Fictional portrait of Pan Yuliang, a real-life 20th-century Chinese prostitute turned successful artist.
In the mold of Memoirs of a Geisha, Epstein’s debut devotes itself to the exotic life of a woman whose early years were spent in the service of men. Orphaned Yuliang is 14 in 1913 when her opium-addicted uncle sells her into a brothel. Beatings are routine, and escapees are caught and murdered. Having learned to please clients, Yuliang rises to “top girl” and has the good fortune to meet a modern-thinking customs inspector, Pan Zanhua, who buys her freedom, “marries” her (he already has a wife and child) and moves her to Shanghai. There she develops an interest in drawing and becomes one of very few women admitted to the Art Academy. Epstein touches on the shifting political background as Yuliang travels to France and Rome and develops her controversial work, which sometimes uses her own naked body as subject matter. Later she returns to Shanghai and Nanjing where, in 1936, an exhibition of her “Western-style” art is vandalized. In 1937 she abandons Zanhua and leaves once more for France, as war with Japan looms. She dies in 1977, only “modestly successful in the commercial sense,” but with awards to her name and a body of some 4,000 works of art.
The enlivening spark flickers only intermittently in this professional account of an unusual life.