In the western world, it’s generally agreed that the first piece of crime fiction was written by Wilkie Collins in 1868. But in China, the detective story was a flourishing literary genre three hundred years before The Moonstone appeared in bookstores. From the late 16th century onwards, hundreds of Chinese detective novels were published. Yet it wasn’t until the late 1940s that any were translated into English. And that only happened through the intervention of a singular gentleman from Holland named Robert van Gulik.
Born in 1910, van Gulik was a gifted linguist who learned to speak Mandarin as a teenager. At the prestigious University of Leiden (The Dutch equivalent of Harvard) he’d branch out and become fluent in Indonesian, Sanskrit, Japanese, and even the language of the Blackfoot Confederacy. That he spoke English as well as any Londoner goes without saying.
Unsurprisingly, given his talents, van Gulik joined the Netherlands’ diplomatic service and was posted to Tokyo. When World War II broke, out he was evacuated from Japan and found himself serving in the Dutch mission at Chungking, a remote outpost in South West China.
While working in Chungking, Van Gulik immersed himself in Chinese culture. He learned the art of calligraphy, how to play the Chinese lute, and a good deal about the erotic art of the Ming Dynasty. He also stumbled upon a book of 18th century Chinese detective stories featuring the brilliant investigating magistrate, Dee Goong An.
Judge Dee was an historical figure who lived in the 17th century, but his reputation for solving even the most complex crimes had given him a legendary status in China. Tales of his exploits multiplied over the centuries.
In 1949—while serving at the Dutch Embassy in Washington—van Gulik used his spare time to translate one of the Dee detective novels into English. When he returned to Tokyo in 1949, he published them privately as Dee Goong An (later, this work would become better known as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee).
The Chinese detective story, like its western counterpart, had its own distinct format. Like Dee Goong An, the detective is usually an investigating magistrate—a judge whose job was not only to prosecute the criminals, but to catch them, too.
Typically, during the course of a novel the investigator solves three crimes, which may or may not overlap. Often he is helped by an encounter with a ghost, or by a vision that comes to him in a dream. Generally the suspects confess, but usually only after brutal torture. Finally, they are executed—an episode described in graphic detail, as the Chinese readers really wanted know the bad actors were punished and that justice had prevailed.
Van Gulik enjoyed Chinese detective stories and the window they opened on the world of provincial China during the Tang Dynasty. But he was familiar enough with crime fiction in Europe and America to know that, while tales of murder, feuds, and theft would appeal to audiences raised on Hercule Poirot and Ellery Queen, truth-telling specters, thumbscrews, and beheadings would not.
In the 1950s, van Gulik began adapting the stories of Judge Dee for a western readership. Out went the visions and the apparitions; the rack was put away (though the treatment of prisoners and witnesses remains, well, medieval), and the fate of the criminal after sentencing was left for the reader to imagine.
Van Gulik worked from original sources, adding his own plot twists and developing a domestic life for the Judge that was missing from the original tales. The first of the Dutchman’s new Judge Dee novels, The Chinese Maze Murders, was published in 1952. It is one of the first works of what would we would come to know as historical crime fiction.
Van Gulik would continue working as a diplomat and pursuing his research into life during the Tang, Ming, and Ch’ing dynasties. He published books on the lute, calligraphy, and erotic paintings. In imitation of the Chinese artists he admired, he even acquired a pet gibbon named Bubu (who died in Malaysia in 1962—the Judge Dee novella The Morning of the Monkey is dedicated to his memory).
All the while he continued to write and publish the Judge Dee novels, using real case histories and court records from the 7th century to create a series of tightly woven whodunnits. All of them were illustrated with Van Gulik’s drawings, inspired by 16th century Chinese block-prints.
Van Gulik’s Judge Dee novels generally stick to the three case format—a good device to keep the reader interested—and while the author is clearly an expert on life during the Tang Dynasty, the teachings of Confucius, and the intricacies of the 7th century Chinese law, etiquette, and governance, he wears his knowledge lightly. The Judge Dee novels skip merrily along. While readers learn about the Beijing government’s monopoly on salt, the wars with Uigur, or the annual dragon boat races in Kiangsu, they never feel lectured.
Some aspects of Judge Dee’s life undoubtedly seem strange to us. In one story, for example, Dee’s wife is constantly urging him to marry one of the maids. After worrying it will cost too much, he reluctantly gives in to her wishes. Eventually, the judge will have three wives. In line with the teachings of Confucius—we are assured—he never shares a bed with more than one at a time.
True to the period, Dee is a stern moralist who upholds the code of the Tang Dynasty with its strict views on conduct and hierarchy. A father whose daughter has been murdered in her bedroom by an illicit lover is more likely to get an angry lecture about his responsibility to maintain order in his household than a sympathetic hearing and a shoulder to cry on.
Yet despite the exotic, historic setting, van Gulik’s tales are filled with relatable characters and situations. Dee is tough and irascible, but with a kindly streak. His lieutenants are an entertaining gang with their own skills and quirks. There is steadfast Sergeant Hoong—perpetually weighed down with worry. Reformed conman Tao Gan—notoriously cheap, he generally turns up whenever food is hitting the table. And the expert boxers Ma Joong and Chiao Tai—a pair of former highwaymen with insatiable appetites for fighting, wine, and women.
Related: The Blind Detective, Max Carrados
Over a period of 15 years, van Gulik would pen 14 Dee novels and 10 short stories, as well as a comic strip in a Dutch newspaper. The final novel, Poets and Murder, was published in 1968. The brilliant and eccentric Dutch diplomat who had introduced Chinese detective fiction to the western world had died of cancer a year earlier.