The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein '88

The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody-Epstein '88

The coffin is set out just outside the house across the street—the deceased must have died away from home. But there is no shortage of mourners. The daughters are dressed in black; grandchildren and great-grandchildren in blue. The sons-in-laws wear stark white and bright yellow. Underscoring this colorful chorus of bereavement is the slick clicking of the pat-cha dice. The mourning gong, hung to the right of the house’s doorway, signifies the departed is a woman. The presence of great-grand children means she was probably quite old. 

But Yuliang is too far away to make out the portrait propped on a stool by the coffin, amid layers of flowers and other offerings. She tries to recall the grandmothers who greet her sometimes when she comes home. One had a face like a withered pumpkin and a sweet and oddly young voice. She’d sometimes call to Yuliang: “Going to your school, little daughter? When are you going to paint my picture?” 

Yuliang tries to imagine the same woman now, lying still in her coffin, her face and body covered by yellow and blue cloth. What would it be like, she wonders, to paint that in Life Study--a body that had no life in it at all? Her anatomy class works from textbooks and an old medical skeleton, donated by a local mission because it’s missing two ribs. But Leonardo is said to have learned from the actual dead—spending hours in darkened morgues, dissecting, peeling back. Sketching. Her classmates, raised to see death as the ultimate contaminant, were openly horrified by this. Yuliang, though, had merely shrugged. If the Italian master had taken up the flesh trade (she’d thought, wryly) he’d have gained just as firm a sense of human physiology. 

Now she studies her model again—the hardened nipples, the goosebumped skin. The sight of her like that—stripped, alone—hurts her heart. She shuts her eyes, then berates herself in silence: Stupid whore. You can’t paint her if you can’t see her. 

And then—just like that--it hits her: I can’t see her. 

Electrified, Yuliang opens her eyes, Teacher Hong’s words coming back with new meaning: Try to see the skin as more than simply skin, he had said. It had sounded so obvious, mundane almost. Yuliang had barely given a second thought. Looking at the girl now, though, she suddenly understands that she of all people, has never had call to see past the skin. To see past the pain and shame of it; to see it not as vulnerability or threat, but instead as something beautiful. As something that should be painted. 

Outside the mourners wail: “Aiiiiiiiiii. Come back, mother. Come back!” 
Heart racing, Yuliang shuts her eyes once more. She thinks of Jinling. Not as she was the last time Yuliang saw her, but in those impossibly early days when she first began to attend to her. Before she fully understood a body’s worth in monetary terms, and could value it only in the currency of beauty. She thinks of the way her skin had looked sometimes in the morning: sheened in perspiration. Stretched out in sheer joy. Limned in the early light of a sunrise. Beauty, she thinks. And looks again….. 

…And perhaps it’s the timing: The sun is finally setting, touching everything in the room with orange and gold. But at that moment the model strikes her as almost ethereal—as far from mere skin and blood as a rainbow is from rain and mud…