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September 8, 2013

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Dutch ‘mandarin’ behind Judge Dee novels

Legendary Judge Di Renjie, a Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) magistrate and statesman, is an enduring symbol of the upright jurist and he remains a household name, largely thanks to Robert van Gulik, a Dutch Orientalist, diplomat and author who wrote the “Judge Dee” detective series.

Judge Dee became popularized in novels, films and TV series as China’s Sherlock Holmes, a brilliant investigating magistrate, incorruptible and fair. Hong Kong director Tsui Hark’s new Judge Dee film, titled “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon,” is due to come out September 28.

Few people know, however, that it was sinologist and Dutch diplomat van Gulik (1910-67), who immortalized Judge Dee in 17 English-language novels that are still being read around the world. They were hugely successful, translated into 29 languages and available in 38 countries.

Judge Dee, an official of the Tang court, was the antithesis of the Chinese villain Dr Fu Manchu, who also captured the Western imagination. Van Gulik used the novels both to entertain and to illuminate and promote many aspects of Chinese culture — from sexual life in ancient in China to calligraphy and guqin (traditional scholars’ zither).

Today, the fascinating man behind Judge Dee is himself the topic of scholars, at a recent international conference at Shanghai Normal University, and the subject of a permanent exhibition that will open in the Three Gorges Museum in Chongqing in autumn.

It will include his rosewood desk, his Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) guqin, collected antiques and his own calligraphy, painting and writings.

“I’m amazed that though my dad died long ago, in China he still has so much influence and has inspired so many people,” his daughter Pauline van Gulik told Shanghai Daily in an interview. She is collecting some of his works and collections for the museum.

“I keep hearing my father’s voice because he and Judge Dee had so much in common,” said van Gulik who teaches and translates French in the Netherlands. “They were both wise, serious, good to the people who worked for them, and they valued time with their family. They thought deeply before speaking and never judged people.”

In the Judge Dee books readers can learn about Chinese culture and its system of justice while become enthralled as the stories unfold, she said.

The Dutch mandarin known as Gao Luopei was a kind of Oriental Renaissance man. He has been compared with traditional Chinese magistrate-scholars who applied themselves to arts and letters in their spare time. He even looked like Judge Dee, whom he depicted in illustrations. One writer asserts that van Gulik used to mumble “I am Judge Dee and Judge Dee is me.”

From 1943-46, he was posted to Chongqing with the Dutch legation to the nationalist government, but he had visited China many times previously while posted to Japan. In Chongqing he supported the foundation of the Heavenly Guqin Association with distinguished calligrapher Yu Youren and general Feng Yuxiang. It is still active today.

Van Gulik, a polyglot (15 languages) of prodigious intellect and wide-ranging interests, was also a calligrapher, Chinese art connoisseur,  guqin player, a seal-cutter, student of esoteric Buddhism, erotic Ming art, and other subjects. He even raised, studied and wrote about gibbons, which were praised in Chinese literature as the “gentlemen of the forest.” He was considered an expert on imperial Chinese jurisprudence.

He also had a flair for the exotic. Among scholars he is probably best known for his groundbreaking 1961 work on the history of sexuality in China, “Sexual Life in Ancient China: A Preliminary Survey of Chinese Sex and Society from circa 1500 BC-AD 1644.” It is known for exhaustive research that documents much more open attitudes about sex than prevailed in van Gulik’s time, and even today.

Focus on van Gulik

The man himself is intriguing, a man of many faces and some a bit mysterious, and the subject of an upcoming documentary by Dutch filmmaker Rob Rombout. It is being filmed in China and other countries, including Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Holland and the US. The 90-minute film is to be released next year.

“He was an intellectual, a polyglot, an erudite man and a womanizer. He was hard to categorize,” said Rombout.

“Rovert van Gulik was more of a philosopher than a (down to earth) Dutchman …who did not always have his feet on the ground,” said Rombout who attended the Shanghai seminar titled “The Dutch Mandarin,” along with scholars and fans. Pauline van Gulik reminisced about living in Malaysia, where he was ambassador, and raising four gibbons.

Van Gulik was so immersed in Chinese history and culture that when asked by his government for a political assessment of Mao Zedong, he got it badly wrong and assumed thousands of years of tradition would prevail over current turmoil. According to Rombout, van Gulik’s assessment was that “Mao was a temporary figure, a phenomenon of limited duration.”

