Seeking Redemption and Sanctity: Seventeenth-Century Chinese Christian Literati and their Self-Writing

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program

East Asian Languages and Culture: Chinese Language and Comparative Literature


English (en)

Date of Award

Summer 9-1-2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Beata Grant


Although the history of China's contact with Christianity can be traced back much further, it is the "third wave" of contact initiated by the Jesuit missionaries in the second half of the sixteenth century that developed into a multi-faceted communication and interaction between the Catholic side of Europe and the late imperial China. As many scholars have demonstrated, the histories of both sides of the Euro-Asia continent were affected in many aspects by this religious, cultural and political contact which lasted for over two centuries.

Within this field, the study of educated Chinese Christians have gained momentum especially since the paradigm shift in the late 1970s "from a mainly missiological and Eurocentric to a Sinological and Sinocentric approach." On the other hand, we still know more about a few high-profile Christians' public performance than we do about the private selves of educated Chinese Christians across social strata, and we still know more about how they were represented than how they represented themselves. It is my belief that a more thorough paradigm shift would necessarily result in more studies that portray Chinese Christians as exercising far greater agency than is generally acknowledged.

This dissertation, by focusing on the self-writing of three seventeenth-century Chinese Christian literati--Wang Zheng (1571-1644), Zhang Shi (1605-1623) and Wu Li (1632-1718)--seeks to situate these men in their own cultural background and individual lives, in order to better understand their often complex and complicated engagement with their new religious faith. It explains how these three literati, by making use of a variety of literary genres and writing strategies, were able to use their writing as an instrument with which to both explore and express the deeper religious and spiritual significance of their adopted Christian faith in their personal lives. The diversity of their experiences and self-perceptions points to the divergent processes of religious conversion and personal identity formation. Together, they offer illuminating examples of how the meaning of being "Christian" in the seventeenth-century China was negotiated.

Part One (Chapters One and Two) of this dissertation is devoted to Wang Zheng, a late Ming scholar-official who found particular strength and inspiration in a series of Desert Father stories, which is discussed in Chapter One. Serving as the co-translator, editor, prefacer, commentator and publisher of these texts, Wang Zheng establishes his own authorial persona as a scholar-penitent, and carves out a textual space to tell his own life-story together with those of the Western saints. By including his own story alongside the translated primary texts, Wang Zheng is able to publically give voice to his personal dilemma, which involved finding ways to reconcile his social and familial obligations as a Confucian scholar-official with his personal faith in the Christian God and desire for salvation. Chapter Two deals with a series of qu (non-dramatic lyric) poems Wang Zheng wrote, in which he explores the aesthetics of reclusion through an amalgamation of different reclusive personae including the Confucian sage, the Daoist free-roamer, the Chan Buddhist master and the Early Christian Desert Father. His failure to create a consistent persona of a Chinese Christian recluse reflects the ultimately incompatible notions of transcendence behind these different recluse ideals. Nevertheless, a close reading of these poems sheds light on the difficulties encountered by Wang Zheng as he struggled to shape a new literary identity for himself as Christian literatus and author.

In Part Two (Chapters Three and Four), I turn to Zhang Shi, a Chinese Christian who, embracing the autobiographical trends of the time, was more audacious both in terms of his self-indictment and his self-celebration as a Christian. Zhang, a young man from a gentry family in Fujian province, constructed his authorial persona as a "sinful slave" who was granted a vision that not only healed him of his illness and converted him to Christianity, but also served to confirm his life mission as a "special messenger from God." In his writings, Zhang Shi often breaks away quite radically from traditional Confucian social norms in order to seek personal redemption and sanctity. This radical stance, together with his accounts of visions and his interpretations of the divine messages conveyed to him during these visions, attracted many admirers and followers, especially after his premature death at the age of only 19 sui. There is a complete extant biography of this young man, which together with accounts of other people's dreams about him, offers us a rare opportunity to understand not only Zhang's construction of his own religious self-image, but also the reception and subsequent modification of this image by others after his death.

Finally, in Part Three (Chapter Five), I turn to the more well-known Chinese Christian, Wu Li, the famous painter, poet and recluse who was also one of the first ordained Chinese Jesuit priests. My focus here is on Wu Li's Christian poetry, a topic that I also look at in Chapter Two in relation to Wang Zheng. I argue that Wu Li, living as he did in the unique political atmosphere of the post-Qing-conquest Jiangnan and enjoying an unprecedented access not only to a Jesuit education but to the priesthood itself, was able to resolve some of the conflicts Wang Zheng grappled with and successfully create a poetic voice of a Chinese Jesuit priest using traditional shi poetry.

In the epilogue, I narrate briefly the reason why the voices of these seventeenth century Chinese Christians were smothered in the following two centuries, and how they were "rediscovered" by the first generation of Western-educated modern Chinese church leaders in the early twentieth century.


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