Conversion Through Poetry: Understanding Wu Li’s “Singing of the Source and Course of the Holy Church” as Narrative

Wu Li (吴历) (ca. 1632-1718), also known as Wu Yushan (吳漁山), is perhaps best known as one of the Six Orthodox Masters of early-Qing Dynasty painting. Commentators have consistently overlooked that Wu Li also wrote poetry, a neglect that scholars have noted in histories that mention the painter.[1] This is unfortunate, as Wu Li’s writing marks a significant development in Chinese poetry. He was a Catholic convert, and his poetry represents the earliest-known attempt to write Christianity into traditional Chinese poetic forms (Chaves 3). It is no stretch to claim that he was in fact the inventor of a totally new branch of poetry in the Chinese tradition, the father of Chinese Christian poetry.

Johnathan Chaves dedicates a portion of his monograph on this poet to analyzing his Christian poetry, with the goal of better understanding how exactly Wu Li endeavored to unite Catholic theology and traditional poetic forms. One of the poems that he analyzes, entitled “Singing of the Source and Course of the Holy Church” (通聲會源流), is arguably Wu Li’s poetic magnum opus. As described by Chaves, Wu Li wrote the 96-line work, actually a series of twelve shorter poems, in eight-line regulated verse, with seven syllables per line (63). The poem, like most of Wu Li’s poems about Christianity, is in the shi (詩) style, one of the classic forms of traditional Chinese poetry (48). Despite the sparse language mandated by this poetic form, Wu Li manages to accurately and wholly convey the essential Catholic theological teaching of Jesus Christ’s salvation of man, no small feat. This is perhaps why this particular poem invites scrutiny more so than some of Wu Li’s others.

Chaves’s illuminating analysis of this complex work examines several of its constituent poems separately and explains how they convey the teachings of the Catholic Church, thus furthering Chaves’s goal of understanding how Wu Li undertook the project of creating an unprecedented tradition of Chinese Christian poetry. In doing so, Chaves demonstrates how the poem details the “source” (源) of the Holy Church, or in other words the theological foundation upon which the Holy Church was founded. However, this form of analysis does not engage with the other component of the title, which sees the poem as not only explaining the Holy Church’s “source,” but also its “course” (流). To consider the work as explaining the “course” of something suggests that it represents a movement, a journey from one stage to another. In fact, upon closer examination of the individual poems, it makes more sense to view them not simply as related by similarity in theme and content, but in fact as forming a narrative progression from one way of thinking about the Catholic Church’s teaching on salvation to another. I argue that the series of poems in fact represent the process of moving from ignorance of Catholic teaching to a complete understanding of it, an understanding that comes precisely from reading Wu Li’s poem. The poem is obviously about Catholic doctrine, but it is also, crucially, about the process of coming to understand this teaching through Wu Li’s explanation of it.

Poem One of the series begins with a description of Heaven, the ultimate goal for Wu Li and, presumably, for all Catholics. The journey thus begins at the end, foreshadowing the joy and spiritual fulfillment that Wu Li claims awaits all those who convert to Catholicism. The narrator begins, “Within the twelvefold walled enclosure, at the highest spot/is the palace of the Lord with springs and autumns of its own…there in Heaven should we seek true blessings and true joy” (159).[2] The narrator’s advice that everyone should seek true blessings and joy from Heaven establishes the tone of the rest of the series of poems, in which the narrator will unceasingly press the importance of turning to the Lord for happiness. He describes this sacred space in luscious terms. “The misty fragrance is breath of flowers where roses bloom;/the glittering brilliance is glow of pearls where gemmed crowns reverently bow” (159).[3] The use of so many words that connote beautiful objects conveys the loveliness that pervades all of Heaven, and sets it up as an ideal to be reached. Choosing to begin with a reverent description of the end toward which all should strive, the narrator of the poems strategically establishes that he personally is not in need of the explication that the rest of the poem will undertake. He is already aware of the wonders and joys of Heaven; nobody needs to persuade him or explain to him why he should strive to enter it. From the beginning, he removes himself from the addressee of the poems; he is already saved, already converted, and it is his task to convey Catholicism’s message of salvation to those who do not have the fortune of understanding it, as he does. The first poem sets up the narrator as the guide who, from his position of wisdom and comprehension, will explain the idea of Catholic salvation.

