Elsa Favreau



“The Nude in the Art of Pan Yuliang”


Copyright © 2006 by Elsa Favreau




Chinese artist sent to France to study, Pan Yuliang is better known in China for her past as a

prostitute. Her art remains unknown. With a visual argumentation, this dissertation will focus

on nude paintings in her work, and see how Pan Yuliang found her means of expression in a

Western genre, unheard of in China. Mainly produced in ink painting with the use of the

traditional Chinese brush, her paintings are at the same time faithful to the academic Realist

depiction of the nude, yet. Paradoxically, they also reveal strong elements of singularity and

modernity. For Pan Yuliang the body is synonymous with gestures, positions and

metamorphoses. First Chinese female artist to have devoted her art to nude paintings, her

exploration of the female body stands for novelty in Chinese art history.



Pan Yuliang (1895-1977)


Table of Content


The Nude in the Art of Pan Yuliang






















“For three hundred years no artist has dared to tread in an unknown realm in

search of nature’s beauty […] save for Madame Pan Yuliang."[1]


Xu Beihong (1895-1953)





Image 1

Gazing at One’s Shadow, 1929



In 1977, when the Cernuschi Museum in Paris asked the Chinese artist Pan Yuliang  (1895-1977), at the twilight of her life, to select the pieces that she considered to be the most telling of her work, she decided that her series of nudes should be exposed.[2] As shown by the above piece, Gazing at One's Shadow, Pan Yuliang had already chosen to exhibit a nude almost fifty years earlier, in 1929, when she participated in the First National Fine Arts Exhibition ever held in China in Shanghai, after eight years spent abroad. The years 1977 and 1929 are two symbolic dates in the life of Pan Yuliang. 1977 was the year the artist died in Paris and 1929 calls to mind the first years of her artistic creation and her first and last trip to China. From the beginning of her life to her last days, nude paintings would be Pan Yuliang’s favourite subjects. Pan Yuliang’s repertoire contains a great number of still lives, landscapes, drawings and figure portraitures but none of those subjects were given the same importance as the nude.


This importance is quantifiable, even in numbers and in variations. At the exhibition devoted to the artist, held at the National History Museum of Taipei in 2006, the number of nude paintings displayed was predominant (out of 120 pieces displayed, more than half of them were nudes).[3] The variety is noteworthy when one attentively considers the numerous body positions evoked in the nudes by Pan Yuliang. In her nudes, women are clothed with an abundance of attitudes, movements, emotions and curves. Whether it be standing, turning aside, reclining, squatting or sitting like the woman in Gazing at One's Shadow, the woman’s body in the work of Pan Yuliang is the site for a variety of metamorphoses. For Pan Yuliang, the body is synonymous with postures and gestures.


Talking about nude art, Pan Yuliang’s painting belongs to that category of artists, like Modigliani (1884-1920) or Ingres (1780-1867), whose art is immediately recognizable. Having looked just once at her paintings, when seeing a nude painting by Pan Yuliang, one knows it is a Pan Yuliang. Yet, like many of her female peers and ancestors, her art was “flowering in the shadow”.[4] Until 19855, her name was little known to the public and, even today, is still absolutely absent from encyclopaedias or dictionaries about art in China. Pan Yuliang spent 47 years in France and one could be inclined to consider her as a French artist, but her name does not appear in French dictionaries or encyclopaedias either. Astonishingly enough, what would appear to have been “flowering”, when alluding to or mentioning the name of Pan Yuliang, is her tragic destiny, her decadent behaviour, and her romance-like life, as shown by the success of the exaggerated and extremely fictionalised adaptation of her life in a romantic television show as well as in the film Huahun, A Soul Haunted by Painting (1995), starring international acclaimed actress Gong Li. Wrongly alluded to as, in a very simple approach, "The Female Van Gogh of China", Pan Yuliang is also the victim of the popularity and the enthusiasm generated by the movie. The recent revival of interest in her art has, of course, benefited from these fictions, but what haunted her most, her art, her paintings, is too often overlooked.


