Robert van Gulik: Author of the Judge Dee Mysteries

Robert van Gulik: Author of the Judge Dee Mysteries

In November 2021 I wrote a series of blogs on my favorite novels, both in the broad Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre and in general literature. Links to those posts are in the Pemberley Library, down the page a bit under “Cinema & Literature” and the submenu “Books and Music.” One of the literature authors I mentioned was Robert van Gulik, who wrote the Judge Dee series of detective mystery novels. I noted at the time that I would revisit Mr. van Gulik because he is such a fascinating person, and today I am finally getting around to doing that!

As a youth, and long before easy internet searching, I knew nothing about the author of these books other than that his name didn’t sound Chinese! In fact, not until fairly recently did I discover who Robert van Gulik was, and as a massive JRR Tolkien fanatic, the similarities between the two are remarkable. Van Gulik’s novels are worlds apart from Jane Austen and Regency romance, quite literally, nevertheless, attention to historical detail and excellent storytelling are universal and, for me, inspirational.

 

A Brief Biography of Robert van Gulik

 

Robert Hans van Gulik was born on August 9, 1910 in Zutphen in the Netherlands. His mother came from a family of musicians and piano manufacturers, a fact that greatly influenced Robert’s life. His father, Willem van Gulik, was a physician in the Medical Service of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, a position which required frequent foreign postings. The family dwelt in various areas of the East Indies, primarily in what is now Indonesia and Jakarta, for most of Robert’s youth. This experience contributed to his appreciation for cultures and mastery of several languages, particularly Mandarin but also English, Russian, Tibetan, and Blackfoot American Indian.

Returning to the Netherlands in 1923, the teenaged Robert published articles based on his early years in the East Indies while still attending secondary school. On the side, he studied Sanskrit and Chinese until fluent in both. In 1928, when only 18 years of age, he published his first articles on Chinese subjects. He was educated at the Universities of Leyden and Utrecht, focusing on law as well as Chinese and Japanese languages and literature. He earned his PhD in 1935 and immediately entered the Dutch diplomatic service as a linguist. Naturally, his special talents were best utilized in East Asia, Robert stationed in various countries.

When WWII was declared in 1942, Robert was in Tokyo but quickly evacuated to Chongqing in China. It was there that he met 22-year-old Shui Shifang, the daughter of a Qing dynasty Imperial. They married in 1943 and eventually had four children together. After the war, Robert and his family returned to the Netherlands. He continued his work as a diplomat, this taking him all over the world, including the United States as a counsellor of the Dutch Embassy, India, Beirut, Malaysia, and several more years in Japan. From 1959 to 1963 he served as a correspondent of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. The final years of his life, until his death of cancer in 1967 at 57, Robert van Gulik was the Dutch ambassador to Japan.

Through all of these years, Robert remained a voracious academic, collector of art and manuscripts, and translator of ancient writings. He studied and trained until a master musician on the Chinese guqin, a zither-type stringed instrument, and eventually wrote two books on the instrument. Similarly, his skills as an artist in the traditional Chinese style and knowledge of Asian calligraphy were unparalleled.

He wrote and published a number of non-fiction, scholarly articles and books on Chinese music, art, and literature, as well as Chinese culture, sexuality, and folklore. Additionally, he published translated works from Sanskrit and Chinese, was co-author of a vocabulary of the Siksika language of the Blackfoot Indians, and wrote a study on the horse-cult in China and Japan.

Robert van Gulik playing the guqin.
Robert van Gulik signature in Chinese, in his own calligraphy.

Robert van Gulik creates the Judge Dee Mysteries

Original cover of “Dee Goong An” with cover art by Robert van Gulik.

In 1940, Robert van Gulik stumbled across an obscure and anonymous 18th-century Chinese novel that would take his career down an unplanned pathway and result in the public fame he never anticipated. The novel, titled Wu-tsé-t’ien-szû-ta-ch’i-an (Four great strange cases of Empress Wu’s reign), was a fictional account of the deeds of Judge Dee, one of the heroes of traditional Chinese detective fiction, and was set during the 7th-century Tang Dynasty. (More on Judge Dee in a bit.) Intrigued, Robert not only translated the novel into English, he delved into the history of Chinese Penal Code and other legal literature of the period. Between WWII and his diplomatic duties, it was not until 1949 that Robert was able to publish his translation — Dee Goong An: Three Murder Cases Solved by Judge Dee. The printed novel included several of van Gulik’s Chinese-style illustrations inside with the text and on the cover (see above).

