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.
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.
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 aged 16 and up. Readers should be aware of detailed scenes of life in a brothel and other sexual encounters.