Nelson Wu - always in my memory
By Steven D. Owyoung
Curator of Asian Arts
Saint Louis Art Museum
March 23, 2002
I first met Nelson Wu on a boat on a river nearly thirty years ago. He was sitting in the late afternoon sun among a large gathering of his friends and colleagues, but he was not talking, just listening and enjoying the moment. As we all floated on the water drinking and chatting, I was surprised to see how engaged in the festivities Nelson Wu appeared, but at the same time somehow removed he was from it all.
Earlier in the day, he had spoken at a conference, questioning the methodology of a well-known and very senior professor. Although highly critical of the professor's approach, Nelson Wu presented his question and critique in the most gentlemanly and eloquent manner, a manner beyond reproach and so much more effective for it. It was the most deliciously devastating retort I had ever witnessed. But just who was this man.
I knew that Nelson Wu was a professor, but a teacher of such peculiar standards that he took only one true student, the only one to be rewarded a doctorate under Nelson Wu. I knew that he was widely admired as a writer, especially in Taiwan where he has a devoted following. I knew these things and a bit more, but he essentially remained a figure of mystery.
Nelson Wu was one of the first people I met when I moved to St. Louis almost twenty years ago. He was professor at Washington University and a founding member of the St. Louis Asian Art Society. He welcomed me just as I was beginning at the Saint Louis Art Museum, but he retired soon after. But even after his retirement, I asked him if he would give a lecture at the Museum. I thought that I could get to know him better if I interviewed him and read his writings in order to introduce him to the audience before his talk.
I spoke to many of Nelson Wu's St. Louis friends, young people, elderly people, all of whom are great admirers, many of whom consider themselves his students. There are people still who remember Nelson Wu as an exceptional being. There are those who have never met Nelson Wu but feel a special kinship to his life and interests. One such person is a young man who discovered an old black and white picture of Nelson Wu in Afghanistan, standing beneath the gigantic legs of the colossal Buddha at Bamiyan. This young man treasures not only the picture but also Nelson Wu's calligraphy of the Book of Changes (I-ching) handwritten covering the four walls of an entire room, and Nelson Wu's bamboo grove, promising to preserve them all.
From listening to his friends and students and Nelson Wu himself, I learned that Nelson Wu had a public and private life. Nelson Wu was justly proud of his professional accomplishments, what he fondly called his "right hand." At heart, Nelson Wu was a literatus (wen-jen), independent, self-sufficient, something of the ancient hermit. He was more than fond of what he called his "left hand," being a writer and a philosopher, a man whose literary works are profound and moving. One such work was written in St. Louis in 1974, a short story inspired by children catching fireflies in his old Parkview neighborhood. Here is an excerpt from Nelson Wu's story about Little Little Boy, a story called The Juggler:
"Little Little Boy put up his hands with all his little fingers outstretched. One by one, fireflies came out from the all grass and alighted on his fingers, one firefly to each finger, not one more, not one less. With his hand and face alight from the glow of ten fireflies, Little Little Boy looked magnificent."
The story goes on and Little Little Boy is praised by the other children for being able to balance fireflies on the ends of his fingers. The story ends with Little Little Boy alone in his room - a place where he cannot be seen - quietly juggling the Sun and the Moon.