Wu was born into a well-to-do family, his father Wu Linqi (吳霖起) was a Qing official, but met no success himself. He attempted the Jinshi examination, but placed only at the county level. Poverty stricken by the age of thirty-two, he moved to Nanjing, where he met and acquainted himself with many government officials.
Wu's family may have had ties to the famous philosophers Yan Yuan (颜元) and Li Gong (李塨). The philosophers emphasized the importance of ritual in Neo-Confucianism and may have influenced Wu's novel.
While in Nanjing, in 1740, he started his famous novel Rulin Waishi. There is a museum in his honor located in his hometown of Quanjiao county, now Chuzhou.
^Ellen Widmer; Roddy, Stephen J. (1999). "Review of Literati Identity and Its Fictional Representations in Late Imperial China". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies (Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 59, No. 1) 59 (1): 290–300. doi:10.2307/2652696. JSTOR2652696.