In real fact who was Pan Yuliang?


Pan Yuliang grew up in one of the most turbulent period of Chinese history. Her fate was closely linked to that of China. Chen Xiuqing, alias Pan Yuliang was born in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, in 1895, a year which according to Chinese folk tradition was bound to be a year of calamities and disaster. 8 That year, China signed the humiliating and painful Shimonoseki treaty with Japan. In 1908, two years before the Wuchang uprising, which would lead to the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and then to the proclamation of the Chinese Republic, Pan Yuliang lost her parents and was sold to a brothel. She stayed there for five years, until Pan Zhanghua, rescued her and married her, as his second wife. She would be grateful for his generosity all her life, even changing her name to the one we know today, "Pan Yuliang". Her marriage was synonymous with freedom and education. It was then that she started to paint. In 1918, she was admitted at the Shanghai Art School9 and in 1921, at the expense of the Chinese government, she followed in the footsteps of painters such as Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), Xu Beihong (1895-1953) and Fang Junbi (1898-1986)10 , to embark on what was referred to as the “call of the West”.She belongs to the much talked about generation of Chinese artists, also called the “Westernizers”, who, under the new and modern programme established by Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940)13, then Minister of Education, were sent to study in Europe or Japan after the momentous events which challenged Chinese culture in its entirety after the May 4th movement in 1919. Pan Yuliang first spent a year in Lyon before moving to Paris, then the arts capital of the world.14 Winner of a total of 21 awards, including such prestigious ones as the French National Gold Image Award or the Gold Award at the International Art Exhibition in Rome15, she also participated in an incredible number of exhibitions. Pan Yuliang was also the first woman artist to study at the National Art Institute in Rome. As an eclectic and complete artist, with skills ranging from oil painting, ink painting, sketching, line drawing, woodcut prints to sculpture, Pan Yuliang was devoted to her art. Considered by many as "the most controversial artist of Chinese history" because of her life of “debauchery”, there is also a paradox in the art of Pan Yuliang. Her life and art were haunted by a recurrent question: is the past a burden or an inspiration? This question was posed by Michael Sullivan when evoking the status of Chinese painting at the beginning of the twentieth century.


 The beginning of the twentieth century undoubtedly challenged Chinese painting as no other period had done before and tradition and modernity were subject to a fierce debate.19 If, on the one hand, Pan Yuliang's life was linked to the fate of China at the time, on the other hand, the same question had stalked both her art and modernity in Chinese painting. Oversimplified dual concepts such as "East versus West” and “modern versus traditional” have already been the subject of several studies.Yet there is something of an “East and West” dilemma in the study of nude bodies by Pan Yuliang. Pan Yuliang, who cleaved to her Chinese citizenship until the end of her life, was an artist who never forgot her origins or her roots.21 In her nudes, the subject and the technique are Chinese. Almost all the women have Chinese faces, and the bodies, nearly always outlined with "the sensitive, expressive and very Chinese line", are reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy.22 There are oil paintings in the work of Pan Yuliang, but they mainly account for the small number of depictions devoted to non-Chinese women. The great majority of other nudes, the Chinese ones, were performed in ink painting, sketching or Chinese outline drawing. Disregarding Chinese technique, the paintings of Pan Yuliang express a thoroughly Western understanding of human nature.


In fact, she found her means of expression in a Western genre, "an icon of Western culture".23 In her exploring of the female body, she opted for the most academic form of depiction experimented by the nude genre, Realism. Pan Yuliang embodies the paradox encountered by many other Chinese artists, who turned to European Realism at a time when European art was heading in the opposite direction.24 As a former prostitute, aware that her past, combined with her artistic devotion to nude paintings, had been the reason for such violence towards her, she nonetheless explored what Xu Beihong had called the "realm unknown". As the only Chinese female artist to have devoted her art to female nude painting, an art which was exclusively defined by men in Western tradition25 and that was totally unheard of in China, Pan Yuliang can be considered as a discoverer of the Chinese female body. What defines the nude in the work by Pan Yuliang? Where does she stand in terms of artistic considerations? Would it be accurate to say that her female paintings are variations on the same theme? What are the different attitudes arising in the nude repertoire? Finally, why is Pan Yuliang considered by influential women artists in China today as the first female Chinese modern artist?


