This fictionalized retelling of the life of Chinese artist Pan Yuliang begins in France, the turbulent years of her youth long past. Yuliang has, by the 1950s, established herself as a significant painter of nudes and nude self-portraits that scandalize her country as it struggles with the political changes that revolutionize the country, old and new ideas clashing.
The decadence of a pre-war China gives way to the People’s Revolution and eventually the Communist Party, but by then Yuliang has found her artistic voice, albeit one that flies in the face of convention. Yuliang is an unusual candidate for such a career, the product of a patriarchal society that allows the girl’s opium-addicted uncle to sell her into the demeaning life of prostitution.
The beneficiary of her own unusual spirit and a fateful meeting with the man who will take her as his second wife, Yuliang rises above the degradation of her time in a brothel, carving an extraordinary niche in a world that is indifferent to the needs of a helpless young woman.
Yuliang finds beauty and affection where none exists, focusing on one tender relationship at the tawdry Hall of Eternal Splendor that is seminal to the evolution of her artistic spirit. Then a fortunate “marriage” to a government official offers egress from a doomed future, Yuliang acknowledging a nascent calling that results in a passionate dedication to her art.
Once she has embraced her artistic ambition, the painter learns intimately the difficulties of the life she has chosen, the drive to work, the urgency of the creative process and the hard choices that cause fissures in a marriage, loyalty tested again and again. By the time she studies in France, this is a woman on a mission.
Her whole life determined by others, Yuliang realizes the importance of her commitment and the ultimate cost to her relationship with Pan Zanhua. Happy to provide opportunity for his wife’s blooming talent, Zanhua faces a defiant, stubborn Yuliang, who has glimpsed a world unrestricted by gender or background, beholden only to her teachers and her work.
It is truly a remarkable journey, reflected in each new phase of her development from the blight of prostitution to marriage to the blinding freedom of the creative life. Born in 1895, Yuliang faces daunting odds as an insignificant woman in a male-dominated society. Though tentative at first, her voice grows strong with conviction, light-years removed from her humble beginnings.