The Emperor’s Club
In this age of memoir and thinly veiled autobiographical fiction, writers who take high dives into deeply imagined waters have become increasingly rare — and valuable. What a pleasure, then, to discover that Jennifer Cody Epstein, whose luminous first novel, “The Painter From Shanghai,” is based on the actual life of Pan Yuliang, a former child prostitute turned celebrated painter, also happens to be one such writer.
THE PAINTER FROM SHANGHAI
By Jennifer Cody Epstein.
416 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $24.95.
It doesn’t hurt that Yuliang’s life — buffeted by the seismic cultural and political shifts in China during the first half of the 20th century — makes for an irresistible story: born in 1895 and orphaned as a child, Yuliang was sold into sexual slavery at 14 by her opium-addicted uncle. After seven years in the brothel, she was bought out by Pan Zanhua, a progressive official who made her his concubine, then his second wife, and encouraged her painting. One of a handful of women accepted into the Shanghai Art School, she went on to win fellowships for study in Paris and Rome. After several years abroad, she returned to China, where success and scandal — thanks to her Western-influenced nude self-portraits — followed. In 1937, with Shanghai and Nanking under bloody assault by the Japanese, Yuliang fled China for good, settling alone in Paris, where she died, impoverished, in 1977.
In “The Painter From Shanghai,” Epstein concentrates on Yuliang’s time in the brothel — chillingly named the Hall of Eternal Splendor — and her early years with the devoted Pan Zanhua when, as Epstein imagines, Yuliang’s understanding of herself as a (relatively) free woman and artist began to emerge. The brothel sections are harrowing. Epstein, who clearly did vast amounts of research, brings palpably to life the degradations these young women are subjected to: the mock wedding of new “leaves” (or virgins) to the highest bidder; the enforced vinegar diets to lose weight; the “puffy ringed hands” of Godmother, who checks the girls for signs of “sex-sickness.”
Most vivid is Epstein’s portrait of the lovely Jinling, “trailing scent like an elegant scarf, an exotic blend of gardenia and musk.” The establishment’s top girl, she eats seed pearls crushed with sugar to enhance her complexion. Jinling befriends and protects Yuliang, bringing a bright insouciance to the brothel’s dark halls — until she is murdered, her throat slit by one of her clients. Her death reverberates throughout the novel. Indeed, Epstein suggests that Yuliang’s desire to repossess Jinling’s pale, beautiful, youthful flesh — and thereby her own — inspires the nude paintings that will later bring her such notoriety.
In an epigraph, Epstein quotes the English painter John Sloane, who wrote that “though a living cannot be made at art, art makes life worth living. It makes starving, living.” In the end, this is precisely what Epstein illustrates in her moving characterization of Pan Yuliang, who even as an abused young girl notes the way a “slap mark glows red at first but fades slowly to peach-pink,” and as an adult, torn between her love for her husband and her desire to be unconstrained as an artist, chooses the nourishment of her work: “She cocks her head ... and starts anew. She paints until the light outside has seeped away into the black sky; until the monks go home and the mourners leave, and all that’s left is the soft click of the gamblers’ ivory.”