The next three poems, which should be considered as a set, hint at the nature of Catholic salvation but do not fully explicate it, making it necessary to read the rest of the series of poems to fully understand this concept. Of these three, Poems Two and Three span the period from before the beginning of time to the earliest days of the cosmos. Here, the narrator conveys the importance of salvation in Catholic doctrine by explaining that God’s plan for the salvation of mankind is older than the creation of the universe itself. He begins Poem Two with the claim, “Before the firmament was ever formed, or any foundation laid,/high there hovered the Judge of the World, prepared for the last days!” (160).[4] This exclamation makes clear that the “Judge of the World,” referring to God, already had the plan of Mankind’s salvation in mind before he had even created the “firmament.” This is clear from the narrator’s reference to “the last days,” which in Catholic doctrine refer to the end of time when the Savior will come to earth to rescue Mankind from evil. Having established that God’s plan for salvation is older than time itself, the narrator hints at the nature of that salvation, dedicating the second half of the Poem Two to a description of Jesus as the link between the earthly and the heavenly. He reinforces the importance of Jesus in the third poem, writing “In the Old Testament there was no essence of life;/the spiritual source had in store another wondrous proposal” (161).[5] Catholics believe that the Old Testament is the story of the world before Jesus Christ came to earth. As such, it represents the world before it was saved from sin by the coming to earth and resurrection of Jesus. The narrator here reinforces this interpretation of the Bible, and thus the importance of Jesus, by claiming boldly that there is in fact “no essence of life” there, and that “the spiritual source,” or in other words God, had “in store” another plan for the salvation of mankind—namely, sending his son Jesus Christ to earth. Poem Three describes the birth of Jesus, moving forward in time and underscoring the importance of this figure to the Catholic conception of the salvation of mankind (162). Still, the narrator avoids fully explaining why Jesus Christ is significant.

In short, in these poems, Wu Li’s narrator explains that God’s plan for salvation has existed since before the beginning of time. He also uses the technique of foreshadowing the importance of Jesus Christ to tantalizingly hint at the nature of this plan of salvation. However, he does not fully explain how the Catholic concept of salvation works in this section, which means that the reader must continue reading the series of poems in order to learn exactly how Catholic salvation works, and what Jesus Christ has to do with it.

It is precisely at this cliffhanger, roughly at the halfway point of the series of poems, that the narrator breaks off from explaining the Catholic theory of salvation in order to discuss his own personal joyful experience of conversion in Poems Five through Seven, as well as exhorting the reader to follow suit. These three poems thus represent a different narrative thread, a story of personal salvation embedded within the work’s larger narrative of the salvation of the world. Centering the first within the second highlights the importance of the personal conversion—it is only with many individual conversions, after all, that the world can be saved. Personal salvation is at the core of world salvation. At a metatextual level, the poem with this positioning also emphasizes the magnitude of its own goal, which is clearly to persuade readers to convert. It positions the personal narrative component of the poem in a way that underscores its own importance.

The crux of the work occurs in Poems Eight through Ten, dense pieces that contain the bulk of the work’s heavy theological content. Here, finally, having built up the importance of the Catholic theory of salvation and the joy of converting to this way of belief, the narrator is ready to share the secret to his joy and salvation with the reader. The central teaching of Catholicism, which the narrator has been leading up to in his series of poems, is that Jesus Christ, sacrificing himself, saved the world from original sin and allowed everyone the possibility of salvation.