“My English text was meant only as a basis for a printed Chinese and/or Japanese version, my aim being to show modern Chinese and Japanese writers that their own ancient crime-literature has plenty of source material for detective and mystery stories.” ~Robert van Gulik

His fascination with old Chinese detective stories, and with Judge Dee, prompted Robert van Gulik to write original stories for modern readers. His first original story was The Chinese Maze Murders published in 1951, but only in Japanese and Chinese as he believed the stories would have more interest to readers from those cultures. He was correct, the book a success with good reviews, so he soon followed with two more novels about Judge Dee. 

Not until 1956 did he translate and publish his first three novels into English and Dutch. All of his subsequent novels were published in English first, with the translations coming afterwards. From 1956 until literally the final days of his life, even while in the hospital, Robert wrote prolifically. In total, he authored 16 original Judge Dee novels, the last published posthumously. In between, he wrote and published 9 scholarly works, the last also posthumous, a book titled The Gibbon in China: An Essay in Chinese Animal Lore that included a collection of original art.

Robert van Gulik with one of the many gibbons he raised.
Judge Dee Mystery series in Chinese.

Meet Judge Dee Goong An

Judge Dee playing the guqin, illustration by Robert van Gulik.

The Judge Dee Detective Mystery series of sixteen original novels and one translated novel were written over a period of approximately twenty years. As already noted, Robert was inspired by an 18th-century novel of a fictitious detective named Judge Dee Goong An, so from a certain point of view he was writing fan-fiction! Even more interesting, the unknown author of that original story was basing Judge Dee on a historical person named Di Renjie (630-700) who was a district magistrate and later the Chancellor of Empress Wu Zetian during the T’ang Dynasty.

Judge Dee, by Robert van Gulik

An intense scholar of Chinese history, Robert van Gulik set out to create a fictional world firmly based on an ancient culture. He mined many of his plots from real incidents in ancient sources, as well as the extensive quantity of Chinese crime stories written since the 16th-century. Yet, his novels featured turns of plots and motives that were quite modern. He wrote deliberately anachronistic, which was a custom in early Chinese literature. As per a standard Chinese model, the novels are set within one time period —in the case of Judge Dee, the 7th-century T’ang Dynasty— with period details from a very different time period —for Judge Dee the 14th-century Ming Dynasty.

The series follows Judge Dee from his initial posting as a town magistrate through to his appointment as Lord Chief Justice in the Imperial Capital. Throughout Imperial Chinese history, the district magistrate was the link between the emperor and the people, and he was responsible for maintaining harmony among those under his charge. For crimes committed in his district, the magistrate was expected to solve the crimes and to mete out justice, hence the honorific title Judge.

Judge Dee himself, while based on a true person and founded on facts of a typical Chinese magistrate’s career, was to Robert van Gulik the embodiment of a perfect magistrate and human being. He is an unrelenting investigator who unravels complex crimes. He is a cultured gentleman who appreciates books, art, and music (including being a skilled guqin player). He is very witty and has a great sense of humor, and is a traditionalist and staunch Confucian. Never is Judge Dee unaware of the cruelty and evil that surrounds him, yet he remains compassionate, decent, and with a strong moral compass. As a character, he is a joy to read.

Through all the novels by Robert van Gulik, he impressively brings to life the sights and sounds of daily Chinese life in the past. No matter how strange it may appear to Western, modern eyes, he makes it all instantly accessible and comprehensible. His passionate devotion and respect for the Chinese culture was never compromised, yet he also appreciated the purpose of fiction.

“…I have come to realize that in the course of the past 15 years this work [writing novels] has become an integral part of my life, as necessary to me as my scholarly research. … However, if one takes scholarly work seriously, one has to be a slave of the facts, and strictly control one’s imagination. While writing fiction, on the other hand, one is the undisputed master of the facts, and one may give the reins to one’s imagination. Therefore the writing of fiction has become an indispensable third facet of my work, a relaxation that keeps my interest in diplomatic and scholarly activities alive.” ~Robert van Gulik in December 1966.

The Judge Dee Detective Mystery Series

*Linked to Amazon listings

Dee Goong An: Three Murder Cases Solved by Judge Dee (1949) –republished as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee
The Chinese Maze Murders (1956)
The Chinese Bell Murders (1958)
The Chinese Gold Murders (1959)
The Chinese Lake Murders (1960)
The Chinese Nail Murders (1961)
The Haunted Monastery (1961)
The Red Pavilion (1961)
The Lacquer Screen (1962)
The Emperor’s Pearl (1963)
The Monkey and the Tiger (1965)
The Willow Pattern (1965)
The Phantom of the Temple (1966)
Murder in Canton (1966)
Necklace and Calabash (1967)
Judge Dee at Work (1967)
Poets and Murder (1968)

“Spring Outing of the Tang Court” by Robert van Gulik

 

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