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Catherine Doherty, Photo by Denis Furbush with permission of Madonna House

John C.H. Wu: Judge, Diplomat, and the Vocation to Public Service

Adulthood: Issue Four

Tongxin Lu

When I was a child, I always wanted to be a diplomat. I do not remember exactly from where I got that idea. Perhaps I was fascinated by international travels or was ambitious about bringing countries together on a grand scale. Even though this childhood dream of mine never came to fruition, what has stayed with me over the years is a passion for learning about the lives of those who have changed the political history of their nations. Two of my favorite Chinese diplomats are Dr. John C. H. Wu, ambassador to the Vatican, and Lou Tseng-Tsiang (Lu Zhengxiang), ambassador to Belgium and Russia, who later became a Benedictine monk.[1] Since this essay is about the lay vocation, I will only discuss Dr. Wu.

Dr. Wu (1899‒1986) was one of many Chinese intellectuals who contributed to his country’s legal, political, and religious developments when China was undergoing overwhelming transitions. In 1912, after decades of political and cultural turmoil, the last Emperor of the Imperial Chinese Court abdicated in favor of the Republic. The capital was in a ferment, political circles were seething with tension, and the whole country was disturbed and agitated. The work of national renovation was finally possible thanks to the leadership of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (1866‒1925), who served as the first president of the Republic of China. The new-born Republic needed a legion of men and women who would labor intensely both in depth and breadth for a complete renewal of China in every sphere of life.

Wu grew up in the early years of the 20th century in Ningbo, near Shanghai, just before the fall of China’s Imperial system. As the world around him was being transformed from ancient to modern, Wu’s early education combined both classical Confucianism and new learning from the natural sciences of the West. English was already the second language in all schools, and Wu began to learn it at the age of nine. In 1916, he married Theresa Li Wu (1899‒1959), and they eventually had thirteen children. In 1917, Wu began to study law at the Comparative Law School of China in Shanghai, which had recently been opened by the American Methodist Mission. There Wu converted to Methodist Christianity from Confucianism. Wu graduated from Law School in Shanghai in the summer of 1920, and in the fall, he continued to study law in the U.S. and earned his J.D. at the University of Michigan Law School. While studying in America, Wu gradually drifted away from Christianity as he immersed himself in his legal studies. In 1921, Wu sent his first article from the Michigan Law Review to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841‒1935), and the two began a friendship and correspondence on various topics in law and philosophy that lasted until Holmes’ death.[2] From 1922‒1924, Wu studied international law at the University of Paris and philosophy of law in Berlin.

After four years of studying in the West, Wu came back to China in 1924. He saw as his life’s mission the work of bringing authentic justice to China and was eager to contribute to the cause of “saving China.” Wu’s letter to Holmes from Paris in his early twenties expressed his profound sense of duty and mission in this regard: “I shall get the best out of Paris; I shall read and write as much as I can; I shall observe and think as profoundly as possible. As a Chinese I have a country to save, I have a people to enlighten, I have a race to uplift, I have a civilization to modernize.” [3] Wu, like most Chinese students of his generation, never thought of utilizing his higher education for a private career but used it as a means to serve his country. As Wu prepared to return to China, he indicated to Holmes that he was committed to his mission at all costs: “I tremble before my heavy task. To enlighten, to ennoble, to bring joy to the joyless, to procure minimum wages for the laborers, to provide human homes for human creatures, to take Life in hand and direct it to purer channels—these are some of the problems toward the solution of which I shall contribute my part.”[4]

In the 1920s and 30s, Wu was a rising star in the field of law and played a leading role in shaping the development of law in China. In 1924, he began teaching at his alma mater, the Comparative Law School of China as a professor of law. He co-founded the China Law Review and dedicated the first volume to Holmes.[5] In only three years, Wu became the dean of his law school. In 1927, he was appointed a judge of the new Shanghai Provisional Court. As a judge, Wu attempted to establish true judicial independence, acting to uphold justice and the law regardless of possible political consequences. In 1933, Wu joined the Legislative Yuan [6] and was appointed by Dr. Sun Fo, son of former President Sun Yat-Sen, to draft China’s new constitution. Wu wrote the preliminary version, which later became known as the “Wu Draft.”[7] Externally, he enjoyed great worldly success and was widely regarded as among the best legal minds of his generation in both China and the West.

Spiritually, however, Wu confessed that he was pessimistic in the extreme.[8] The chaotic conditions in China—the political maelstrom of Chinese nationalism and the Western colonizing forces—contributed to Wu’s pessimism. More deeply, it was his worldly philosophy of life that made him unhappy and restless. As the Sino-Japanese war began in July of 1937, throwing China into one of the worst disasters of the century, Wu had to take refuge in a Catholic friend’s house where his friend introduced him to St. Thérèse of Lisieux and gave him the saint’s autobiography to read. After reading Histoire d’une Âme, Wu decided to become a Catholic after years of being a nominal Christian and was conditionally baptized in the Catholic Church on December 18, 1937.

