Pan Yuliang: The very name betrays the promise she made to never lie to Zanhua. She is not really Yuliang, and she is not really Pan Zanhua's wife. And every time she places the characters for Pan-Yu-Liang on a painting, she remembers what it cost her to become the Famous Western-Style Woman Painter of Shanghai.
Xiuqing was orphaned as a young child and sent to live with her opium-addicted uncle, Wu Ding. Little Xiu is happy helping with household chores and learning poetry. When she is fourteen, Wu Ding's debts become so great he starts to sell off his possessions, including his niece. It is then that Xiuqing begins to live in lies.
Known as Yuliang, the child serves the top girl at the Hall of Eternal Splendor and begins her training. She learns to deceive men and to pretend to herself that she is not a common whore. She buries Xiuqing deep inside and endures. When she is sent as a gift to Pan Zanhua, the new inspections officer, she has no reason to suspect that her destiny has changed.
Yuliang's transformation from pleasure girl to trained oil painter was possible only through her own stubbornness and talent as well as the love and support of Zanhua. It is often difficult to remember that Epstein's novel is based on the life of a real person. It is hardly believable that an orphan, a prostitute, a concubine could find the will and a way to escape absolutely everything. Yuliang's story is full of contrasts: who she really is versus who she is forced to be, bound feet and second wife played out against the communist revolution, woman as property becoming woman of independent means.
Epstein immerses us into Yuliang's universe, in which traditional culture tumbles into the modern world and where we can find inspiration and role models in the most unlikely places.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in art, China, historical fiction, and women's issues.
Jennifer Cody Epstein has a website where you can learn more about real Pan Yuliang.
Here is just one of many sites that show images of Pan Yuliang's works.
Published by WW Norton
Challenges: A-Z Author, New Author, 999, 100+, Art History,