Robert van Gulik

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Robert van Gulik
Robert van Gulik with a baby gibbon Bubu
Born August 9, 1910 (1910-08-09)
Died September 24, 1967 (1967-09-25)
The Hague
Spouse(s) Shui Shifang

Robert Hans van Gulik (Chinese: 髙羅佩; pinyin: Gāo Luópèi, August 9, 1910 – September 24, 1967) was an orientalist, diplomat, musician (of the guqin), and writer, best known for the Judge Dee historical mysteries, the protagonist of which he borrowed from the 18th-century Chinese detective novel Dee Goong An.


Marrying Shui Shifang (Chongqing, 1943)

Robert van Gulik was born in Zutphen, the son of a medical officer in the Dutch army of what was then called the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia). He was born in the Netherlands, but from the age of three till twelve he lived in Batavia (now Jakarta), where he was tutored in Mandarin and other languages. He went to Leiden University in 1934 and obtained his PhD in 1935. His talents as a linguist suited him for a job in the Dutch Foreign Service, which he joined in 1935; and he was then stationed in various countries, mostly in East Asia (Japan and China).

He was in Tokyo when Japan declared war on the Netherlands in 1941, but he, along with the rest of the Allied diplomatic staff, was evacuated in 1942. He spent most of the rest of World War II as the secretary for the Dutch mission to Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government in Chongqing. While in Chongqing, he married a Chinese woman, Shui Shifang, the daughter of a Qing dynasty Imperial mandarin and they had four children together.

After the war ended, he returned to the Netherlands, then went to the United States as the councillor of the Dutch embassy in Washington D.C. He returned to Japan in 1949 and stayed there for the next four years. While in Tokyo, he published his first two books, the translation Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee and a privately published book of erotic colored prints from the Ming dynasty. Later postings took him all over the world, from New Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, and Beirut (during the 1958 Civil War) to The Hague. In 1959 Van Gulik became correspondent of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, he resigned in 1963. In 1964 he became a full member, and the next year he became a foreign member.[1] From 1965 until his early death from cancer at The Hague in 1967, he was the Dutch ambassador to Japan.

Judge Dee mysteries[edit]

Main article: Judge Dee

During World War II van Gulik translated the 18th-century detective novel Dee Goong An into English under the title Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (first published in Tokyo in 1949). The main character of this book, Judge Dee, was based on the real statesman and detective Di Renjie, who lived in the 7th century, during the Tang Dynasty (AD 600–900), though in the novel itself elements of Ming Dynasty China (AD 1300–1600) were mixed in.[2]

Thanks to his translation of this largely forgotten work, van Gulik became interested in Chinese detective fiction. To the translation he appended an essay on the genre in which he suggested that it was easy to imagine rewriting some of the old Chinese case histories with an eye toward modern readers. Not long afterward he himself tried his hand at creating a detective story along these lines. This became the book The Chinese Maze Murders (completed around 1950). As van Gulik thought the story would have more interest to Japanese and Chinese readers, he had it translated into Japanese by a friend (finished in 1951), and it was sold in Japan under the title Meiro-no-satsujin. With the success of the book, van Gulik produced a translation into Chinese, which was published by a Singapore book publisher in 1953. The reviews were good, and van Gulik wrote two more books (The Chinese Bell Murders and The Chinese Lake Murders) over the next few years, also with an eye toward Japanese and then Chinese editions. Next, van Gulik found a publisher for English versions of the stories, and the first such version was published in 1957. Later books were written and published in English first; the translations came afterwards.[2]

Van Gulik's intent in writing his first Judge Dee novel was, as he wrote in remarks on The Chinese Bell Murders, "to show modern Chinese and Japanese writers that their own ancient crime-literature has plenty of source material for detective and mystery-stories".[3] In 1956, he published a translation of the T'ang-yin-pi-shih ("Parallel Cases from Under the Pear Tree"), a 13th-century casebook for district magistrates. He used many of the cases as plots in his novels (as he states in the postscripts of the novels).

