and get married with children, but is unable to be one. I'd recommend this to everyone.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 25, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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