Wu Jingxiong was born on March 28, 1899, in the coastal city of Ningbo, Jiangsu Province. Wu was the son of a banker, Wu Jiachang, who had been born in poverty, and later became known for his quiet generosity. His mother died when he was only four years old. His early education was focused on the traditional teachings of Confucius, as well as the stories and wisdom of the Daoists, Buddhists, and great poets of ancient China. At age fifteen, Wu entered a local junior college, where he excelled in physics. He continued to study science at the Baptist College of Shanghai, until he heard about law. Wu began his study of law in the spring of 1917, and soon after transferred to the Comparative Law School of China, in Shanghai, which had recently been opened by the American Methodist Mission.
Around the time he entered law school, Wu was married. His father had arranged his betrothal when he was six years old to the daughter of a friend and colleague. Wu never saw her until their wedding night, whereupon he fell in love with her at first sight.
Wu was the law school’s youngest student, but nonetheless showed an exceptional talent for legal study. He was deeply impressed by the school’s dean, Charles W. Rankin of Tennessee. He also fell in love with the Bible, which was required reading, and other Christian texts. Wu embraced Christianity and was baptized in the Methodist Church in the winter of 1917. After completing his studies in the fall of 1920, Wu went to Ann Arbor, Michigan for post-graduate work in law. His idealized vision of America as a Christian nation was shattered by his American schoolmates, who swore irreverently using the name of Christ, and whose chief aim was to become rich. He stopped praying and attending church, and his faith gradually waned. He earned his JD at the University of Michigan Law School in 1921, and began publishing articles comparing the legal traditions of China and the West. After his first article, on law in ancient China, appeared in the Michigan Law Review, he sent a copy to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who responded with admiration for Wu’s scholarship. The two began a friendship and correspondence on various topics in law and philosophy that lasted until Holmes’ death in 1935.
In May 1921, Wu’s professors recommended him for a fellowship from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which enabled him to study at the University of Paris. He also spent time in Germany studying under the legal philosopher Rudolf Stammler. In the fall of 1923 Wu returned to America, becoming a research fellow at Harvard Law School. He saw as his life’s mission the work of bringing authentic justice to China, his contribution to the greater cause of “saving China.”
After moving back to Shanghai, he enjoyed reunions with family and friends, and began teaching at the Comparative Law School of China, and together with the dean founded the China Law Review. On January, 1, 1927, Wu was appointed a judge of the new Shanghai Provisional Court. Wu’s decisions from the bench won favorable comments in both foreign and Chinese papers. He became so famous in Shanghai that people offered bribes, gifts or credit in their shops to him and his wife, but Wu adamantly refused them.
His wealth and connections led to frequent invitations to parties in “flowery houses” with clients, contributing to his spiritual decline. He felt unhappy and restless, due to both the chaotic conditions of China and, more deeply, his worldly philosophy of life. He regretted having an uneducated wife, and even suggested a divorce so he could marry a more educated woman. She consented, but in the end Wu’s conscience prevented him from actually doing so.
On January 1, 1933, Wu joined the Legislative Yuan of the Republic of China together with Dr. Sun Fo, son of former President Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China. Sun organized and chaired a Constitution Drafting Committee, and appointed Wu to write the preliminary version, which later became known as the “Wu Draft.”
During this time Wu also served as head of the publicity department of the Sun Yat-sen Institute for the Advancement of Culture and Education, and he founded T’ien Hsia Monthly, a literary periodical in English together with Sun Fo and others, including the famous writer Lin Yutang. Wu contributed many articles and poems, the latter often written under a pseudonym. In 1936 Wu published The Art of Law and Other Essays Juridical and Literary, which was reviewed favorably in the Harvard Law Review.
As he confessed in later reflections, Wu’s soul was still in crisis when the anti-Japanese war began in July of 1937. In August, the war reached Shanghai. One day, after Wu had returned secretly from the capitol Nanjing to Shanghai’s neutral French concession for protection, he read a small selection of books, including the Bible and Dante’s Divine Comedy. One by one, he pored over passages that led him to recognize his sinfulness and need for repentance. In November 1937, a Roman Catholic friend invited Wu to take refuge in his house, since he was wanted by the Japanese militarists for writing and speaking against them. In their home, Wu was deeply impressed by seeing the whole family pray the Rosary together. He was also introduced to the life story of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th century French nun whom Wu found a true kindred spirit. He decided to become a Roman Catholic.
Wu’s conversion to Christ began the gradual but thorough transformation of his life, and he remained a devout Roman Catholic until he died, attending mass and receiving Holy Communion daily for many years. He wrote books that probe the depths of the soul’s progress in the love of Christ, such as The Interior Carmel: the Threefold Way of Love. He also published works comparing the spiritual lives and writings of the great Chinese sages and mystics with those of Christian saints and mystics such as Thérèse of Lisieux, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Ávila. Wu had a remarkable ability to perceive and demonstrate the unity of all truth, whether originating in the Eastern or Western tradition. He convincingly argued that the best features of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism find their fulfillment in Christ, elevated and transformed by the light of divine revelation.
