Wu Li (1632-1718) and the First Chinese Christian Poetry

By Chaves, Jonathan | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, July-September 2002 | Go to article overview
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Wu Li (1632-1718) and the First Chinese Christian Poetry

Chaves, Jonathan, The Journal of the American Oriental Society



IT Is WELL KNOWN THAT Jesuit missionaries in China quickly grasped the significance of learning and scholarship for the Chinese literati, and themselves made every effort to master the classical texts upon which Confucian education was based. One of these books was the Shih ching [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or Book of Songs, an anthology of some 300 poems dating as far back as c. 1000 B.C., but compiled into a book ca. 600 B.C. Partly as a result of the inclusion of this material among the classical texts that had to be mastered to succeed in the civil service examinations, poetry came to occupy the preeminent position in the hierarchy of literary prestige. And this included the ability to write one's own original poetry, called for as well in the examinations. The writing of poetry also played a key role in social gatherings among the scholar-officials of China. Poetry was, in fact, a foundation Stone of Chinese culture, and the Jesuit missionaries came to be fully aware of this fact.

Perhaps the first of them to envision the creation of a Chinese Christian poetry, which could help to bolster the prestige of Christianity itself among the educated elite of China, was Michele Ruggieri, S.J. (1543-1607), as recently demonstrated by Albert Chan, S.J. in an important study. (2) The poems attributed to him, however, were almost certainly written with the extensive help of Chinese collaborators. As Chan states, "It would have been impossible for him to write poems without help from some Chinese scholars." (3) The resulting poems remain curiosities of historical interest, but possess little literary value.

Chinese converts among the literati class would have helped Ruggieri, and would soon try themselves to produce a type of poetry which they must have realized had only one precedent in literary history: the creation of a Chinese Buddhist poetry in the late Han and Six Dynasties periods (second century through the sixth century), following upon the introduction of Buddhism from India and Central Asia in the first century A.D. Similar problems were encountered: new technical terms for which there were no real Chinese equivalents, names of human or divine personages in strange languages, and the languages themselves--Sanskrit or Latin--in which the source materials were written. The predictable result in the case of Buddhist poetry was the production of much virtual doggerel, doctrinally effective but of little or no aesthetic value. And yet some poets, such as the semi-legendary Han Shan [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (?fl. early 9th century) had found ways to write superb poetry that drew extens ively upon Buddhist terminology and ideas. Perhaps something of the same achievement could be hoped for in the case of Christianity as well.

One of the most distinguished of all literati converts, the famed Hsu Kuang-ch'i [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1562-1633), has left a body of writings that includes eight poems. (4) Ad Dudink has argued persuasively that only five of these are authentic; (5) these are tetrasyllabic poems of the type known in Chinese as tsan [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (also [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) or "eulogies" (see below). They cover such themes as the Ten Commandments, the Eight Beatitudes, the Fourteen Works of Mercy, and the Seven Cardinal Virtues Overcoming the Deadly Sins. They may be described as journeyman work, clearly intended for a purely didactic purpose. HsU was by no means a poet of significance.

D. E. Mungello has called attention to a series of thirty-eight "inscriptions in Eulogy of the Sage Teaching" [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] by a certain Chang Hsing-yao [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1633-1715), composed to accompany a series of paintings--unfortunately no longer extant--in a church at Hangchou (Hangzhou).

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