Bearing in mind the definition of the Chinese term, guohua, symbolizing the preservation of the national essence in Chinese painting and used to refer to modern painting in ink painting, can we assume that Pan Yuliang was the inventor of the female nude guohua?27 When Pan Yuliang died, her last wishes were carried out and all her paintings returned to Anhui province, birthplace of her husband Pan Zhanghua. Given that the great majority of her paintings are today stored in the Anhui Provincial Museum, this analysis on the nude in the art of Pan Yuliang is almost entirely based on these pieces, better known because reproduced in the catalogue of the exhibition held in Taipei in 2006, which displayed some of the pieces on loan from the Anhui Provincial Museum. Never losing track firstly, of the assumption that the gender of “an artist matters and that it conditions the way art is seen and discussed”, and, secondly, that Pan Yuliang was a former prostitute, aware of the preciousness of the female body, we will explore the different nudes in the art of Pan Yuliang. Given that there is no record of Pan Yuliang’s mentioning her art and no previous analysis of her work, we will proceed with a visual argumentation. Before considering the abundance of postures and gestures in the art of Pan Yuliang and the themes she decided to highlight in her work, we will recall the status of nude art in China and thus understand the paradoxical choices made by the artist.









“The nude is everywhere, yet has no place, it is “difficult to handle”, yet wholly

familiar, it is the least known and the most popular form. Above all it is understood to be Art”


Marcia Pointon in, Naked Authority: The body in Western Painting 1830-1908.



Image 2

Black and White in Contrast, 1939



The oil painting above, entitled Black and White in Contrast, was painted by Pan Yuliang in 1939. The resemblance to Manet’s (1832-1883) Olympia (see Appendix 1), 1863, is uncanny. 1939 marks the period when Pan Yuliang decided to return to France, after nine years spent in China.[5] During those nine years, Pan Yuliang had suffered greatly from the social stigma attached to her scandalous past. In 1936, the individual exhibitions she held in Nanjing were the target of sacking by people shocked by her past.[6]Pan Yuliang preferred to return to her “artistic homeland”, where she asserted her aesthetic tastes and pursued her  exploration of the female body.[7]


The painting of a replica of a canonical work such as Olympia by Pan Yuliang is not innocuous. Indeed, Manet’s Olympia stands as a symbol in the history of Nude Art. In 1863, the painting had literally shocked the contemporaries of the time because its subject was a courtesan. Before Manet’s Olympia, women in nude paintings were ideal beauties such as Venus or Danae depicted according to the Greek tradition of mimesis, the imitation of nature, in contexts of myths and history. With Manet, from an idealized beauty, the female nude had become any woman, the woman in the street, sleeping, washing, even a courtesan resting.


Considered to be modernist at the time, because of a rupture with tradition, Olympia had paved the way for a transformation in nude female depiction, a demystification. The homage paid by Pan Yuliang to Manet in Black and White in Contrast is twofold. First, she affirms that her artistic vision of woman is similar; it is that of the everyday woman. Secondly, to a certain extend, she is perhaps, unconsciously or not, sensitive to his depiction of a courtesan, the woman she used to be. After all, Pan Yuliang could have chosen any of Renoir's or Degas' nudes depicting women washing but she chose Manet. Nude Art in the West has been plagued by evolutions, ruptures, revolutions and controversies throughout the centuries. “Hard to handle” for Marcia Pointon [8], it is defined by Helen McDonald as "the most fascinating and disturbing symbol in Western visual culture". [9] In China, absolutely not fascinating but extremely disturbing, the nude was an emblem of "controversies".[10] Pan Yuliang, the controversial painter, had chosen a genre which in her motherland was in the throes of all sorts of controversies.





