Christians of the 21st century, both in China and the West, have neglected or forgotten the brilliant and prolific jurist, poet, educator, philosopher and Chinese Catholic scholar John H. Wu. His writings in legal philosophy, his dialogue with the West, his spiritual journey, his contribution to evangelization in China, his translation of the New Testament, the Psalms and the Daodejing, and his vision of inculturation had an enormous influence on the Republic of China and the Catholic Church of that period. In the introduction to his famous autobiography Beyond East and West, Francis Joseph Sheed described him as “totally Catholic, totally Chinese and totally himself.” He is not only an important bridge between Chinese and Western jurisprudence, but also an important figure in contemporary China’s juristic system and legal education.
His early life and spiritual journey
In 1899, John Wu Ching Hsiung was born to a well-off family in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, a famous coastal fishing city not far from Shanghai. His father was a well-known philanthropist. John Wu’s mother (his father’s concubine) died when he was four years old, so his father’s wife took care of him as her own son. Other members of his family also loved John Wu very much. Following the tradition and practice of well-off Chinese families, he studied the Chinese classics, which laid a solid foundation for his future education. He learned English at the age of nine and found it deeply interesting.
In April 1916, he married Theresa Li Wu (1899-1959), and they eventually had thirteen children (the sixth child joined the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers). In 1917, John Wu began to study at the Hujiang University, which had been founded by the American Methodist Mission. There he converted from Confucianism to Methodist Christianity. He specialized in physics, chemistry, algebra, and geometry – while also studying Western history and English literature. Later, he studied French with the Jesuit priest Fr. Henri Tosten, SJ in Shanghai.