Based on the true story of one of China’s most famous woman painters, Pan Yuliang, this book is simply captivating! It tells the tale of her journey from being an orphan to a life of prostitution to the art studios of Shanghai and France.
At age fourteen, Pan is left in the care of her opium-addicted uncle who sells her to a brothel, “The Hall of Eternal Splendour” where she is destined to live out her life as a prostitute in its shady back rooms. She escapes this life two years later to become the concubine of a government official. He introduces her to a glamorous new life in Shanghai (in the 1920s): a life of love and of art. She later leaves for Lyon to study art.
Poetry, music and art are mentioned aplenty throughout the novel – from Li Qinzhao and Li Bai’s poems (Ezra Pound’s translations) to Verdi’s arias and paintings by Picasso, Landseer, Monmarte, Suzanne Valadon, Goya, Sargent, Monet, Reuben, Gentileschi, Leonardo Da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse, Renault, Rembrandt, Xu Beihong and Guan Daoshan (a famous woman painter).
There are also meaningful quotes, for example:
Xu Beihong: If I give up my art, I’ll end up eating my dreams. And dead dreams are worse than hunger. They’re poison.
Matisse: Another word for creativity is courage.
Goya: The dream of reason produces monsters.
Pan herself says: I paint because I am a painter.
She leaves the most painful things in her life unsaid. After all, as one of her art teachers advises: …loss in one arena compels us to compensate in others. Think about the senses. The way loss of sight leads to a heightened sense of smell, touch and hearing for the blind. What if the same is true of the creative process? What if those who’ve lost something compensates for it in their work? In that case, their damage helps them. It’s what compels us to create and it might explain why the best artists tend also to be the poorest.
One interesting fact for me is that Pan made the trip from Shanghai to France three times, each time making port at Saigon, Singapore and Colombo, round the great Horn of Africa, over Djibouti’s cobalt waters and coral reefs, and inch up the Suez Canal to Port Said before reaching the final destination. No wonder the author and her team did their research in many places, including seeking out her paintings at the Art Retreat Museum in Singapore before the book was written in 2008.
It would be wonderful if this novel is adapted into a screenplay; I can imagine Tang Wei in the lead role!