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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25 Comments to “The Judge Dee Mysteries, and Robert van Gulik”

  1. Fascinating to see that Judge Dee still captivates people so many centuries after his death.

  2. suan says:

    Was travelling in Taiyuan city of Shanxi Province, China for holidays for the passed weeks. Was thrilled to discover that there is a Di village opposite to my hotel. When enquired was told that the Di village previously during Tang dynasty housed villagers with surname Di. Di Ren Jie (Judge Dee) was a resident of Di villgae as well.

  3. Ah, yes, I love The Haunted Monastery. A pity this adaptation is not available…

  4. M Vone Bowly says:

    The Judge Dee Movie – The Haunted Monastery was excellent – it was a made for TV movie – released in 1974. Have not been able to find in issued on DVD yet. Wish they had done the whole series.

  5. That’s really sad, Suan. There is no excuse not to make wonderful movies out of these novels.

  6. suan says:

    Just went for the HongKong blockbuster movie’Detective Dee -mystery of the phantom flame’. it was not what i have expected….. R Van Gulik’s books I read were so breathlessly interesting as the character Judge Dee would wisely, bravely and scientifically and convincingly deduce the cases step by step and finally solve them. I would still prefer to read the original English version of the Gulik’s serials of Judge Dee books !

  7. Thanks for the info! Looking forward to the film.

  8. suan says:

    There are already TV serials on ‘Judge D’ where one can find from Utube and Chinese DVD. There is now a HongKong blockbuster movie coming up soon on ‘Judge Dee’ at the following website

    It was just commented as good in the recent Venice movie award! But of course the translation version of ‘Judge D’ I read some 30 years ago by R Van Gulik were excellent and like shelock Holmes!

  9. Vone Bowly says:

    Discovered Judge Dee many years ago and have read all his historical mysteries and a biography of Robert Van Gulik as well. Was reading a history book about the Tang Dynasty called – Lady Wu – and the name of the real Judge Dee came up. The real Judge Dee is credited with saving the Tang Dynasty from the very wicked Lady Wu who was systematically killing off all her royal relatives – so she could retain all the power. Also loved the made for TV movie the Haunted Monastery – they should made more movies like that ! It was Van Gulik’s historical mystery series that got me started on reading historical mysteries – so far I have read 600 of them – taking place mostly in England at various periods but also Japan, China, Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Spain, Ancient Roman and Italy. These writers really bring history alive !

  10. Joan Ahrens says:

    I just bought my first two Judge Dee paperbacks yesterday, at a library book sale! For all the years of living and traveling in China, 30, I have yet to run across one or knew enough to be on the lookout for one. However, my traveling companion to Asia, Adele Anderson, has read them all and enjoyed them emensley. We are heading out again in June and my two books will travel with ME this time! Can’t wait!

  11. Honest points raised here. I am thankful to you for that, nonetheless you deserve more thanks than that. I have color blindness. I mainly use Opera web browser and regard a number of web sites are baffling to comprehend thanks to a incautious range of colors used. Yet, here, as the range of colors is beneficial, the design is super tidy and pleasant to comprehend. I don’t know whether it was a premeditated and intended undertaking, or just the ‘luck of the draw’, but I nevertheless thank you.

  12. Catherine Delors says:

    What a pity! These novels would lend themselves to well to good film/TV adaptations!

  13. Bevis says:

    The movie was “Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders” made in 1974. As yet never released on either video or DVD. It was based on “The Haunted Monastery”. There was a 1969 British Tv Series that was apparently not a great success.

  14. Hi,
    Interesting !!!
    what an honor to be able to introduce van Gulik to new readers!
    Keep up posting……. :)

  15. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Frederic! I read French and will look up your own Judge Dee mysteries.

  16. Frederic Lenormand says:

    I am so glad people continue to discover and love RVG’s judge Dee ! I’d like to bring to your attention that I recently published 13 new enquiries of this extraordinary character, unfortunately not yet translated into english (some of them in spanish though). I try to perpetuate the tradition of the chinese judge in mystery novel. Hope you may read them in english someday !
    Frederic Lenormand

  17. Ellen says:

    Have loved Judge Dee for years. I am currently reading the series for the second time. I believe at least one movie was made of the series. Can you confirm or deny this? If in fact I am correct I would love to get a copy of same. Can you help?

  18. Catherine Delors says:

    These books will transport you to T’ang China, Penny! If you enjoy a good mystery, you should love these.

  19. Penny Klein says:

    Ma chere Catherine,
    thank you for this post. I do enjoy a good mystery. i will put this on my wish list.

  20. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you for letting me know about your enthusiasm for Judge Dee, Dawn and Ron. I am delighted to have introduced you, and hopefully other readers, to Van Gulik’s work. Yes, by all means send me the list and I will post it.

  21. D R says:

    My husband and I were so happy to see your recommendation of the Van Gulik, Judge Dee novels. Both of us enjoy them and get so immersed in the atmosphere of ancient China and the philosophies and humanity of Judge Dee. What we found interesting as well, is that a lot of them have more than one mystery to be solved but Van Gulik’s writing flows so easily there is no confusion for the reader. We have a list of his Judge Dee novels in published as well as chronological order if you would like to post it for other readers who are interested.
    Thanks so much for bringing this series to the attention of new readers!
    Dawn & Ron

  22. Catherine Delors says:

    Wow, Carlyn, what an honor to be able to introduce van Gulik to new readers!

    The art work all comes from the T’ang Dynasty section on Wikimedia Commons. I love Chinese art, especially from that period, and I was thrilled to find the horseman to illustrate the opening scene of Necklace and Calabash. With his large beard, he even looks like Judge Dee!

    As for my law practice, I need to make a living, and it provides a nice balance with writing.

  23. I had never heard of this author either. Where did you get the art work? What exhibition?

    And you run a law practice too! ok now I officially feel like a slacker. :)

  24. Catherine Delors says:

    Isn’t this an extraordinary life, Eva? I recommend Necklace for starters.

  25. Eva says:

    Ohhhh: I’ve never heard of this author before, but your post makes me want to run out and fix this immediately! What an interesting person. :D

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