Christian Faith in the Art of Wu Li (1632-1718)

Fung, Nok Kan Nicole 馮諾勤
Supervisor: Dr. Y.W. Koon

Wu Li 吳歷 (1632-1718) was an early Qing scholar artist who dedicated half his lifetime to religious pursuits. He was not only one of the many Chinese Christian converts in the seventeenth century, but one of the few early Chinese Jesuit priests. He was part of the educated elite community in Changshu, where foreign Catholic priests would visit and stay. Although Wu Li was exposed to Christianity at an early age, it was only when he was around forty sui that he turned to Christianity, possibly prompted after the deaths of close friends and family. Thereafter, he assisted European missionaries for a few years before leaving home to study in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Macao. On becoming a priest, he dedicated all his efforts in spreading his faith, and to take care of the Christian communities in Shanghai and Jiading. Throughout his priesthood, Wu Li continued with his scholarly practices including painting and poetry. It is in his poetry where elements of his Christian faith are most pronounced and there have been numerous research efforts focusing on this area of his metier. In contrast, current scholarship seldom examines the role of his faith in painting, and when there are interests, the tendency is to focus on the tension between his training in the Chinese literati painting tradition and his exposure to imported western artifacts. The predominant conclusion is that, as a painter, Wu was not influenced by western styles and elements, and maintained his status as an orthodox style painter. However, given Wu’s dedication to the church, his many poems on the Christian faith, and the close connection between poetry and painting, it is unlikely that Wu’s paintings remained untouched. This thesis unveils how Christianity, which had taken a new form in China and had captured the attention of the scholar-elite class, directed Wu Li’s approach to life, shaped his perception of nature, and, as I will show, inspired new ways of painting landscapes. I will scrutinize the Christian environment in seventeenth century China and within Wu Li’s immediate circles, and use the lens of religion to enrich a more nuance reading of Wu’s pictorial language. One of the key ways of breaking new investigative ground is to consider the function of paintings. As Wu Li presented gifts, including both didactic Christian artifacts and non-didactic landscape paintings to Christian converts, I examine the reciprocating relationships between Wu Li and his recipients, as well as his messages for them, which were driven by his priestly duty and ultimately his Christian faith.