During the years of the anti-Japanese War, 1937-44, Wu contributed to China’s cause through his writing. In the late 1930s, the Wu family moved to Hong Kong. In 1940, their daughter Lan Xian was seriously ill with a fever. After Wu’s wife, who was not a Christian, prayed for her healing, the girl made a recovery and Mrs. Wu converted and was baptized. In the years that followed they raised their thirteen children in the Catholic faith.
In the fall of 1942 Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek read a Chinese version of part of the Book of Psalms that Wu had been translated. Chiang was so impressed with the literary and spiritual quality of the translations that he contacted Wu and convinced him to translate not only the rest of the Psalms, but the entire New Testament into Chinese. He paid Wu a generous salary to work on the project for the next year. Chiang himself made many notes and even some corrections on Wu’s first draft, the multi-volume draft itself, in Wu’s calligraphy along with Chiang’s notations and corrections in blue ink, was published in Taipei as a deluxe boxed set in 1986.
Wu himself took great delight in translating. He chose to work on whichever Psalm suited his mood on a particular day, and especially loved those that captured sentiments he thought were particularly Chinese, such as praise for the beauty of nature, or the philosophy of retributive justice. He wanted the Psalms to speak to Chinese people as if they had been originally written by one of their great poets. Wu thereby achieved one of his major life goals, that of reconciling apparent opposites: East and West, intellect and emotion, Christianity and Chinese tradition. [Wu’s translation was done in literary language, wenyan, with many allusions to classical Chinese philosophy. This, plus its sponsorship by Chiang Kai-shek, has led to its neglect by young Chinese. Ed.]
In the spring of 1945 Wu attended the inaugural United Nations conference in San Francisco for three months, working on the U.N. Charter and reporting back to the Legislative Yuan. In December, Sun Fo informed Wu that Chiang wanted him to serve as China’s delegate to the Vatican. On February 16, 1947, Wu presented his credentials to Pope Pius XII in Rome, marking the first time in the diplomatic history that a Roman Catholic ever represented a non-Roman Catholic nation. After living in Rome with his family for two years, he was called back to China and offered the position of Minister of Justice by Premier Sun Fo. Though Wu decided to accept the position, he never took up the post due to the declining political situation and eventual fall of the government. After making final visits to Chiang Kai-shek and some relatives and friends, Wu left China for the last time.
In June, 1949, Wu became Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii, where he wrote his autobiography, Beyond East and West. In the fall of 1951, he began teaching law at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, where he assisted in founding the Institute of Far Eastern Studies. He stayed in New Jersey with his wife and younger children for several years. His wife, Teresa, passed away in November 1959.
From the 1950s into the mid-1970s Wu wrote books on law, philosophy, Christianity, Chinese religion and poetry, often interweaving these subjects in a single work. His many writings, his delight in living as a Christian, and his ability to make the faith clear and appealing to Chinese people led one admirer to call him “the Chinese Chesterton,” referring to the prolific English author of very diverse writings who also specialized in paradox. After retiring from Seton Hall in the mid-1960s, Wu moved to Taiwan, where he lived with family members until his death in 1986.
In recent years in China, there has been renewed interest in Wu’s historic contribution to the development of China’s legal system, as well as his religious thought. In 2002 a Chinese edition ofBeyond East and West was published in Beijing by the National Academy of Social Sciences Research Center on Christianity. Li Xiuqing has noted that in the past ten years legal historians have turned their attention to pre-PRC legal studies, unleashing a “flood of research” on John C. H. Wu. In his teaching and writing, Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun claims that Wu’s religious values made an important contribution to China’s ethical development.
A doctor of law, Wu was once the head of the department of law of Dongwu University (Suzhou University) and a member of the Legislative Yuan of the Kuomintang government. He attended the San Francisco Conference as an advisor to the Chinese delegation and helped translate the United Nations Charter. Originally a Protestant, he converted to Roman Catholicism after a stay with a Catholic professor of law at Aurora University in Shanghai in the winter of 1937, when he had occasion to read a brief biography of St. Theresa and several other well-known works on Catholic doctrine. He was baptized by President Cai Er Meng (German) of Aurora University. Not long after, his entire family became converts. In Dec 1946, accompanied by his family, Wu went to Rome as the envoy of the Kuomintang government, which had unilaterally sent its first envoy, Xi Shoukang, to establish diplomatic ties with the Vatican in July.
In Feb 1949, Wu received a telegraph from President Sun Ke of the Executive Yuan to “return home for consultation.” Soon after, he resigned from his post as envoy and spent his remaining 30 years living and working abroad.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from A Dictionary of Asian Christianity, copyright © 2001 by Scott W. Sunquist, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
- John Lindblom, “Wu Jingxiong: Judge, Pilgrim, and Poet,” in Carol Hamrin and Stacey Bieler, eds. Salt and Light 3: More Lives of Faith That Shaped Modern China (Eugene, OR: Piekwick Publishers, 2011), 116-55.
- Lloyd Haft, “Perspectives on John C.H. Wu’s Translation of the New Testament, in Chloe Starr, editor, Reading Christian Scriptures in China, pages 189-206.
- Mark Fang, “Translating and Chanting the Psalms: A Retrospective on the Use of the Bible in the Chinese Catholic Church in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century,” in Chloe Starr, editor, Reading Christian Scriptures in China, pages 182-184.