Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: Wu Li
By John Janaro (’85)
Wu Li is renowned as one of the “Six Masters” of 17th-century Chinese painting. He was born in the city of Changzhou in southeastern China around the year 1632. He grew up and pursued classical Chinese scholarship amid the social and cultural turmoil caused by the collapse of the Ming dynasty. Therefore, he never became a government official, but instead dedicated himself to painting, poetry, and the search for truth.
These were bewildering and challenging times for the scholar-aristocrats of the empire, as their world was shaken first by internal rebellion and then by the imposition of a new order by Manchu warriors from the north, who established the Qing dynasty beginning in 1644. As the new dynasty consolidated its rule, some scholars became Qing officials while others retired, out of loyalty to the Ming or in general disillusionment with what they perceived to be the decadence of the epoch. Many of them pursued new styles of Confucianism or Buddhism that became prominent at this time.
Meanwhile, scholars in some parts of China continued to be provoked and fascinated by a small group of very learned foreign teachers who had begun to live among them in the 16th century. These were the “wise men from the West,” the Jesuit missionaries who-following the trail blazed by Matteo Ricci-proposed the Gospel while also embracing everything that was true and good in classical Chinese traditions. They made China their home, wearing Chinese robes, mastering the Chinese language and literary styles, writing catechisms in Chinese, translating Western wisdom (theological, philosophical, and scientific) into Chinese, and befriending Chinese people.
Changzhou had a strong Jesuit presence, which Wu may have encountered early in his life. But like many others, Wu seemed intent on trying to find his way along the more established Chinese paths of Confucianism and Buddhism. He was known to visit the Chan (Zen)’ Buddhist monk Mo Yong at the monastery in nearby Suzhou, and he studied under the famous neo-Confucian scholar (and implacable Ming loyalist) Chen Hu. From neither of them, however, did he find the fullness of truth he was seeking. Sometime around the year 1670, he began to spend time with the Jesuits of Changzhou, Francois de Rougemont (“Lu Rima”) and Philippe Couplet (“Bai Yingli”), and their followers.
What we know of the details of Wu’s life up to this point comes largely from inscriptions on paintings and some of his poetry. Most likely, he was baptized in the early 1670s. It seems he found a depth of friendship and an integrated spiritual and material sense of life among the Catholics. But clearly more than that had taken hold of his life. Over the course of the decade, his former teachers Mo Yong and Chen Hu died, as did his wife. His daughters were both married. Meanwhile, Wu’s faith grew along with his poetic imagination through the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. It became clearer to him that the center of friendship, affection, and beauty was Jesus Christ. At the age of fifty, Wu himself decided to enter the Jesuits. Six years later he was ordained; he carried out his own ministry for thirty more years while continuing to paint, and he also wrote what some consider to be the most outstanding Chinese Christian poetry.