This book tells the story of Pan Yuliang, a young Chinese orphan girl, who in 1913, when she is 14 years old, is sold by her opium addicted, heavily in debt uncle, to a brothel in Wuhu. After spending two horrific years at the brothel, under the watchful eye of the manager, known as Godmother, Yuliang manages to escape when a young Government Official named Pan Zanhua, rescues her and takes her away. Yuliang discovers that she has a flair for painting, and wants to cultivate her new found talent. However, she discovers that she is living in dangerous times for a female artist who wants to push boundaries…
I enjoyed this book very much. Pan Yuliang was a real person, but this book is not intended so much as a biography, as a novel based on Yuliang’s life. The writing is beautiful – as artistic and enjoyable as the work of Yuliang herself. The main character is entirely believable – portrayed as a woman in conflict with the traditional standards of the society she lives in, but who also loves her country very much. While she is not always portrayed as a likeable person, she is always deserving of admiration, and I found it impossible not to root for her.
This is the first full length novel from Jennifer Cody Epstein, and it is eloquently written. It manages to be descriptive, yet never boring. The story moves along at a fair pace, but never feels hurried. I will await more work by this author, with great interest.
(NB: My copy of this book is called The Painter of Shanghai, but it also appears to have ben widely published under the name The Painter from Shanghai).