My research on the life of Pan Yuliang

Only one written story existed about Pan Yuliang (1895-1977), a Chinese woman artist. It was in Chinese and full of ‘hidden motives and truths ignored’. It was meant to be a biography but lacking any factual information about Pan Yuliang’s life, the author wrote a novel, mixing bawdy fiction with the few known details about Pan Yuliang.

The search for Pan Yuliang took me on a journey to two continents in three languages. In 1988, when I first began to translate the novel Hua Hun, it was such a maudlin tale of woe that I found it difficult to think of it as a biographical story. It was about an unattractive, lower-class woman named Pan Yuliang who was orphaned at age eight and struggled through unspeakable abuse to become an award-winning post-impressionist painter in Paris. The pages of Hua Hun detailed brutality and sexual assault, abject fear, futile escape attempts, and awkward, outmoded dialogue.

It was only when I began to deal with the transliteration of foreign (other than Chinese) names of places and people that I began to suspect that Pan Yuliang was indeed a real person of talent. Chinese phrases such asmen ba la se, and ya se fu, after repeating them quickly out loud, suddenly became Montparnasse and Elisseeff. Who would have known this except a reader with knowledge of Paris, modern Asian art and the Chinese language? I am not a linguist, nor an art historian, but a dogged researcher of history. Suddenly it all came together. Montparnasse is the area of Paris where many foreign artists lived and worked during the early years of the 20th century. Elisseeff is Vadime Elisseeff, prominent Asian scholar and linguist who directed both the Guimet and the Cernuschi Museums of Asian art and culture in Paris during his career.

How had Shi Nan, the author of Hua Hun, learned these key names and mixed them into what was a soap opera about a Chinese artist? Who could possibly tell me where to begin to look for details about Pan Yuliang when libraries listed no books or periodicals that mentioned her name? When Asian museums, galleries and organizations in Chinatowns across the United States claimed to have never heard of Pan Yuliang? It was a long journey to find any evidence of Pan Yuliang at all.

Who was Pan Yuliang?

Google her name. Over 200,000 items are listed in five different languages. Most sites declare in their leads "sold to a brothel". This is not true. This is an invention.

This salacious whopper was made up by a woman named Shi Nan, in her first attempt at writing a book. When Shi Nan could find no one who knew of Pan Yuliang's early life and had no recourse to research materials, she invented the story of the brothel, thus making Pan Yuliang's story a novel, a fictional fantasy, not the biography she planned.

Since the publication of that novel, titled Hua Hun, The Soul of an Artist, in 1982, no one has questioned the basic premise of that slander; all dictionaries, museum biographies, art histories, and derivative works, including a Chinese movie, an American novel, a Taiwanese opera, a French novel, and many scholarly studies, essays and exhibit catalogues perpetuate the myth. No one has published the work of starting at the beginning to find the actual facts, until now.

No verifiable data is available for Pan Yuliang's early years. The most reliable information comes from an article written in 1959 by a friend who apparently heard the details from Pan Yuliang herself. Her father died before she was a year old; her elder sister died when she was two or three, and her mother died when she was eight. After that time she was raised by her uncle, a profligate man who used opium, and who, as with most men of his time, saw no use in educating a girl. She did not learn to read until her early teens.

In 1910, at age 15, she began to do embroidery, and to make silk and velvet headdresses, leading to her later interest in design and painting.

In 1913, at age 18, she met and married Pan Zanhua, a young revolutionary. They had no children. 

In 1920, at age 25, she passed examinations for acceptance into the Shanghai Art School to study Western painting.

In 1921 she applied and was accepted to be sent by the Chinese government to the newly formed Institut Franco-Chinois in Lyon, France, to study painting.

The rest of her remarkable life as an artist is well documented through correspondence with friends and family, many awards and prizes, exhibition records in France, throughout Europe and the United States, and other public documents. Pan Yuliang died in Paris on July 22, 1977. Her many paintings, sculptures and sketches were returned to her family in China in 1984.