T of C 
Qin as
Qin in
/ Song
Analysis History Ideo-
Personal email me search me
Qin biographies   Jesuits: see Matteo Ricci   首頁
Wu Li 1
Singing Qin in the Pine Valley 2        
Wu Li (1632-1718), apparently the first known Christian qin player, was what by tradition was often called a master of the four arts: perhaps best known as a painter, he was also a noted calligrapher and poet; as a qin player little is known of his skills but he was apparently quite enthusiastic.3 Some time before 1655 he began studying the qin from Chen Min, courtesy name Shanmin; Chen, who does find mention in qin literature,4 was also quite well known as an painter.

Wu Li was born in Changshu, Jiangsu province. He married and had at least two daughters, but by 1681 his wife had died and daughters married, at which time (having recently converted to Christianity) he went to Macau, joined the Jesuit order then, having been ordained a Jesuit priest in 1688, was sent back to Jiangsu as a missionary.

Wu Li was presumably not the first qin player to have heard Western music, even if he first heard it at an early age, but he is probably the first to have tried to incorporate the spirit of the qin and its music into a Christian world view. This is discussed further with the second poem given below.

Wu Li wrote at least two poems that mention the qin. The first was written before his conversion, the second one after it. Jonathan Chaves published a translation of the former in Singing of the Source, his book about Wu Li. The other is not included in his book, but in 2013 he sent me a draft translation and this is also included here below.5

The poem (with preface) translated by Professor Chaves in Singing of the Source is called Studying the Ch'in (Xue Qin).6 The poem was included on the inscription (detail) with the painting at right, Singing Qin in the Pine Valley, but Chaves translated it from a separate publication of poems by Wu Li; there are a few differences in the text: the Chinese text here is from the publication. For the translation I have changed the Romanization.

I realize that since I started studying the qin zither together with Mr. Ji Tianchu beneath the gate of Master Chen Shanmin, over twenty years have passed unnoticed. I wanted to do a painting, Singing Qin in the Pine Valley, to convey my feelings, but I have been hampered by insufficient leisure. Now that I have returned from the north, I take my brush and do the painting without worrying about skill or clumsiness.

學琴幽響得清圓   We studied qin, mysterious resonance brought to a crisp roundness;
辛苦同君二十年   the suffering I shared with you for over twenty years.
今日倚松聽澗瀑   Today I lean against a pine listening to the waterfall:
高山流水不須絃   This "tall mountain and flowing water" has never required strings!

The inscription for the painting added a date, place and name: 甲寅年小春二十日延陵漁山子吳厯(歷)20th day of "Little Springtime" (the 10th lunar month) of the Jiayin year (1674), in Yanling (near 鎮江 Zhenjiang in Jiangsu province), Yushangzi Wu Li.

The second poem, called 半桐吟 Ban Tong Yin, leads to interesting speculation on Wu Li's attitude towards the qin and Christianity.7 Here is Prof. Chaves' translation:

半桐吟   Song of the Half[-scorched] Tong[-wood qin]

北窗有桐樹   At the northern window there is a tong tree,
蠹朽將半空   Worm-eaten, rotten, almost half decayed.
未肯溝底腐   Unwilling to putrefy in the bottom of a ditch,
胡爲爨下供   Could it agree to be used in the kitchen fire?
遇斲名焦尾   Encountering craftsman's hand, now named Scorched Tail,"
直與太古通   It communicates directly with High Antiquity.
初含西玅響   Harboring from the first tones of the Western Wonders;
再奏道徂東   Now played again, the Way has traveled to the east.
音聲一何正   Ah, how orthodox the music it makes,
雅化殊不窮   Endlessly giving forth elegant transformation!
奈何瓊臺下   But now, alas, beneath bejeweled terraces,
筝琶樂未終   The zheng and pipa sound out without an end!

To this Professor Chaves added the following analysis,

This poem is entirely in the tradition of Bai Juyi's great Abandoned Zither. The people who have argued that Wu Li may have played Western music on the qin refer to a couplet in this poem, given here in red. However, this interpretation is specifically rebutted in a Chinese article by Yan Xiaoxing now available online (高罗佩以前古琴西徂史料概述; read or search the article for 吴),8. and I believe, correctly so. Thus, although in other poems Wu Li does in fact use 西 = The West in the modern sense, i.e. Europe, here it could also refer to western China or India. In fact, though, most likely "西玅響 tones of the Western Wonders" refers not to music at all, whether from the West or from Western China. Instead he is using "響" as in Wang Wei's famed quatrain, "On deserted mountains, I see no sign of man/ But hear the echoes of men's voices....", rather than for strictly musical tones, which in Wu Li's poem are referred to (in the next line) as "音聲". As for "玅 Wonders", the fact that Wu Li uses the alternate form 玅 instead of 妙 reinforces my view that here it stands not just for what is "wonderful" (extremely good), but for that which is miraculous, i.e. the events of Christ's Passion, etc. As for the "Way" of the next line, in this case it would be Christianity, a common usage with Wu Li. The resulting couplet is indeed difficult to penetrate, but the real dichotomy here seems to be the popular, vulgar vs the elegant, orthodox: to Wu Li both the qin and Christianity are on the "orthodox" side. This would not be the only place where he pushes the limits of traditional Chinese diction and rhetoric to express unprecedented ideas.