Pan Yuliang, when studying at the Shanghai Meizhan under the well known Chinese painter Liu Haisu (1896-1994), had been one of the few Chinese pioneer artists to experiment studies directly from nature. She was close to become a discoverer. Before the dawn of the twentieth century, there was no trace of nude figures representation found in Chinese art history. The only existing portrayal of naked bodies existing was pornography. [11] At a time when, in Europe, nudes by Fragonard (1732-1806) or David (1748-1825) were already considered to be outstanding pieces of art, an American correspondent, sent to the court of the Emperor Qianlong (r.1735-1796), at the end of the 18th century, remarked that “Chinese were incapable of painting the nude”.[12] If we refer to Sir Kenneth Clark’s much criticized and debated opposition of the words “naked” and “nude” in his The Nude, A Study of Ideal Art (“naked” being the body simply deprived of clothes, the “nude” being the body clothed in art)[13], we can assume that, in China, until its introduction in 1914, the nude genre was completely inexistent and, therefore, that the words “nude” and “naked” were synonymous. Chinese traditional artists, devoted to the long tradition of landscapes paintings, showed fierce resistance to this introduction and never considered nude art to be an “Ideal” art. Although nude paintings are integral part of Western art history, in China there is absolutely no trace of nude flesh in art history and not a single hint to reclining nudes. The only exception found in Chinese art history is figure painting, involving the so-called “audacious” [14] representation of a man whose shoulder and torso are naked. The portrayal of the chest and intensified muscles in Ren Xiong’s (1823-1857) Self Portrait (see Appendix 3), led Richard Vinograd to refer to a “deliberate challenge to or provocation of the viewer”. [15] In 1914, Liu Haisu was the first to take up another challenge, by introducing the presence of nude models in his drawing classes at the Shanghai Art Academy.[16] Ren Xiong’s Self Portrait had been considered to be provocative, Liu Haisu’s introduction of nude models would meet with the same fate.


Attacked as being “injurious to education”[17], considered to be “anti-Confucian” [18], most of the timejudged “scandalous”[19], this introduction led to fierce debates. Some debates were still going on recently.[20] This Western subject, particularly new and obscene, had reached China through the growing access to foreign culture which was widespread in the country at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.[21] A foreign culture which had favoured a new awareness of Chinese modern artists who, following Chen Duxiu’s (1880-1942) call for a “revolution in art”, saw in the Realism of Western art a remedy for the repetition that had characterized Chinese painting in the previous centuries.[22] Pan Yuliang did not officially take sides in the “Chinese modern debate”[23], however, she was won over by the discovery of Realism and her paintings reflect humans  directly depicted from nature, from reality. At the Shanghai Meizhan, in 1918, Pan Yuliang, under the apprenticeship of Liu Haisu, was one of the first privileged “artistic rebels”48 to have had the opportunity to take part in this “education of the eye”[24]. In China, public opinion did not have a favourable view of this “education of the eye” and banning almost immediately followed the introduction.[25]


With this experience in mind, Pan Yuliang would immerse herself in the practice to an even greater degree at the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris, where students acquired rigorous skills in anatomy as a complement to their education of the nude body.[26] Above all she would confirm her knowledge in a country where nude art had also been at the centre of a long and controversial history.
















[1] 1 Extract from an article written in 1953 by the Chinese painter Xu Beihong after viewing the exhibitions of Pan Yuliang. Pan Yuliang, Huahun, exhibition Catalogue of an exhibition held at The National History Museum (11/02//2006-09/04/2006), Taipei, p.29.

[2] Quatre artistes chinoises contemporaines (Pan Yulin, Lan Oi, Ou Seu-tan, Shin Wai), Exhibition Catalogue, 26 Mars-30 April 1977, Musée Cernuschi Paris.


[3] Out of 123 pieces, 57 are representations of the body.

[4] Flowering in the Shadows is the title of a book written by Marsha Weidner, recalling the history of Chinese and Japanese painters.

