Caroline Dotson: 'The Painter From Shanghai' grabs readers

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"The Painter of Shanghai" was published in 2008 by Norton and Company and is available at Downtown Books for $24.95.

Jennifer Cody Epstein has written her first novel, "The Painter From Shanghai." Epstein grabs the reader with this beautifully written historical-fiction story about Pan Yuliang, a woman who went from prostitute to famous Chinese painter during the early 1900s.

Yuliang's parents died when she was young, and at age 14, her uncle sold her into prostitution. She became the apprentice to the top girl, Jinling, at the "Hall of Eternal Splendor" in Wuhu, China.

Jinling teaches young Yuliang how to paint on her face a mask of beauty, how to properly entertain men and how to avoid letting the horror of her occupation creep inside her soul. The two women became each other's safe haven from the world around them, hiding their secrets in their friendship.

Unfortunately, Jinling is murdered one night after thinking she could trust a man to help her buy her way out of the prostitution lifestyle. This devastated Yuliang, and as she grieved, she found solace in sketching the body of the friend she lost.

Pan Zanhua was a Chinese inspector who could not be bought-off by the Chinese officials, even when they visited Yuliang. However, Zanhua did enjoy Yuliang's company because of her knowledge of poetry.

Zanhua was a modern thinking man and he did not want Yuliang to be trapped in prostitution, so he bought her freedom, exchanging one lifestyle and installing another, as his concubine.

After parading Yuliang around town, a scandal hit the newspapers concerning Zanhua's placement as an official and of Yuliang's past. Zanhua thought it would be best to move Yuliang to Shanghai in order to save his reputation and career.

In her loneliness, Yuliang began to sketch more often. She met a teacher at the Shanghai Art Academy who encouraged her to apply for the school. Her acceptance was the beginning of her passion for painting and her career. Even though Zanhua was reluctant, he stood firm to his "modern" beliefs of seeing women gain the same rights as men.

Yuliang excelled in school and was encouraged by teachers to travel to Paris, where she could perfect her painting skills. Yuliang began painting nudes and became recognized for doing so in a society where this was controversial.

Zanhua was not happy about Yuliang's new style of painting or of his wife's absence. This still was causing conflict in Zanhua's career as a Chinese political official.

While in Paris, Yuliang literally became a starving young artist, perfecting her craft. She struggled through school but became well known enough to be showcased at galleries.

After an affair and longing for her home, Yuliang swallows her independence and moves in with her husband and his first wife. Yuliang began teaching at art institutions and exhibiting her paintings in various shows.

After a disastrous event, many of her paintings were destroyed or stolen, and Yuliang questioned her career as an artist. Her style was against Chinese traditions and created havoc for her husband's work. She retired for a time, focusing on being a professor at the University, in Nanjing.

Her passion to paint burned insider of her, and after Yuliang received an invitation to be showcased in Paris, as an opening exhibitor, Yuliang picked up her brush again. She never returns to China.

She was a woman torn between her two greatest loves: her husband and her painting. She chose the latter and lived her life out in Europe gaining many awards for her strokes at hand. She never gained wealth, but she continued to be recognized as a controversial "Painter From Shanghai."

Caroline Dotson, of Downtown Books in Craig, reviews books for the Daily Press.

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