The Chinese Judge Author

Robert van Gulik

After several days of posts dealing with death, I thought today I would go in the opposite direction, so this post is about birth. The birth in question is that of Robert H van Gulik who was born on this day in 1910.

Unless you are a mystery novel aficionado, as I am, or have an abiding interest in Asian culture, as I do, you’ve probably never heard of this guy. He’s best known for the Judge Dee series of mysteries, set during China’s Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), featuring a magistrate who often finds himself cast in the role of an investigator.

Van Gulik was born in the Netherlands and joined the Dutch Foreign Service in 1935. From 1942-45 he was secretary for the Dutch mission to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in Chongqing, China. There he married a Chinese woman, Shui Shifang, the daughter of an Imperial mandarin (under the Manchu Dynasty), with whom he had four children.

During World War II, van Gulik translated into English an 18th century detective novel Dee Goong An (“Cases of Judge Dee”), based on the experiences of a historical magistrate and official of the Tang Dynasty, Di Renjie. Van Gulik produced an accurate translation and got it published, despite the fact that Asian mystery stories present a number of problems for Western readers. Foremost is that even today many Asian mystery novels begin with the identification of the criminal, which sort of takes the mystery out of it.

At the time, van Gulik wrote, “This 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.” He decided to rectify that by writing his own Judge Dee novels, sixteen in all, the last, Poets and Murder, published posthumously in 1968.

Van Gulik, considered an expert on Imperial Chinese jurisprudence, had many other interests, including Chinese painting and music. Some of his scholarly works include Siddham; An Essay on the History of Sanskrit Studies in China and Japan (Siddham is an ancient form of Sanskrit, the script in which many Buddhist texts were written, and later used in China and Japan for writing Buddhist mantras), Hayagriva, Horse Cult in Asia (he was also an expert in Tantric deities), and Sexual Life in Ancient China (his fascination with eroticism).

The current trend in historical mysteries, of the type that van Gulik wrote, began with the publication of Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael mysteries in 1977, and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco in 1983. But van Gulik was way ahead of the game in the late ‘40s when Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee was first published.

In addition to being fine novels, the Judge Dee mysteries provide us with a glimpse into ancient China. Although van Gulik Westernized his original Judge Dee stories to some extent, nonetheless he was very skillful at capturing the flavor of that imperial era, from everyday life to the intricacies of feudal Chinese criminal justice. At times the characters may come off as two dimensional, yet van Gulik makes up for that with his detailed description of Chinese culture, and while occasionally there is a supernatural element, he keeps the focus of the stories on the intellect and persistent efforts of the investigator, Judge Dee.

In these mysteries, Buddhist monks are often portrayed as miscreants who frequently lust after women.

Often, Judge Dee has to juggle two or three cases at one time. In The Chinese Bell Murders, he must solve the rape-murder of Pure Jade, the young daughter of a butcher living on Half Moon Street,  unravel the circumstances behind a complex and long-lived family feud, and get to the bottom of the goings-on at an extremely wealthy Buddhist temple whose abbot claims to be able to cure barren women and where “the monks may not be as virtuous as they seem.”

Here’s an excerpt:

‘As a matter of fact, Your Honour,’ began Tao Gan, ‘I chanced upon something that would seem to invite a thorough investigation.

‘Making the rounds of the larger tea houses of this city, by force of habit I tried to find out about the sources of wealth of this district. I soon discovered that although there are about a dozen very wealthy merchants who handle the canal traffic, and four or five big landowners, their riches are a mere trifle when compared with the wealth of Spiritual Virtue, the abbot of the Temple of Boundless Mercy, in the northern suburb of the city. He is the head of that vast, newly-built temple compound and has about sixty baldpates under him. However, instead of fasting and praying those monks spend their time drinking wine, eating meat, and in general live off the fat of the land.’

‘Personally,’ Judge Dee interrupted, ‘I will have no truck with the Buddhist crowd. I find myself completely satisfied with the wise teachings of our peerless Sage Confucius and his venerable disciples. I don’t feel the need for meddling with the doctrines introduced by the black-robed foreigners from India. . .’

[Later, Tao Gan begins the investigation into the activities of the Temple of Boundless Mercy]

In the morning of that same day, when Tao Gan had left Judge Dee’s private office, he changed into a quiet but distinguished-looking outer robe and put on a black gauze cap as is affected by gentlemen of leisure without official rank.

In this attire he walked through the northern city gate and strolled through the northern suburb. He found a small restaurant where he ordered a simple luncheon.

From the second floor where he sat by the window he could see through the lattice-work the curved roof of the Temple of Boundless Mercy. As he paid his bill he said to the servant: ‘What a magnificent temple that is! How pious the monks must be to receive such plentiful blessings from the Lord Buddha!’ The waiter grunted.

‘Those baldheads may be pious,’ he replied, ‘but there is many an honest householder in this district who would gladly cut their throat!’

‘Mind your language, my man!’ Tao Gan said with feigned indignation. ‘You are speaking to a devout believer in the Three Jewels.’

The waiter gave him a sullen look and went away without taking the tip that Tao Gan had left on the table. Tao Gan contentedly put the cash back into his sleeve and left the restaurant.

After a short walk he arrived at the three-storied gate of the temple. He ascended the stone steps and entered. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed three monks sitting in the gatekeeper’s room. They scrutinized him carefully. Tao Gan walked slowly through the gate, then suddenly stopped short, felt in his sleeves, and looked to left and right as if undecided what to do.

One of the gatekeepers, an elderly monk, stepped up to him, and enquired politely:

‘Can I be of any service to the gentleman?’

‘This is very kind of you, Father,’ Tao Gan said. ‘I, a devout follower of the Path came here especially to offer this my humble votive gift to our Gracious Lady Kwan Yin. However, I find that unfortunately I left my small change at home. So I am unable to buy incense. I fear that I shall have to return and come back here some other day.’

As he spoke he took a beautiful bar of silver from his sleeve and let it weigh in the palm of his hand.

The monk, who cast an admiring eye on the silver bar, hastily said:

‘Allow me, my Lord, to advance the incense money to you!’

So speaking he hurriedly went into the gatekeeper’s room and reappeared with two strings of fifty copper cash each, which Tao Gan accepted with grave thanks.

Crossing the first courtyard, Tao Gan noticed that it was paved with polished stone slabs, while the reception rooms on both sides made a most elegant impression. Two palankeens were standing in front and there was much coming and going of monks and servants. Tao Gan passed two more courtyards, then saw the main hall of the temple directly in front of him.

This hall was on three sides surrounded by a marble terrace and overlooked a spacious courtyard paved with carved marble slabs. Tao Gan ascended the broad steps, crossed the terrace and stepped over the high threshold into the dimly-lit hall. The sandalwood statue of the goddess was over a fathom high. It was placed on a gilt pedestal and the light of two giant candles played on the golden incense burners and other sacrificial vessels on the altar.

Tao Gan bowed deeply three times and then, for the benefit of the group of monks standing about, made it appear as if with his right hand he dropped some cash in the large wooden offering box, while at the same time he let his left sleeve in which he had put the two strings of cash, swing against the outside of the box with a convincing thud.


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