Painter From Shanghai, The

Fiction - Historical - Event/Era
430 Pages
Reviewed on 03/15/2009
Buy on Amazon

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    Book Review

Reviewed by Anne Boling for Readers' Favorite

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.

Regina Sugarmon

From the moment I opened the book, I could not put it down. The writers description of rural China, Shanghai and Paris in the 1920s, was fascinating and mesmerizing. I became so involved with the character of Pan Yuliang, that I had to remind myself she was a fictional character and that I would not find any of her paintings in the Museums of Shanghai or Paris. I consider this a double eye drop book, at night I had to keep on reading regardless of burning eyes and vampire hours. I hated this one to end.

Sarah Saffian

Upon finishing Jennifer Epstein's luminous tale of a courageous, passionate woman's personal and artistic triumph over circumstance, I wept, so much had Yuliang inspired and moved me. She lingers still, thanks to Epstein's lyrical, keenly observed writing, from the smallest detail to the overall epic story arc. Brava.

Sam Oliver

Jennifer Cody Epstein's novel, The Painter from Shanghai (W. W. Norton & Company; April 6, 2009; $14.95 paperback) is a story about Pan Yuliang. Pat Yuliang was orphaned at a young age and sold to a brothel at age fourteen. This is a story of living authentically at every stage of her life.

Pan Yuliang's search for her authentic self was created through her heart, mind, and imagination. It surfaced upon the canvass of artistic beauty. You could say that Pan's depiction of artistry was a reflection of her path into soul. She found a way to care for herself through creative expression like no other artist of her time.

This novel is timeless and can be read in any age. It is universally the journey each of us must take in life. To find one's most authentic expression of living no matter what is going on around you is truly a gift. It is a gift of freedom and cannot be taken away from the person who displays this gift. It is a gift that lies within us all which makes this novel inspirational and compelling to read. It cuts to the heart and soul of living life purposefully and freely.

The Path into Healing

Cynthia Hudson

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 in 11th grade and up. Readers should be aware of detailed scenes of life in a brothel and other sexual encounters.

Hillary Jordan

The rampantly overused and often undeserved phrase "stunning debut" happens to be absolutely true in the case of this gorgeously crafted fictional tale of the real-life artist Pan-Yuliang, who was sold into prostitution as a young girl and overcame her sordid past to become one of China's great painters. Epstein breathes vivid life into her characters as she charts Yuliang's journey from the "Hall of Eternal Splendor" brothel in Shanghai to Paris in the roaring 20s and back to a China roiled by imminent revolution. Meticulously researched and compulsively readable, this novel deserves every bit of the advance praise it's receiving from the press (including that killer review in the NYT Book Review: [...]


Jennifer Cody Epstein has done what great ambitious novelists have done for centuries-- she has created a world foreign and yet somehow familiar, a world that seduced me completely while also educating me about Chinese politics and culture, Paris in the 1920's, and--perhaps most saliently-- the day-to-day experience of being an artist. It is the artist's life that has stayed with me, long after (sadly) turning the final page. Epstein illuminates, without pretense,the profound struggles and elation that come with the act of painting and she makes this perpetual battle for expression utterly riveting. This is a luminous work.

Katharine Cunningham

In the same genre, more or less, as Phillipa Gregory's beloved books, The Painter From Shanghai does an even better job then Gregory in creating a world that upon opening the book, you are thrust into. It could be that China in the early 1900's is more or less a world away from the west circa 2009 that makes it so intoxicating, but Epstein really makes it easy to imagine the world that Yuliang lives in, and the horrors she endures. One reviewer used the word "lush" and I cannot think of a better adjective to use. This book isnt a 5 because I did feel it dragged a tiny bit in some places, and could have moved slightly faster, but all in all a fantastic book, especially for a debut!

S. Agusto-Cox

Jennifer Cody Epstein's The Painter from Shanghai: A Novel is a fictional account of Pan Yuliang's rise from the ashes of her life as Xiuqing, a young child sold into prostitution. Through careful brushstrokes of her own, Epstein deftly fills her canvas with the sights, sounds, and images of China--from the dark alleys and brothels to the crowded, chaotic streets of Shanghai--in the early 1920s. Yuliang is a complex character who numbly makes her way through the obstacles she faces as a new prostitute under the thumb of corrupted merchants and a harsh and battered old woman, known as Grandmother. Emerging from the dank and corrupted halls of the brothel, she jumps into her new life as the concubine/second wife to Pan Zanhua and embarks on her career as a student and painter at the height of the Communist uprising in China during the 1930s.

Epstein has a style all her own in which she easily weaves in relevant historical information through character interaction and development, but she also captures even difficult emotions with deft description and poise.

In the brothel, readers will feel Yuliang's degradation as each man leers at her, touches her skin, and makes her kowtow to their desires. The one solace she has is the poetry of Li Qingzhao, which she recites from memory. Readers will enjoy the verse woven into the narrative as Yuliang examines herself at life-changing moments and seeks solace in the beauty of language.

Yuliang is molded by her mentors, but only truly blossoms when she becomes Zanhua's wife and starts painting. Through painting she learns to combat her demons, her past, and her future, coming into her own as a painter and individual. As China is pulled in two directions between the republic and the communists, Yuliang is caught between her rebellious nature and Chinese tradition.

The Painter from Shanghai: A Novel has a lot to offer book clubs, readers interested in painting, historical fiction, the struggle of women in society, China, and political history, and is one of the best novels I've read this year.

Joy McGinnis

The Painter from Shanghai caught and kept my attention from beginning to end. I had never heard of Pan Yuliang but this novel made her come alive for me and drew me into the drama and struggles of her life. Jennifer Cody Epstein is a wonderful author--she has an eye for detail and an empathy for her characters. I always know a book is good when I find myself thinking about it throughout my day. I finished this book several weeks ago and am still thinking about Pan Yuliang! It makes me wish that some of her paintings were here in the US. Great job, Jenn--can't wait for your next book!


This was not bad. It was actually pretty good in the first half. The first half is about Pan when she is a child and her drug addict uncle sells her to a prostitution house. Pan makes a good friend and reader's will see the impact this girl friend had on the rest of Pan's life. I found the first half very touching and intimate. It had a "Memoirs of a Geisha" type feel to it. After the loss of her good friend, Pan meets an important man that decides to rescue her. She becomes his concubine and thankfully for her, he is a man open minded enough to allow her to pursue her painting. After a few rough spots and struggles including the starving artist phase, she becomes one of very few female artists in China. However, this is when it gets boring. The last half of the book is mostly about art and very little about Pan. There is also a major injection of politics in the last half regarding China, Japan, Italy, and France. I simply scanned over what bored me and got back to what I thought was the "good parts" or drama. I did get the impression Pan was a bit selfish in some ways and I found it odd that she was always painting herself naked, but I cannot claim to understand artists. Good book, but I would not read it again.