Down the muddy waters of the Yangtze River and into the seedy backrooms of “The Hall of Eternal Splendor,” through the raucous glamour of prewar Shanghai and the bohemian splendor of 1920s Paris, and back to a China ripped apart by civil war and teetering on the brink of revolution: this novel tells the story of Pan Yuliang, one of the most talented —and provocative—Chinese artists of the twentieth century.
Jennifer Cody Epstein’s epic brings to life the woman behind the lush, Cezannesque nude self-portraits, capturing with lavish detail her life in the brothel and then as a concubine to a Republican official who would ultimately help her find her way as an artist. Moving with the tide of historical events, The Painter from Shanghai celebrates a singularly daring painting style—one that led to fame, notoriety, and, ultimately, a devastating choice: between Pan’s art and the one great love of her life.
1. How are Yuliang's experiences of family and intimacy shaped by her Uncle Wu and, later, her life in the brothel? Who do you think are the victims and the villains? Does your opinion on these things change as the book continues?
2. Does Pan Zanhua’s decision to rescue Yuliang surprise you? Why do you think he does it? And how (if at all) does the gesture fit in with his own image of himself as a “modern” man?
3. Yuliang's budding talent for sketching is not revealed until chapter sixteen. Do earlier chapters contain any hints of her artistic abilities?
4. One of Pan Yuliang’s initial difficulties in learning to paint Western-style paintings was in mastering the form of the nude body. Why do you think this was? And once she’d mastered it, why do you think she chose to focus so much of her professional life on this particular form of painting?
5. Both Xudun and Zanhua have strong feelings about both art and it’s place in China’s political development. What two ideologies do these men represent? Are they entirely opposed? Who—if either--do you think Yuliang is more in agreement with?
6. After she moves to Nanjing—after years in Paris and Rome and a stint as an outspoken teacher at the Shanghai Art Academy—why do you think Yuliang submits to acting as "the second woman" to Guanyin in Zanhua's household? Why does Yuliang feel sympathy for Zanhua's first wife? Do you think Guanyin deserves sympathy?
7. At the end of her life, Pan Yuliang had become known in her Paris circle as the "Woman of Three 'No's" for her steadfast refusal to work with dealers, take French citizenship, or enter into love affairs. Why do you think she was so firmly against each of these things? Are they in keeping with the image of her you've formed from reading The Painter of Shanghai?
8. Three decades after Pan Yuliang’s death, her legacy a modern painter is still much-debated, and she remains largely a cult figure in China’s modern art world. Her mentors Xu Beihong and Liu Haisu, on the other hand, are both openly acknowledged as “masters” in China’s art history—both by Western and Chinese critics alike. Why do you think this is? Is it valid? Do you think an artwork’s value lies solely in technical execution, or are there other factors that determine its importance?
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