[5] Pan Yuliang left Paris in 1928, to return in 1937. See Pan Yuliang, Huahun, exhibition Catalogue of an exhibition held at The National History Museum (11/02//2006-09/04/2006), Taipei, pp.213-214

[6] The movie by Huang Shuqing insists on the sacking of paintings exhibited by Pan Yuliang at that time in Nanjing and on the trauma endured by the artist because of this.

[7] Pan Yuliang, Huahun, Exhibition Catalogue of an exhibition held at The National History Museum

(11/02//2006-09/04/2006), Taipei, p.27.


[8] Pointon, Marcia, Naked Authority: The body in Western Painting 1830-1908, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p.12.

[9]  McDonald, Helen, Erotic Ambiguities, The Female Nude in Art, Routledge, London, 2001, p.7.

[10] Clarke, David, “Iconicity and Indexicallity: The body in Chinese Art” in Semiotica 155-1/4 (2005), p. 239.

[11] Pan Yuliang, Huahun, exhibition Catalogue of an exhibition held at The National History Museum (11/02//2006-09/04/2006), Taipei, p.44.

[12] Wijnberg, Nachoem M., “Human Bodies in Chinese and European Painting: An Economic Analysis” in Cultural Dynamics, 1999, p.90.

[13]  Nead, Lynda, The Female Nude Art, Obsenity and Sexuality, Routledge, London, 1992, p.14.

[14] Cahill, James, “The Shanghai School in Later Chinese Painting” in Twentieth Century Chinese Painting, Oxford University Press, Hong-Kong, 1988, p.69.

[15] Vinograd, Richard, Boundaries of the Self, Chinese Portraiture 1600-1900, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p.128.

[16] Birnie Dranzker, Jo-Anne “Shanghai Modern” in Shanghai Modern 1919-1945, edited by Jo-Anne BirnieDanzker, Ken Lun, Zheng Shengtian, Hatje Cantz, 2004, p.25.

[17]  Sullivan, Michael, Arts and Artists of the Twentieth-Century China, University of California Press, 1996, p.30.

[18] Clarke, David, “Iconicity and Indexicallity: The body in Chinese Art” in Semiotica 155-1/4 (2005), pp.241.

[19] Cohen, Joan Lebold, The New Chinese Painting: 1949-1986, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1987, p.12.

[20]  In 1988, China authorized the first exhibition entirely devoted to the nude. Michael Sullivan notes that, at that time, “public opinion about the nude had little advanced from Liu Haisu’s daring exhibition of sixty years earlier”. See Sullivan, Michael, Arts and Artists of the Twentieth-Century China, University of California Press,

1996, p.274.

[21] Clarke, David, Modern Chinese Art, Images of Asia, Oxford University Press, 2000, p.22.

[22]  In 1918, Chen Duxiu (1879-1942), was the editor of the leading new intellectual journal, Xin qingnian (New Youth) in which he expressed his “call for a revolution in art”. See Croizier, Ralph, « Post-Impressionists in Pre-War Shanghai: The Juelanshe (Storm Society) and the Fate of Modernism in Republican China”, in Modernity in Chinese Art edited by John Clark, Wild Peony, 1993, p.137.

[23] “The Modern Chinese Art Debate” is the name given by Wen C. Fong to the crises encountered by China at the beginning of the twentieth century. See Wen, C. Fong, “The Modern Chinese Art debate” in Artibus Asiae, vol.53, 1993, pp.290-304.

[24] Phrase coined by Chen Shuren in 1912, see Kao, Mayching, “The Quest for New Art” in Twentieth Century Chinese Painting, Oxford University Press, Hong-Kong, 1988, p.130.

[25] As early as 1924, an exhibition at the Shanghai Meizhan which included nude paintings was immediately banned by the military governor for moralistic reasons. See Kao, Mayching, “The Spread of Western Art in China 1919-1929” in China: Development and Challenge,Volume IV “Cultural Change and Science and Medicine”, Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong-Kong, 1981, p.91.

[26]  Dawkins, Heather, The Nude in French Art and Culture 1870-1910, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p.7.