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From Changshu, Jiangsu Province, Wu Li (1632-1718) was originally known by his given name Qili and later by his courtesy name Yushan. He grew up in a poor family amid the social tumult of dynastic change. In middle age, he converted to Catholicism and took the Christian name of Simon-Xavier. At the age of forty-nine, together with Flemish Jesuit missionary Philippe Couplet (1623–1693), he planned to go to Rome via Macau. Due to his age, however, he ultimately stayed in Macau, where he studied Latin and Catholic theology at the Jesuit Colégio de São Paulo and took the Portuguese name Cunha out of respect for local customs. Wu Li stayed over three years in Macau before returning to regions south of the Yangtze River, where he joined the Jesuits as a friar and began evangelizing in and around Suzhou. At the age of fifty-seven, he was ordained as a priest. His later years saw him evangelize in Jiading and Shanghai. He died at the age of eighty-seven and was buried at Lujiabang Jesuit Cemetery outside Shanghai’s South Gate.
This painting depicts its melancholy theme through the willows in the foreground, with leaves blowing in the wind. In the background is a distant view of rolling mountains and flying birds. The painting combines activity and inertia and conveys a sense of simplicity and vastness. Wu learnt from nature and was influenced by painting techniques of Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1279–1368) dynasty artists. He became renowned as one of the Qing dynasty’s (1644–1911) “Six Painters”. While retaining traditional literati painting styles, his works show the influence of his religious beliefs and are distinctive for touching upon social realities and showing ordinary people’s sufferings.
Website version edited by Adam J. Ensign and Zhuang Ying