The Judge Dee Mysteries, and Robert van Gulik

Spring Outing of the Tang Court

Spring Outing of the Tang Court

Robert Hans van Gulik (1910-1967), orientalist, diplomat and expert gukin player, was also a historical novelist. A native Dutchman, he had been raised in Indonesia and schooled as a child in the Mandarin language. He completed his studies in the Netherlands, where he obtained a doctorate in Asian studies.

He joined the Dutch foreign service and was stationed in East Asia before World War II. He was in Japan when that country declared war on the Netherlands following Pearl Harbor, and then moved to China. He later received various assignments in South and East Asia and was the Dutch Ambassador to Japan at the time of his death.

Van Gulik Sexual Life

Van Gulik Sexual Life

He was the author of numerous scholarly works on Chinese literature, music and society, including Sexual Life in Ancient China. A preliminary survey of Chinese sex and society from ca. 1500 B.C. till 1644 A.D (which I didn’t read, and probably won’t because it is out of print and very pricey.) So what drove Dr. van Gulik, scholar and diplomat, to write popular historical mysteries?

Well, very simply he translated into English an 18th century (see, were are indeed getting back to the core topics of this blog) Chinese novel titled Dee Goong An, or Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. This one I have read, and heartily recommend to anyone interested in Ancient China. Edgar Allan Poe may be one of the greatest American writers, but he is not the father of the mystery genre. Sorry, the Chinese got there first.

Tang Hangan

Tang horseman

In his preface to Celebrated Cases Dr. van Gulik mused: “The novel Dee Goong An is offered here in a complete translation. Possibly it would have had a wider appeal if it had been entirely re-written in a form more familiar to our readers.” That was a brilliant idea, and soon Robert van Gulik was writing his own Judge Dee novels, targeted at English-speaking, Japanese and Chinese readerships.

Like their Chinese models, the van Gulik novels are set during the T’ang dynasty (7th century) but with later Ming period detail. They are deliberately anachronistic. Judge Dee himself is a historical character, Ti Jen-chieh, a jurist and statesman from the T’ang era. He was highly respected and went on to become a sort of folk hero, the protagonist of popular Chinese detective novels like the ones translated by Dr. van Gulik.

In the van Gulik mysteries Judge Dee is a traditionalist, a staunch Confucian, deeply leery of such novelties as Taoism and Buddhism. Yet he is not blinded to the cruelty that surrounds him. His humanity, his moral compass transcend religion, time and place. Maybe that is why he has become so popular the world over.

I have tallied 24 Judge Dee mysteries by Robert van Gulik. Some are full-length novels, some short stories. They all fall squarely within the popular literature category. No fireworks there, but wonderfully entertaining and enlightening reads. These novels don’t feel a bit like a history lesson. When Judge Dee has a head cold, my eyes water and my nose gets stuffy.

Another perk: Dr. van Gulik produced his own illustrations for the novels, also in the style of 18th century Chinese woodcuts. These are reproduced in most editions, and you get one (very chaste) nude per book.

Van Gulik Necklace and Calabash

Van Gulik Necklace and Calabash

Thanks to van Gulik’s extraordinary scholarship, the brilliant, refined and merciless T’ang era comes to life. One of the peaks of China’s military might and cultural achievement, that world was atrociously harsh to its poorest and most vulnerable denizens, especially women. Courtesans, peasants, prostitutes or parties to polygamous marriages, T’ang ladies did not have it easy.

So what is my very own favorite Judge Dee mystery? Without a doubt the first one I read, Necklace and Calabash. When Judge Dee, on horseback, tired and soaked through, arrives at Riverton one rainy evening, he has to rub his eyes, for he believes for a moment that he has run into his double. But no, he is only looking at a harmless old hermit, riding a donkey. Blame it on the dusk.

What else does a mystery lover need? A beautiful princess in distress,the Emperor’s guilty secret, youthful love, court intrigue, mobsters,gruesome murders… And water, water everywhere: the rain, the river, the canals that run through the summer palace, the malodorous moats that surround it.

And what about the hermit? Oh, he was the mystery, and the solution to the mystery. He was no one really…

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