The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein W.W. Norton, HK$200 Jennifer Cody Epstein's debut novel narrates the life story of Pan Yuliang in English for the first time, and recreates it in a refreshing telling while keeping to a historical timeline. To a fiction writer, Pan, arguably the most important female artist in contemporary China, is a perfect subject. Her 80-plus years in China and France spanned the two world wars and she witnessed stunning changes in both countries. Almost as dramatic was her transformation from teenage prostitute to avant-garde painter (she was among the earliest Chinese artists to adopt a western style). Her works - thousands of them, from oil paintings to sculptures - won her the title 'the Chinese Vincent van Gogh' but also brought controversy. Her nude paintings, for which she is best known, were often targeted by vandals and subjected to derogatory comments in China. That prompted her to leave the mainland for France for the second time in 1937. She never returned and died in Paris in 1977. For various reasons (the Cultural Revolution for one), historical records about Pan are scarce and incomplete. Until the appearance of Shi Nan's 1983 novel Hua Hun, Pan was a vague figure even to the Chinese. But interest in her life and times has been increasing. Mainland director Huang Shuqin's 1994 movie (starring Gong Li) and Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan's 2003 television series (starring Michelle Reis), both based on and named after the novel, have made Pan a household name in China. Epstein's Yuliang offers much more to make the book a page-turner. The reader is taken through the early life of this orphan, who was sold to a brothel by her opium-addicted uncle and rescued by tax officer Pan Zanhua, who became her husband. She was sent to Shanghai where she studied at the Art Academy under Liu Haisu. A scholarship supported her while she studied in France; but on returning to China she found her past had not been forgotten and she left again. In this novel Yuliang the character is successfully rounded out by the contradictory aspects of her personality: she is naive and lacks confidence yet is independent and stubborn. Despite all the uncertainties in her life she clearly hears the calling of art and follows it. By doing so, she gains some control over her fate, something many Chinese women never dreamed of during her time. Romance enriches the story and the events leading up to the 1949 revolution form a backdrop. Other than Zanhua there is Xing Xudun, a fellow art student in France who briefly became Yuliang's lover before he was deported for participating in a student protest and killed in Shanghai during the crackdown on communists in 1927. Occasionally the author's creativity swings a little too far from reality. For example, the first premier of the new China, Zhou Enlai, might have studied in France when Pan was there, but there is no record to show the two directly knew each other (although they had at least one common friend). The European-style kisses with which the fictional Yuliang decorates Zhou's cheeks and that shock the audience at one of her exhibitions might also be fanciful. Questionable too is the scene in which Zhou and Yuliang light cigarettes after the exhibition: Zhou was never known as a smoker. Generally, however, non-Chinese-speaking Epstein writes about historical China and the Chinese in a surprisingly authentic way. Her descriptions of brothel life and the landscape of Shanghai, and her rendering of traditional weddings, funerals and foot bindings, makes the book feel like a cross between Zhang Yimou's movies and Chen Yifei's oil paintings. Then again, these images are unlikely to be found in Pan's works, which habitually have the feeling of Paris.