The narrator devotes Poems Eight and Nine to explaining the Holy Trinity, another complicated Catholic idea that he has chosen as the framework for explaining Christ’s sacrifice. The narrator begins his description of the Holy Trinity in Poem Eight by claiming, “In the very highest place, deep within a mansion dwells a family perfectly united, loving and devoted. Beyond past, beyond present, the three Persons are one;/penetrating heaven, penetrating earth, the one family is three!” (166).[6] By mentioning the mansion in the highest place, the narrator links this location back to the location mentioned in Poem One, making clear that at least one of the three members of this family is God. Because this series of poems as a whole mainly focus on Jesus, and make frequent reference to his origin in Heaven and his role as a link between the earthly and the heavenly, Poem Eight strongly suggests his familial relation to God as a second member of the Trinity, a position made clear later in Poem Eleven.[7] The second sentence, which explains that the three persons are one at the same time that the one person is three, expresses the mysterious characteristic of the Holy Trinity that, paradoxically, is crucial to understanding it. Poems Eight and Nine situate Jesus as a member of the family of the Holy Trinity, solidifying that he and God are one. This contextualizes Jesus’s sacrifice described in Poem Ten as an act of mercy committed by both God and Jesus, as opposed to one or the other. Having established the concept of the Holy Trinity, Wu Li proceeds to Poem Ten, where he describes Jesus’s act of salvation.

Poem Ten, which contains the Catholic explanation of salvation toward which the series of poems have been progressing, in its density exemplifies Wu Li’s talent of using well-chosen words to convey a multiplicity of meanings. This technique enables him to speak of complex, multilayered ideas within the limitations of an eight-line poem of seven syllables per line. For example, the poem narrates, “to bring life to the teeming people/He showed Himself, then hid”(167).[8] This line references the entire life of Jesus Christ, who in order to save Mankind was born and then crucified. The narrator’s choice to use the terms “showed himself” and “hid,” however, rather than “was born” and “died,” emphasize the otherworldliness and godliness of Jesus Christ. His life  was not a human life, and thus was not subject to the same limits as a normal human life. His life exists above and beyond the limits of birth and death imposed on most people. At the same time, this phrase contains the essence of the Catholic belief of salvation—Christ was born and then crucified “to bring life to the teeming people,” or in other words, to allow the possibility of salvation to the masses, whom Catholics believe were doomed to damnation before the arrival of Christ. The sole purpose of Jesus’s entire life was to save, or “bring life to,” mankind.
Wu Li’s narrator then continues, in what may be the strangest line of the entire series of poems, “Effortlessly, a single standard—a new cake baked for us…” (167).[9] The meaning of this phrase at first seems obscure. From the context, however, it is clear that “a single standard” refers to the teleology of the Catholic faith—the idea that mankind’s salvation by Jesus Christ is the central narrative of all of history, and that this fact and all it entails is the one necessary standard by which all should live their lives. This one standard was accomplished by Jesus’s crucifixion. Chaves interprets the reference to “a new cake” as referring to “none other than God” (72). The “cake” that is offered to mankind is the gift God offers of himself to mankind, through Jesus. The word “cake” as the metaphor of choice for this gift may also be related to the Eucharist, which is explored in the second part of Poem Ten.

The way that Catholics continually remind themselves of Jesus’s sacrifice is to regularly consume the Eucharist, a piece of flat unleavened bread that has been consecrated by a priest, during religious services. Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the actual body of Christ, as opposed to a mere representation. They also believe that in regularly partaking of Christ’s flesh, they are constantly reliving and benefiting from the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice for mankind. If Christ’s death and resurrection themselves are the key to salvation in Catholic thought, the regular consumption of the Eucharist is the key to the practice of Catholicism, as it allegedly is Christ’s sacrifice, repeated over and over for the benefit of mankind.[10] This is thus the ritual that Wu Li’s narrator sets out to explain in the second half of Poem Ten. He explains, “…in Heaven for eternity is preserved our daily bread./I have incurred so many transgressions, yet am allowed to draw near:/with body and soul fully sated, tears moisten my robe” (167).[11] The expression used for “daily bread” in the original Literary Sinitic is “riyong liang” (日用糧), which roughly translates to “daily grain.” In choosing to translate this phrase as “daily bread,” Chaves reveals that he interprets this expression as referring not only to daily sustenance, but to the Eucharist, since the expression “daily bread” in English undoubtedly has that connotation.[12] Given the context of the rest of Poem Ten, this is not an unreasonable translation; it is likely that this is what Wu Li intended. Our daily bread, or in other words the Eucharist, or in other words Jesus Christ, is preserved for us “in Heaven for eternity.” Mankind’s means of salvation, the Eucharist that embodies Jesus’s sacrifice, will be available for eternity.