Many scholars who have written about Wu’s life have treated his early legal career and later conversion to Catholicism as two distinct stories having little to do with one another. It might appear to be the case, since some of Wu’s friends observed that once he became a Catholic, he had somehow lost his ambition. Nevertheless, Wu believed that to be contented with perishable things was not to be ambitious at all. In fact, Wu was more ambitious than ever in fulfilling his mission in China: rather than believing that Holmes’ legal philosophy could save China, he trusted in Christ and his Church. In his early twenties, Wu had regarded himself as being on a mission for legal reform through the implementation of some contemporary Western legal principles. But he was unable to bring what he believed to be modern legal science to bear effectively on China’s problems. After his conversion to Catholicism in his late thirties, his idea of legal reform, now interiorized and given a much more metaphysical and theological foundation, became intimately linked with the moral virtue of justice. For Wu, the profession of law is noble because it is the handmaid of justice. He wrote, “To my mind, the excellence of justice consists in the fact that it is a compound of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. …The justice of a law or a judgment depends upon whether it is based on truth, whether it is directed toward the good life, and whether its dispositions are fittingly adapted to the end.”[9]

Wu viewed his diplomatic career as a sign of being called by God to pursue justice through public service. In the spring of 1945, he attended the inaugural United Nations conference in San Francisco for three months and was the principal drafter of the UN Charter in Chinese. Later that year, President Chiang Kai-Shek appointed Wu to serve as China’s ambassador to the Vatican. In 1946, Wu and his whole family (except the oldest son, who was married) sailed to Rome. As a diplomat, he presented his credentials to Pope Pius XII, the first time in the diplomatic history of the Holy See that a Catholic ever represented a non-Catholic nation. Wu described his public service as “the diplomacy of love” and told the Pope that

I am keenly aware of the importance of my mission, and of my own unworthiness of it; for my mission is nothing less than to confirm and increase the intimate relation between the greatest spiritual power of human society and a people of the oldest oriental culture. The wedding between the two will be such a momentous event in the history of this, God’s world, that the marriage of Cana would be viewed in the light of eternity as its prefiguration.[10]

When Wu was living with his family in Rome, he was called back by the Prime Minister Dr. Sun Fo in February 1949 for an urgent consultation about the future of the Nationalist government. It was dangerous to return to China at that time and difficult for Wu to leave his family in a foreign land. But Wu agreed to face this challenge. The day before his departure for China, he wrote to the Holy Father and asked him to pray for him that he may be guided by the Holy Spirit in the world of politics. Wu wrote, “O Holy Father, pray for me that I may face my tasks fearlessly in the interests of love and justice and for the glory of Christ and His Church. By nature, I am a weak child, afraid of danger and sacrifice. Only the grace of God can make me strong and ready to make sacrifices whenever they are called for.” When he returned to China, Dr. Sun Fo asked Wu to join his Cabinet and offered him the position of Minister of Justice. Wu’s friends urged him not to accept the position because of the instability of the government. Wu believed, however, that as a Christian, sacrifice was his vocation. After careful thought and an agreement from the Acting President to guarantee true judicial independence, Wu accepted the position with the spirit of a martyr and inspired his friends to join him. Even though the Cabinet fell shortly after Wu’s acceptance, Wu secured a moral victory of deep self-denial and sacrifice. With the decline of the political situation in China and his increasing personal interest in study and teaching, Wu decided to quit his diplomatic post and devote the rest of his life to education and the spiritual life.[11] Even though Wu left his diplomatic position in 1949, he nevertheless lived out his vocation to public service with love and integrity.

Tongxin Lu is a Ph.D. candidate at the John Paul II Institute and a St. John Paul II Fellow at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine. She is currently writing her dissertation on Dr. John C.H. Wu and the Evangelization of China.

[1] Lou Tseng-Tsiang (1871‒1949) served as Prime Minister of China in the 1910s and was appointed by Pope Pius XII as the abbot of a Benedictine abbey in Belgium in 1946. He wrote about his diplomatic career and spiritual journey in Ways of Confucius and of Christ (Burns & Oates, 1948 [1st ed.]).

[2] The Wu-Holmes letters are available in digital format at the archives of the Harvard University Library.

[3] John C. H. Wu, Beyond East and West (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018), 91.

[4] Ibid., 106.

[5] At this point of his life and career, Wu looked to Holmes as his primary role model, both as a legal philosopher and as a guide in the art of living. Later in his life, though Wu had a revised estimate of Holmes, he nevertheless, remained grateful to him throughout his life.

[6] Yuan is the Chinese name for “branches” or “courts.” The Legislative Yuan is one of the five branches (called “wǔ-yuàn”) of government stipulated by the Constitution of the Republic of China, which follows Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People.

[7] For the history of Wu’s Constitution, see here.

[8] Wu, Beyond East and West, 222.

[9] John C. H. Wu, “Toward a Christian Philosophy of Law” in Women Lawyers Journal, 37, no. 4 (Fall 1951): 35.

[10] Wu, Beyond East and West, 326.

[11] After he left Rome, he became a teacher and a world-class author. He taught philosophy at the University of Hawaii from 1949 to 1951 and law at Seton Hall University from 1951 until his retirement in 1968. During this period, he also wrote books on law, philosophy, Christianity, Chinese religion, and poetry. Dr. Anthony E. Clark in a recent article on the 2018 China-Vatican agreement claims that when discussing Sino-Vatican relations before 1949, no one can ignore Dr. John C. H. Wu’s important contribution.

Tongxin Lu is a Ph.D. candidate at the John Paul II Institute and a St. John Paul II Fellow at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine. She is currently writing her dissertation on Dr. John C.H. Wu and the Evangelization of China.

Posted on March 5, 2020

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