23 March 2018
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china macau

Wu Li, painter, poet and Jesuit, in the Church of the Early Qing

Gianni Criveller

Macau (AsiaNews) - Wu Li (1632-1718) was an outstanding seventeenth-century Chinese painter, poet and calligrapher from Jiang-su. At the age of 57 he was ordained as a Jesuit priest, after 7 years of training in the Saint Paul College in Macau. He spent the remaining 30 years of his life as tireless priest serving rural villages.

The Macau Ricci Institute has established a tradition of excellent research and symposiums of various aspects of the interaction between Christianity and China. Last 26-29 November, The Ricci Institute has called more than 60 scholars from various countries, including numerous from China, Macau and Hong Kong, to reflect upon the inner journey of this outstanding man of culture, art and religion.

Various papers researched on the cultural, spiritual and historical turmoil of Wu Li's time. The dramatic decline and fall of the Ming Dynasty and the coming to power of the Manchu Qing Dynasty caused the crisis of a number of intellectuals, who looked for new directions for them and for the country. The teaching of the Jesuits learned missionaries, which had Macau has its heart, appealed to them. Several literati, originally impregnated of Confucianism and Buddhism, sought widening religious horizons accepting the 'Western Teaching.' Conversion to Christianity was for them the arrival point of a spiritual and personal itinerary toward religious fulfillment. The converts saw in the Christian teaching as a chance to revitalize, morally and scientifically, a country in crisis.

Wu Li, known also as Wu Yushan, was a famous painter, one of the 'Six Great Masters of Early Qing'. He also was a poet, whose artistic talent reached the heights of excellency.

At the age of 50, his life experienced had a dramatic turn. After the death of his wife and his masters, obeying to an internal quest for spiritual excellence, fascinated by the Jesuit art and architecture, he chose to join the Jesuits in Macau in pursue of the 'heavenly learning.' There he strenuously searched 'the Western Lantern, ' struggling to learn a new language (Latin) and to acquire a new religious dimension, on the lines of the 'Spiritual Exercises', as a son of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Wu Li indeed chose for himself a path of self-denial and total dedication to the new faith and to the new ministry. Often disguised as peasant or fisherman, he traveled for thirty years from a village to the next to evangelize. Wu Li could have became a rich and famous court painter, as his friend Wang Hui, he instead chose the obscurity of Jiang-su countryside to serve as a itinerant missionary and pastor, struggling against tremendous difficulties and with poor results. He was really a good shepherd, in imitation of Christ, totally devoted to the spiritual welfare of peasants. The poems that he kept writing as a priest illustrates exceptional qualities of his tireless dedication, his faith, his joys and the moments of frustration.

Wu Li in any way rejected his Chinese identity, as it is proven by the fact that his paintings maintained an autochthonous style. The extent of Western influence in his figurative art, if any, was one of the major issue discussed by scholars and the symposium, although a clear consensus was not reached.

A general consensus however, was reached on the exceptionally important value of Wu Li personal experience. Wu Li was a man or rare qualities: a fine Chinese intellectual, a remarkable artist, a Jesuits, a missionary and a priest totally devoted to his flock.

The presence of so many qualified scholars and artists was the occasion for the inauguration of an important exhibition by seven contemporary artists (five of them from China), that took place at the 

The Macau Ricci Institute, under the inspired direction of Fr. Luís Sequeira, has provided to the academic world and to the Church alike, a wonderful opportunity to promote and to develop researchers and studies about Wu Li. I am sure that more in-depths studies about Wu Li will flourish in Greater China and in Universities around the world alike.

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