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Biographical notes

Source: Robert van Gulik: his life, his work by Janwillem van de Wetering


Born in Zutphen, The Netherlands. His father, Willem Jacobus van Gulik, is a physician in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army.


His first overseas journey, together with his mother and younger sister. WW I is on, but the Netherlands are neutral. The ship sails to Java where he joins his father who traveled ahead for a second tour of service.


Elementary school in Surabaya and Batavia (now Jakarta), Java. He is taught in Dutch but he picks up Malay and Javanese from the servants and in the street. He becomes involved in a lifelong affair with all things Chinese.


Back in The Netherlands (in Nymegen) he studies at a select High School, a 'Gymnasium,' where Latin and Greek are added to a program of modern languages, mathematics and science. His longing for the beautiful island of Java inspires literary work published in Rostra, the school's monthly paper. Some of the sketches are in Dutch, some in French. He takes private lessons from a Chinese student in order to perfect his knowledge of written and spoken Cantonese and Mandarin. He meets Professor C.C. Uhlenbeck who teaches him Russian and Sanskrit, and helps his teacher to compile a dictionary of the American Blackfoot Indian language.

In 1928, still as a high school student, he begins to contribute to the scholarly magazine China, published by the Dutch Chinese Cultural Association. His well constructed and erudite essays on ancient Chinese poetry are enthusiastically received.


He studies Colonial Oriental law, 'Indology' (a discipline centered on the culture of the then Netherlands Indies), and, of course, Chinese (and Japanese) language and literature, at the famous University of Leyden.

Translates (1932) a play from Sanskrit and manages to have this work published.

Chinese associates give him the name Gao Lo-pei (高羅佩) that he will use throughout his further career.

He begins his daily ritual, kept up during the rest of his life, of practising Chinese calligraphy with a brush.

His baccalaureate thesis (1933) appears in English, and is entitled The Development of the Juridical Position of the Chinese in the Netherlands Indies.

He transfers to the University of Utrecht to add Tibetan and Sanskrit to his studies and submits his lengthy essay Mi Fu on inkstones as his master's thesis.

His Ph.D. (1935) is granted cum laude on his dissertation Hayagriva, mantrayanic aspects of horsecult in China and Japan, a treatise that deals with esoteric Buddhism.


His first official and diplomatic assignment to the Dutch embassy in Thkyo, Japan. He helps found Monumenta Nipponica (1938), at Sophia University, where he will serve as a board member for almost thirty years.

Publishes two studies related to early Chinese ideology concerned with an exotic way of making music. Builds up a library of books and manuscripts on Chinese music, that he loses, together with his first art collection, when WW II breaks out and he is evacuated with Allied diplomatic personnel.


Temporary appointments in East Africa, Egypt and New Delhi, India.


Promoted to First Secretary, at the Dutch Legation, Chungking, the capital of Free China. Plays the Chinese seven stringed lute and makes many high-placed and artistic friends. Meets and marries Shui Shifang, a graduate of Ch'i-lu University, daughter of an imperial mandarin, and a typist at the Embassy, on December 18, 1943. There are two ceremonies, Protestant and modern Chinese. Willem, the couple's first son, is born the next year. There will be three more children, a daughter and two sons. Van Gulik becomes interested in book printing and scroll mounting.


Transferred to The Hague, The Netherlands, where he works in the Political Mfairs Section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Spends as much time as possible at Leyden University. He is sent to the U.S. as a counselor at the Dutch Embassy in Washington, D.C. Is appointed as a member of the Far Eastern Commission, advising in matters re the occupation of Japan. Makes use of U.S. university facilities to further his education in Far Eastern culture.


Is appointed as adviser to the Netherlands Military Mission in Kyoto, Japan. Advises against the Japanese major language reform that will reduce the number of current characters to 1,850 specimens. Nobody listens and he sets out writing the Judge Dee saga. The first book is his translation of an authentic Chinese eighteenth century detective novel, that he has privately printed. The Dee Goong An, three murder cases solved by Judge Dee, is a success. Studies Ming style pictorial art in order to be able to illustrate his books authentically himself. In order to satisfy growing demand he writes The Chinese Bell Murders, his first original Judge Dee book. The book sells well in English and Dutch, and also in his own Chinese and Japanese versions. Ultimately there will be sixteen books in the series. As naked women on bookcovers will stimulate sales, his publishers ask for attractive drawings. Van Gulik's search for the genuine Chinese female nude prompts an in-depth investigation that will culminate in the scholarly works Erotic Coloor Prints of the Ming Period and Sexual Life in Ancient China.


Appointed as counsellor at the Dutch Embassy in New Delhi, India. Continues his studies in Sanskrit and writes his important essay Siddam-referring to scholarly work on Sanskrit in Japan and China that will be published in 1956. The Siddam alphabet of Sanskrit is popular in the type of calligraphy appearing in Japanese esoteric Buddhist art.


Is promoted to director of the Bureau of Middle Eastern and African Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Finds time to study plots for more Judge Dee books. Finds a copy of a thirteenth century handbook for Chinese magistrates, the Parallel cases under the pear-tree, that he translates, and has published with his notes and comments.


Promoted to Envoy Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of The Netherlands to the Middle East, and settles in Beirut, Lebanon. The political situation is most unstable and the assignment therefore dangerous, but van Gulik enjoys his studies in Arabic language and religion at the local university. When his house was bombed, his family evacuated, but van Gulik continued his work and studIes III the basement. He wrote The Chinese Nail Murders, vainly intending the book to finish the Judge Dee series. He also found time to write a monumental work on Chinese art appreciation, Chinese pictorial art as viewed by the connoisseur.


A transfer to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where, at age forty-nine, he was appointed as Ambassador. He also became a professor, for he officially lectured at the University of Malaya. He discovered the agile and superior gibbons, long-limbed tree apes found in many parts of the Far East. Several of these graceful and intelligent beings became his house and garden pets and he was inspired to collect all available material on this special race of advanced fellow beings.


Another spell in The Hague, The Netherlands, where he worked as director of the Research and Documentation Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Writes his only 'Dutch' novel about a lonely man in a wet raincoat who suffers continuous and painful defeat, but there's a sur-happy ending when Mr. Hendriks solves his Zen koan.


Culmination of his diplomatic career with the appointment as Ambassador to Japan and Korea. Hoping that he would be able to continue his research, he had his complete library shipped to Tokyo. When his art collection arrived as well, his official residence was filled to the roof. He still managed to find room for his delicate and friendly gibbons. His treatise The Gibbon in China was finished with some haste as his health degenerated rapidly. Lung cancer was suspected and confirmed in a The Hague hospital, where he died, September 24, 1967, saying to one of his last visitors that he looked forward to whatever was waiting.