Robert van Gulik and the Judge Dee Mysteries

In 1949, while Political Advisor to his country’s Military Mission in Japan, the Dutch diplomat and scholar Robert van Gulik independently published a translation of an 18th Century Chinese detective novel by an anonymous author entitled ‘Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee’ (Di Gong’an). Unable to conduct his usual scholarly researches due to the pressures of work and travel during the Second World War, Robert van Gulik had embarked on a translation of the novel, thinking it far superior to the pocket mysteries he saw in his local shops – not that he, as he admitted himself, was widely read or an expert in the genre.

The hero of this novel, Judge Dee, was based on a real-life official and statesman Di Renjie (630 – 700CE) who had had a reputation for being a just and incorruptible judge when called upon to hear legal cases. The translation of the novel sold so well in Japan – mainly bought by Chinese and Japanese writers who would not themselves touch such an ‘exotic’ subject – that R0bert van Gulik began to write Judge Dee novels of his own, beginning with The Chinese Maze Murders (1948 – 51) and The Chinese Bell Murders (1950), both of which he wrote in English but had translated into both Chinese and Japanese. It was not until 1958 that he would find a British publisher (Michael Joseph) for his Judge Dee mysteries – the books for which he is now most famous.

Born into a military family on the 9th August 1910 in Zutphen in the Dutch province of Guelders, Robert van Gulik spent most of his childhood in Batavia (Jakarta), the capital of what was then the Dutch East Indies. His classmates were a mixture of Dutch, Dutch-Indonesian and Chinese-Indonesian children. It was here that he developed a love of all things oriental. He was distraught when his father, a medical officer, retired with the rank of major-general, and he was forced to return with the rest of his family to the Netherlands.

It was in grammar school in Nijmegen that Robert van Gulik began to become fascinated with the Chinese language. Expecting him to embrace an academic career, his parents were surprised when he applied and was accepted for a job with the Netherlands East Indies Government which offered to pay for his three years tuition in Chinese and Japanese studies at the University of Leiden. Robert van Gulik had decided that he did not just want to study languages but live and work among the Chinese and Japanese peoples for extended periods of time as part of the diplomatic service. After he had finished his degree the Netherlands East Indies Government decided it did not need him after all and so he completed an MA in Oriental Languages at the University of Utrecht in 1934 and then his doctorate in 1935. His first wife, Nellie, then suggested he apply to the Dutch Foreign Service, which he did. The Foreign Service accepted him without requiring him to pass the Foreign Service examinations as it then had a great need for oriental experts in China and Japan.

From 1935 t0 1942 he was stationed mainly in Japan. Usually completing his work at the legation during the morning, he devoted the rest of the day to his own scholarly pursuits – the study of Japanese and Chinese language and culture – and enjoying himself. He was a frequent visitor to antiquarian bookshops where he would add to his collection of rare books on Eastern culture and art. After the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into the Second World War, Robert van Gulik was first transferred to South Africa (taking with him the 18th Century Chinese detective novel he was soon to translate) where he did work with the British intelligence services and then on to Chongqing, the Chinese wartime capital, where he not only continued with his diplomatic and intelligence work but also found time to mingle with the Chinese intellectual and artistic community.

His diplomatic and intelligence work was helped by him being able to amaze the Chinese with his mastery of the Chinese lute and his facility not just with the language but also his ability to write in the classical Chinese style – something few contemporary Chinese writers would have dared attempt! It was in Chongqing that he met and married his second wife Shui Shifang, a scion of a family of mandarins, having come to the conclusion that he would never make a Western woman happy and that his best chance for a successful marriage would be to a Chinese. The marriage would indeed last until the end of his life.

After the war, he was transferred first to the United States, then to Japan again, and then India, Lebanon, Malaysia and finally Japan for the third time. In each country he would continue to live his three lives: diplomat, scholar and author. It was in Japan in 1967 that he began to feel particularly unwell. A heavy smoker all his life, he flew home to the Netherlands to be diagnosed with lung cancer. He was never to return to his beloved Orient. He spent the last few weeks of his life in hospital, finishing his final Detective Dee mystery, and died on the 24th September 1967. He was just 57 years old.

Not only did he author the famous Detective Dee mysteries but he also published scholarly works: The Lore of the Chinese Lute (1941), reprinted by Orchid Press, 2011; a translation of the Tangyibishi (Parallel Cases from under the Pear Tree) a 13th Century Manual of jurisprudence and detection (1956), reprinted by Orchid Press in 2007 as Crime and Punishment in Ancient China; and The Gibbon in China – an essay in Chinese animal lore (1967).

However, it is the Detective Dee mysteries for which he is best remembered. A curious hybrid of Chinese traditional detective stories and modern Western detective fiction (to appeal more to a Western audience, Robert van Gulik downplayed the supernatural in his mysteries and chose not to reveal the perpetrator at the beginning of his stories – both usual in Chinese detective fiction – but retained the essential character of Chinese detective fiction by having Detective Dee solve three very different and unconnected crimes in each novel), all of the Detective Dee mysteries remain in print to this day.

They are as follows:

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee

The Chinese Bell Murders

The Chinese Lake Murders

The Chinese Gold Murders

The Chinese Nail Murders

The Lacquer Screen

The Haunted Monastery

The Red Pavilion

The Emperor’s Pearl

The Monkey and the Tiger

Murder in Canton

The Willow Pattern

The Phantom of the Temple

Judge Dee at Work: a collection of short stories.

Necklace and Calabash

Poets and Murder

A superb biography has just been published in English for the first time by Orchid Press (2018) entitled: Dutch Mandarin: The Life and Work of Robert Hans van Gulik, by C.D. Barkman and H. de Vries-van der Hoeven, originally published in Dutch in 1995.




Article by Laurence Westwood

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