He often wore typical Chinese and Japanese dress, including robes, as well as suits. He bought his first guqin in Beijing in 1936 and was taught by master Ye Shimeng, niece of the Empress Dowager Cixi. In 1943 he married the daughter of an imperial diplomat, Shui Shifang. He went on to postings around the world but China and East Asia were his primary interests.

Van Gulik was born in Holland and raised in Indonesia where his father was posted as an army doctor. As a child he was interested in Chinatown, the calligraphy on signs, and the patterns on blue-and-white vases. His PhD dissertation in the Netherlands was on the horse cult in Northeast Asia.

He represents a bygone area in which it was possible for diplomats, and other professionals, to have other careers. He was able to write, study and collect art while working for the Dutch government around the world for 30 years. His final posting was in Tokyo as ambassador to Japan where he lived for many years. He wrote the first Judge Dee novels in Japan.

From erotica to Judge Dee

The diplomat-scholar’s interests were so wide ranging and eclectic that in 1951 he published his own Ming-like erotic paintings and essay on sex in ancient China, followed 10 years later by the more scholarly work. In 1967 he wrote the first authoritative work on “noble” gibbons (“changbiyuan”) in Chinese literature and painting. There were many works in between, including the Judge Dee mysteries and many monographs, many about Chinese subjects.

“It (the erotica) demonstrates that besides being a brilliant and productive scholar, he was sometimes an old trickster, taking pleasure in fooling the scholarly world,” James Cahill, an American expert on Chinese art history, told the van Gulik forum. “None of this detracts seriously from his brilliant scholarship.”

His first Judge Dee novel was published in Japan in 1949, “The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee.” It was a translation and adaptation of the 18th century detective novel “Dee Gong An.” His first English-language novels were written and published in Asia.

The novels are set in the Tang Dynasty with many Ming elements, and draw on a Tang mystery titled “The Four Great Mysterious Cases of the Reign of Wu Zetian.” Van Gulik stumbled upon the work in a used bookstore in Japan in 1940,

A recent “Judge Dee” TV series, “Amazing Detective Di Renjie,” frequently depict the judge asking his young assistant, “What do you think of this, Yuanfang?” The line has become a buzzword in China, applied in jest in any situation.

Van Gulik wrote in his preface to “The Chinese Bell Murders” (1958) that his intent was “to show modern Chinese and Japanese writers that their own ancient crime-literature has plenty of source material for detective and mystery-stories.”

The series became immensely popular.

The novels opened a window on China in the West and were more factual, insightful and balanced than the Fu Manchu novels by Englishman Sax Rohmer (1883-1959) who created a dominant image in the vicious scoundrel. Van Gulik wrote at a time when the Fu Manchu stories were popular.

“Van Gulik took every chance to promote Chinese culture in his novels,” Shi Ye, a van Gulik expert and professor at Shanghai Normal University, told Shanghai Daily in a telephone interview. At the end of his novels are detailed explanations about the appearance and customs of Chinese people, including vase decoration and the guqin, which was favored by literati.

According to professor Shi, van Gulik transformed traditional Chinese stories about court cases, condensing them, dramatizing them, eliminating moral lectures, supernatural elements, as well as complicated political struggles. He changed the original titles that gave away the conclusions.

‘Gentlemen of the forest’

It was in Malaysia that van Gulik raised four gibbons in the huge garden of the family home in Kuala Lumpur where he was posted as Dutch ambassador.

 In 1967 he wrote “The Gibbon in China,” the first systematic work in the West about the primate in Chinese culture. Early writers described gibbons as “noble,” moving gracefully high in the treetops. Some painters specialized in gibbons.

They were called “junzi’ or gentlemen of the forests, in contrast with greedy macaques attracted by human food. Taoists ascribed supernatural properties to the primates, thought to be able to live several hundred years and transform themselves into humans.

Van Gulik wanted to study them up close. He bought four gibbons from an animal reserve, including a four-year-old female gibbon named Cheenee — sometimes introduced to astonished guests as a member of the family.

“You should have seen the look on their faces,” said his daughter, Pauline van Gulik, laughing.

There was a traumatized six month old gibbon. “My father took him home and thought he would get better if he could play with children, get special attention and feel needed,” she said. “At first he was peevish and keep hurting himself, pulling out his hair.” Gradually he relaxed.

She describes gibbons as clean, vegetarian and easily domesticated and bonding with humans. Cheenee once bit her out of jealousy because van Gulik embraced her.

Van Gulik worked from 9am to 2pm at weekends and spent the rest of the day swimming with the family, wandering in antiques markets, watching shadow play, and playing with his gibbons.


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