The narrator’s emphasis on the amount of transgressions he has committed, indicated by “duo” (多) or “many” in the original, highlights his gratitude at still being allowed to draw near to the Eucharist. Here, the narrator underscores the mercy and compassion of God, who extends his invitation and salvation to all, even though all people are sinners. The image of tears on the narrator’s robe further demonstrates the extent to which this gesture of Christ moves him—though he is a sinner, he is allowed to draw near, and in consumption of the Eucharist, his “body and soul” become “fully sated.” He reaches spiritual fulfillment, and is well on his way along the path to eternal salvation. The image as a whole, in conveying how the narrator humbles himself before the Eucharist, reinforces the magnitude of the gift of the Eucharist in Catholic doctrine.

The final two poems are the anticlimax of the narrative of this series of poems. In Poem Eleven, the narrator concludes that his explanation of Catholic salvation was satisfactory and clarifying. He summarizes, “‘The Supreme Ultimate contains three’—muddled words indeed!/…the mysterious meaning now we understand of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…the Holy Name has been revealed, His authority conferred;/throughout the world in this human realm, the sound of the teaching supreme!” (167).[13] The narrator is upset at former, confusing definitions of the constitution of the supreme being, but takes comfort in the knowledge that “the mysterious meaning now we understand of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Having followed the narrator as he explains the Catholic narrative of the salvation of mankind, the reader finally understands the Holy Trinity, which is the key in turn to understanding the importance of Christ’s sacrifice. The narrator then proclaims joyfully that “The Holy Name has been revealed, His authority conferred; throughout the world in this human realm, the sound of the teaching supreme!” This statement summarizes the goals that the series of poems have set out, successfully, to meet. Because of the poem, the Holy Name has been revealed to the reader, and God’s authority conferred. This poem is itself an example of “the teaching supreme,” or in other words the teaching of Catholic doctrine. Poem Twelve ends where Poem One began, back in Heaven. This time, though, as the description of Heaven comes at the actual end of the series of poems, it represents more than simply the narrator’s knowledge and understanding of that of which he speaks. It is the actual salvation itself, the successful entry into eternal life in Heaven. The reader joins the narrator in Heaven once more, but this time, hopefully with a deeper understanding of the Catholic key to salvation, along with a fervent desire to become a part of the cause.

The close reading above of this series of poems suggests that they are intended to be read not simply as a series of disparate poems connected by a common theme, but as a narrative of explaining the Catholic idea of salvation to the reader and, hopefully, succeeding in converting the reader to the Catholic cause. This is where the “Course” in the title of series of poems comes from. This narrative represents the “Course of the Holy Church” in the sense that the narrative of the Holy Church is one of conversion to its cause and, in turn, trying to convert others as well. Reading the series of poems in this way opens up new ways of understanding the kinds of techniques by which Wu Li instated a tradition of Christian poetry. He uses the deferral of full explanation to draw the reader into the content of the poems and to provide a reason to continue to read them. Making a distinction between personal and worldly salvation is crucial to helping the reader understand what he individually has to do with God’s grand scheme of salvation for the world. When Wu Li finally reaches the theologically-loaded parts of his work in Poems Eight through Ten, he masterfully employs very specific words and phrases that are loaded with layers of meaning. This enables him to complete the seemingly impossible task of discussing complex ideas of Catholic theology within the limiting shi poetic form.