Extrapolating from Yan's interpretation of the couplet, qin music has from the first always been in synch with the "Western-wondrous" events, i.e., Christ's passion and resurrection. First these were "harbored" or contained in potentia; then with repeated playing, the Way (Christianity) actually came to the East, so that "orthodoxy" has now become unified. Thus, the extraordinary idea is that, just as the Jesuits interpreted Confucian writings that referred to Shangdi, etc, as prefiguring the coming of Christ, with Christianity "completing" Confucianism", in the same sense, Wu Li suggests that ancient qin music also has always adumbrated or foreshadowed or prefigured that great event.

Although I do not know of Wu Li being associated with any specific qin melodies, further study of Chen Min might help reveal his repertoire.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. 吳歷 Wu Li (1632-1718; Wiki)
For Wu Li 3453.789 吳歷 says he was 常熟人,字漁山,號墨井 from Changshu in Jiangsu Province, style name Yushan, nickname Mojing. In the painting shown and discussed above he called himself 漁山子 Yushanzi, while he signed other early paintings 墨井道人 the Mojing Daoist.

Wu Li was one of the contributors to the first Chinese publication of liturgical music, The Correct Sound of the Music of Heaven (天樂正音 Tianyue Zhengyin, 1710): he wrote (some or all of the?) text; I have not seen this work but the descriptions I have seen suggest that the words and music were not put together.

Singing of the Source
The main English language source on Wu Li is: Singing of the Source: Nature and God in the Poetry of the Chinese Painter Wu Li, University of Hawaii Press, 1992.

2. Singing Qin in the Pine Valley (松壑鳴琴圖)
There are many online examples of paintings by Wu Li - including several called Singing Qin in the Pine Valley, all somewhat similar to each other. The original of the particular version above is in the 台北故宫博物院 National Palace Museum, Taipei. Its inscription is so close to the one published in the catalogue of his paintings that it could have been copied from there (in case one want to try to make a distinction between the original, a forgery, and a painting "in the style of"). The text in the catalogue is:



The Wikipedia entry currently has two paintings attributed to Wu Li. Another painting, called Lute Song, concerning hearing a pipa from a boat, is in the Johnson Museum at Cornell University.

3. Four Arts: qin, chess, books, calligraphy/painting (琴棋書畫 qin qi shu hua)
Singing, p. 9: "Chen Hu 陳瑚....Wu Li's teacher in Confucian philosophy ....(after praising Wu Li's poetry) describes Wu Li as a master of the qin 琴 zither and a calligrapher, but then goes on like the other preface writers to remind us that he 'was exceptionally good at painting landscapes.'" When discussing the "four arts" chess seems often not actually mentioned.

4. 陳珉字陳山民 Chen Min, courtesy name Chen Shanmin
If Wu Li in fact began studying qin with Chen Shanmin around year 1655, then it is quite possible that his teacher was the Chen Shanmin who taught the well-known qin master 程雄 Cheng Xiong and is mentioned in connection with at least one melody, Drunken Fisherman Sings in the Evening (QQJC XII/332) in Cheng's handbook, Songfengge Qinpu (1677; QQJC XII/287-347). The problem is that Cheng's biography says the teacher was Chen Shanmin written one way (陳山岷) while the handbook says the melody was "陳山民譜", i.e., written down by Chen Shanmin written the other way. Assuming these are the same people, this means that Chen had his own version of the famous melody that he taught to students. It would take some research to determine how different this version was from the earlier published verions of the melody, which was already quite popular.

One possible reason for the confusion could be explained if this person with the two ways of writing his name was in fact the well-known painter of that time named 陳珉字山民 Chen Min, style name Chen Shanmin (note the two different characters for min). There are a number of paintings attributed to Chen, such as one called Stone and Orchids in the Nanjing Museum (details).

5. Prof. Chaves has also provided invaluable assistance on my pages on early Song dynasty poets such as Mei Yaochen, Su Shunqin and Fan Zhongyan. "For the sounds of the ch'in I recall us emulating the roundness of bird calls," and the rest of the poem is identical. After the poem,

6. Studying the Qin
Op.cit., p.104. The poem was originally published in Wu Li's collection called 三余集 San Yu Ji (as copied into 李杕:墨井集 Li Di: Mojing Ji, 1909; 2/24a-b). If the original painting still exists its location is not generally known. In it the classmate of Wu Li was called 天球 Tianqiu, without a surname.

7. Song of the Half[-scorched] Tong[-wood qin (半桐吟 Ban Tong Yin)
Also published in 三余集 San Yu Ji. François Picard told me of the arguments, discussed above, that this poem suggests that Wu played Western music on a qin. This is discussed further above.

8. 嚴曉星 Yan Xiaoxing
Yan has authored a number of books on the qin, studying among other things the instrument's reception in the West, Van Gulik and other earlier references. He also has an online blog.

Return to Biographies, or to the Guqin ToC.