IT IS the stuff of quality bestsellers. A controversial woman and ground-breaking artist whose dramatic life, set in the repressive confines of early 20th century China, is full of courageous determination and tinged with notoriety. Pan Yueliang nee Chen Xiuqing, born in Yangzhou in 1899, was a sculptor, engraver and painter of nudes. Despite lowly beginnings, she is now credited with at least partially introducing Western art concepts into China - and fielding the subsequent backlash. Her story has already inspired a forthcoming biography and an eagerly awaited film, The Story of Art, directed by Huang Xuqin, a woman film-maker from China. It stars Gong Li, who jumped at the chance to portray the artist. ''I accepted the offer because I love the story so much,'' she said. ''I have admired the late painter Pan Yueliang for a long time and I really appreciate her work.'' Pan's father died in the year when she was born and her mother passed away when she was eight. At 13 her uncle, a heavy gambler, sold her to a Wuhu brothel as a servant. She tried to run away 10 times in four years, but was severely beaten and forced into prostitution. Her romance with Mr Pan Zanhua, rumoured to be one of her patrons, began when he twice rescued her from suicide: once throwing herself into the river and then trying to hang herself in the brothel. He fell deeply in love with her and in 1913 they marriedin Shanghai. Mr Pan was an extraordinary character. A revolutionary, he was a friend to Dr Sun Yat-sen in Japan and an intimate of Chen Duxiu, the father of communism in China. Pan Yueliang was the first married woman admitted to the Shanghai Institute of Art in 1918, and was admitted to the new Sino-French University in Lyons three years later. In 1923, she entered the National Institute of Art in Paris and was awarded several medals in recognition of her talent before returning to China in 1928. She taught Western-style painting in a number of art institutes in Shanghai and Nanjing, courting controversy for her avant-garde styles and imported technique of oil on canvas. Although she also devoted herself to the traditional Chinese style of brush ink painting on paper, she looked for inspiration beyond the classic Chinese domain and was particularly interested in the female nude. While in Nanjing, Pan donated her artworks to raise money for the Sino-Japanese war. But she was discriminated against by the Nanjing artists when she sharply criticised them for having ''too many words and too few works''. The artist once told her husband: ''If I paint reality I will be surrounded and attacked. ''If I stay in Nanjing I have to see people I don't want to see, and speak and do things I don't want to say and do. Had it not been to serve you, I would have gone to further my studies in art in Paris.'' IN 1933, Mr Pan went off to fight the Japanese and the artist went back to Paris. She never went home again. In spite of their intense love, her husband advised her to stay put during the war which in 1949 claimed him as one of its victims. By 1976, when the painter next tried to return home she was too sick to travel. She died in France alone. Small wonder then that the equally enigmatic Gong Li, already associated with strong and tragic women roles for director Zhang Yimou (Judou, Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiuju ), was keen to play such a character. The actress, who arrived in Hongkong on Wednesday to start filming her second role in a Cantonese costume comedy with co-stars Chiau Sing-chi and Chan Pak-cheung, said Pan's story had always intrigued her. ''When I look back at her life, what impresses me most is her talent and her sincerity towards life and art,'' Gong said. Pan's flirting with controversy is not unknown to the actress. Her roles in Zhang's films have often depicted the unhappy lot of women in oppressive China and have some times alienated the Chinese Government. Gong's increasing fame in the West has raised eyebrows among politicians who recently offered her membership in the National People's Congress. ''I have not yet received an official notification,'' she said. ''It is an honour to be chosen as a NPC delegate. But I really know so little about politics and the economic reforms.'' Like top Chinese actresses Pan Hong and Liu Xiaoqing, who are also NPC delegates, Gong said she wished to make a contribution to culture in general. Yet this contribution may not be one the Chinese Government aspires to. The Story of Art, filmed in a Shanghai suburb, has already caused a stir with Gong rumoured to have agreed to a nude scene. The actress was coy about the details. ''As an actress I have to consider the needs of the script, the director and all aspects of the film before deciding whether appropriate sexy appearances are necessary on grounds of professional ethics and spirit.'' The film, which is with the Shanghai Film Corporation for post production, is slated for release in Hongkong in June, and destined for distribution in Europe and North America. How it will be received in China remains to be seen, but a spokeswoman for the corporation said the film would probably have to be censored. She insisted, however, that Gong ''had no saucy appearances in the film'' and that it ''was done artistically''. Gong was unconcerned about the furore. ''China has become more permissive these days and cinema-goers are understanding enough to accept this,'' she said. ''In fact, some actors in China have begun to accept the fact that to a limited degree sexy appearances are necessary for the sake of the script and the director's requirement, whereas in the West, it is almost a daily routine for professional actresses.'' And as if prompted by the painter of nudes herself, Gong said: ''I think filming is a kind of art which should be viewed from an angle of appreciation. At that point it is easier to accept an actor's [sexual] performances.'' Gong will be filming in Hongkong until June, before returning to Beijing to star in Zhang's Tang dynasty drama about the Empress Wu Zetian.