More importantly than revealing new mechanisms by which Wu Li invented Christian poetry in China, though, this reading of “The Source and Course of the Holy Church” demonstrates that Wu Li consciously undertook the project of crafting a Chinese Christian poetry, and in fact took the task very seriously. The above analysis has hopefully demonstrated that, while the focus of the series of poems is certainly on the Catholic doctrine of salvation, some of their content and their very form speak to their role as part of a greater cause to convert more people to Catholicism. Though very little is known of Wu Li the person, he is known to have said to a friend “Writing poems of the Heavenly Learning is the most difficult thing. It cannot be compared to the writing of other poetry” (qtd. in Chaves 47).[14] Chaves cites this as the only indication that Wu Li consciously and seriously undertook this project, as opposed to simply writing many poems that happened to be about Christianity, without actually consciously endeavoring to initiate a tradition of Chinese Christian poetry. The above reading of “The Source and Course of the Holy Church,” however, provides further evidence to indicate that this was an endeavor that Wu Li consciously, and solemnly, undertook.

There is still much left to be done in the analysis of Wu Li’s poetry. For instance, at many points in his poems, Wu Li uses terminology from older systems of thought in China like Daoism and Confucianism to make points about Catholicism. The implications of this intermingling of terms for comparative religion are many, but the topic is huge, and well beyond the scope of this paper. Why Wu Li would choose the poetic form to transmit his message is another topic that this paper does not address. My hope is that, in suggesting this alternative reading of “The Source and Course of the Holy Church,” I will help to shed light on this elusive Wu Li, about so little is known. More importantly, understanding his narrative explanation of Catholic doctrine, which he hopes will end in conversion, might provide a window into better comprehending Chinese intellectuals’s engagement with Christianity in the time of the late Ming and early Qing dynasties.















Works Cited

Catechism of the Catholic Church. USCCB, 1995. Print.

Chaves, Jonathan. Singing of the Source: Nature and God in the Poetry of the Chinese Painter
Wu Li.
Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993. Print.

Deng Zhicheng. Qing Shi Jishi Chubian. Shanghai: Guji Chubanshe, 1984, 1: 85-86. Print.

Wu Li. “Singing of the Source and Course of the Holy Church” (通聲會源流). Qtd. in full in
both Chinese and English in Chaves, above. Also in Li Ti, S.J., ed., Mojin Ji.. Shanghai:
Zikawei Press, 1909.

Zhu Yizun. Ming Shi Zong. Taipei: Shijie Shuchu, 1962, 1:26/1a. Print.

[1] See Deng Zhicheng and Zhu Yizun

[2] 十二重寰最上頭;主宮别自有春秋。。。天上欲求真福樂。All translations of Literary Sinitic into English in this paper are by Jonathan Chaves.

[3] 氤氲花氣開玫瑰;燦爛珠光拜冕旒。

[4] 未書開天問始基;高懸判世指終期。

[5] 故簡中無生活趣;靈源別有主張奇。

[6] 最高之處府潭潭;眷屬團圓樂且耽。無古無今三位一;徹天徹地一家三。

[7] There is no mention, on the other hand, of the Holy Spirit, which is the least-examined of the three components of the Holy Trinity in this series of poems. Examining why this is the case is beyond the scope of this paper, and perhaps is unsolvable, given how little we know about Wu Li’s theology outside of what we can detect from his poems.


[9] 宛爾一規新餅餌。。。

[10] These are all very complex religious ideas. As this is not a theological paper, it is beyond its scope to explain them in any more detail than the rudimentary analysis provided above. There are literally hundreds of books written on Catholicism that can be consulted for further explanation of the subject. The best way to better understand Catholic doctrine is probably to read straight from the source, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

[11] 天上恒存日用糧。曾是多愆容接近;形神飫處淚沾裳。

[12] This is because of the expression “give us this day our daily bread” in the popular Christian prayer known as the Our Father. The Catechism of the Catholic Church establishes that, in this prayer, “daily bread” refers not only to the daily sustenance the Lord provides, but also to the Eucharist (Part Four, Section Two, Article Three, Sub-Heading Four, line 2,837).

[13] 太極含三是漫然;真從元氣說渾淪。。。奧義今知父子神。。。聖名顯示權相付;普地人間至教音。

[14] Scholars generally agree that “The Heavenly Learning” is a set term in Literary Sinitic referring to the teachings of the Jesuits. In this passage, Chaves further argues that it refers specifically to Catholicism because of its context, in which Wu Li afterwards hands a rosary and cross to the person with whom he is speaking (47).