Robert van Gulik
The four academic and artistic accomplishments of a traditional Chinese scholar-official are painting, poetry or calligraphy, weiqi (the game of go in Japan), and qin (musicologically closest to zither but culturally to lute), and these are the lifelong pursuits of Robert van Gulik (1910–1967) who, at the time of his death, was the Dutch ambassador to Japan and Korea. Yet, he was different from these literati; unlike them, RvG did not mind getting his hands dirty. He loved framing Chinese pictorial art and calligraphy scrolls. In his younger days, the staging of Javanese shadow plays (wayang) brought him great joy. In Malaya, he teamed up with a Chinese printer to produce the first books from his New Judge Dee Mysteries series. He raised gibbons, and he was an avid collector of objects regardless of their price or condition: he collected them for their historical, cultural, or scientific value.Show more…
While still in grammar school, an enterprising young RvG made an all-important connection with the newly retired Professor C.C. Uhlenbeck, the pre-eminent linguist at the time. Professor Uhlenbeck taught him Sanskrit and Russian and conferred him co-authorship of two language reference works on English and Blackfoot, a tribe of North American Algonquian Indians. Professor Uhlenbeck also taught him grammar structures of languages. Throughout his life, RvG used his facility in learning languages for academic studies and as entrances to different cultures.
Many Judge Dee stories appeared as comic strips in Dutch and Scandinavian newspapers, drawn by a draftsman whom he had trained. He loved movies. If he had lived longer, undoubtedly he would have had his Judge Dee mysteries adapted as screenplays and made into movies.
RvG had a great capacity for friendship. In his Judge Dee mysteries, Judge Dee’s deep feelings towards his assistants Hoong Liang and Chiao Tai are movingly described. He sustained his correspondence with Professor Uhlenbeck until his death in 1951. He always acted in the best interest of the Chinese people and the Chinese culture. When The Chinese Maze Murders was first published, the Japanese publisher insisted on a Chinese nude woman on its cover. RvG balked at this request until he learned that China did indeed have an erotic art tradition. He stipulated with his book publishers a clause to have the final approval on the design of the book covers so that Chinese representations would not be distorted.
The best characterization of RvG may be in In Memoriam where Father Roggendorf wrote, “He was an uomo universale, a veritable polymath, such as one would look for in the ages of the Renaissance or the Baroque rather than in our drab century.”Show less…
Judge Dee, the hero of Robert van Gulik’s JD mystery series, is purportedly based on the historical Di Renjie (630–700), chancellor of Empress Wu Zetian during the Tang Dynasty, who earlier in his career served as a district magistrate.
The fictitious JD also assumed the role of a district magistrate in most of these novels. Throughout imperial Chinese history, the district magistrate was the link between the emperor and his people and was responsible for maintaining harmony among those under his charge. For crimes committed in his district, the magistrate is expected to solve the crimes and to mete out justice, hence his honorific title Judge.Show more…
Gong’an novels that celebrate wise and just magistrates who solve unusual and convoluted crimes and who expose in courts hardened and evasive criminals gained popularity, particularly since the sixteenth century in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. One such novel, The Four Strange Cases of Wu Zetian with JD as its protagonist, came to the attention of RvG and absorbed his interest. He translated it into English to show Western readers an authentic Chinese crime novel and titled it Dee Goong An. In his Translator’s Postscript he urged the professional mystery writers to write detective stories that use traditional Chinese criminal source materials. When no one responded, he decided to write one himself and wrote his first JD novel.
Under the imperial system, magistrates were assigned to posts for three-year terms, and they generally assembled teams of assistants who followed them throughout their careers. RvG, in writing his JD novels, not only borrowed the main character but all four assistants from Dee Goong An. RvG used JD’s different assigned locations to present China’s vast territorial regions and describe their different cultures, neighboring peoples and challenges. RvG would weave into his series notorious criminals, puzzling crimes, and even famous historical figures.
After his first three JD novels, RvG decided to write stories that serve as the beginning and the end of JD’s career as magistrate. In the Preface of The Chinese Gold Murders, he outlined a brief fictitious JD chronology which he elaborated at the end of the collection of his JD short stories (Judge Dee at Work). The fictitious JD chronology provides the reader much added pleasure in reading the series. Some of the characters make repeat appearances, and it creates the illusion that the reader is following the career and life of JD.
Several times RvG considered ending the JD series, yet somehow he persisted in writing them until his death. In his letter to Boston University’s Mugar Library late in his life, he wrote that he had come to appreciate the importance for him of writing the JD stories since, unlike his diplomatic and scholarly works, it offered him a creative artistic outlet. His JD stories are well-loved throughout the world and have been translated into almost thirty languages. On reflection, it seems a little ironic that this most erudite man would be best known as a popular author of detective stories.Show less…
Now available… Dee Goong An, Second Part: Judge Dee Defies the Empress
Rijksmuseum receives collection of sinologist Robert van Gulik
The Rijksmuseum has received a special collection of works by Robert van Gulik from his family. Robert van Gulik (1910–1967) was a sinologist and diplomat in China and Japan, and was recognized as a Chinese literate (civil servant scholar). The donation includes 54 objects, including a unique collection of Chinese seals, a 13-meter scroll with seal prints, two calligraphies and a painting. Particularly special are the 50 seals, some of which he cut himself. These are of exceptional quality and form a bridge between the Netherlands and Chinese culture. Examples of Chinese seal cutting are rare in Dutch museum collections.
Read the entire press release: pdf.
The Hot Springs of Odawara
To celebrate the conference The Dutch Mandarin: Robert van Gulik’s place in contemporary Chinese Culture held on 20 April in Shanghai, Judge-Dee.info has published a booklet. It contains the essay The Hot Springs of Odawara that Robert van Gulik wrote in 1936 following a New Year’s holiday trip to the Japanese spa of Odawara.
Besides the original English version, a Chinese translation has been added, made especially for this booklet by Prof. Shiye of Shanghai Normal University.
The image shows the de-luxe version which was published in a strictly limited edition of
only 50 numbered and signed copies and of which supply is running low already.
However, on the occasion of my early retirement in September 2020 I have prepared a second edition with a slightly different yet equally beautiful binding (see image above). You can order this booklet by contacting Judge-Dee.info.
China’s Sherlock Holmes
The Life and Times of Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee
You can order this book by contacting Judge-Dee.info.