Van Gulik's Judge Dee mysteries follow in the long tradition of Chinese detective fiction, intentionally preserving a number of key elements of that writing culture. Most notably, he had Judge Dee solve three different (and sometimes unrelated) cases in each book, a traditional device in Chinese mysteries. The whodunit element is also less important in the Judge Dee stories than it is in the traditional Western detective story, though still more so than in traditional Chinese detective stories. Nevertheless, van Gulik's fiction was adapted to a more Western audience, avoiding the supernatural and religious traditions of Buddhism and Daosim in favour of rationality.[4]

Other works[edit]

"Gibbons at play", painting by the Xuande Emperor (1427)

Robert van Gulik studied Indisch Recht (Dutch Indies law) and Indologie (Indonesian culture) at Leiden University from 1929 until 1934, receiving his doctorate for a dissertation on the horse cult in Northeast Asia. Though he made his career in the Dutch diplomatic service, he kept up his studies. During his life he wrote twenty-odd essays and monographs on various subjects, mainly but not exclusively on aspects of Chinese culture. Typically, much of his scholarly work was first published outside the Netherlands. In his lifetime van Gulik was recognized as a European expert on Imperial Chinese jurisprudence.

Van Gulik was quite interested in Chinese painting. For example, in his book The Gibbon in China (1967), he devotes quite a few pages to the gibbon-themed paintings in China in Japan, from the Northern Song Dynasty on. Analyzing the portrayal of these apes throughout history, he notes how the realism of the pictures deteriorated as the gibbon population in most of China was extirpated. As an art critic, he greatly admired the portrayal of the apes by such renowned painters as Yi Yuanji and Muqi Fachang. Commenting on one of Ming Emperor Xuande's works, "Gibbons at Play", van Gulik says that while it is "not a great work of art", it is "ably executed". The lifelike images of the apes make one surmise that the emperor painted from the live models that could have been kept in the palace gardens.[5][6]


Judge Dee[edit]

Judge Dee mysteries in order written and published
Judge Dee mysteries in internal order
Van Gulik's autograph in Chinese

Judge Dee at Work contains a "Judge Dee Chronology" telling of Dee's various posts, in which van Gulik places the mysteries—both books and short stories—in the context of Dee's career and provides other information about the stories. On the basis of this chronology, the works can be arranged in the following order:

  • 663 – Judge Dee is a magistrate of Peng-lai, a district on the northeast coast of China.
    • The Chinese Gold Murders
    • "Five Auspicious Clouds", a short story in Judge Dee at Work
    • "The Red Tape Murders", a short story in Judge Dee at Work
    • "He Came with the Rain", a short story in Judge Dee at Work
    • The Lacquer Screen
  • 666 – Judge Dee is the magistrate of Han-yuan, a fictional district on a lakeshore near the capital of Chang-An.
    • The Chinese Lake Murders
    • "The Morning of the Monkey", a short novel in The Monkey and the Tiger
    • The Haunted Monastery (Judge Dee, while traveling, is forced to take shelter in a monastery.)
    • "The Murder on the Lotus Pond", a short story in Judge Dee at Work
  • 668 – Judge Dee is the magistrate of Poo-yang, a fictional wealthy district through which the Grand Canal of China runs (part of modern-day Jiangsu province).
    • The Chinese Bell Murders
    • "The Two Beggars", a short story in Judge Dee at Work
    • "The Wrong Sword", a short story in Judge Dee at Work
    • The Red Pavilion
    • The Emperor's Pearl
    • Poets and Murder
    • Necklace and Calabash
  • 670 – Judge Dee is the magistrate of Lan-fang, a fictional district at the western frontier of Tang China.
    • The Chinese Maze Murders
    • The Phantom of the Temple
    • "The Coffins of the Emperor", a short story in Judge Dee at Work
    • "Murder on New Year's Eve", a short story in Judge Dee at Work
  • 676 – Judge Dee is the magistrate of Pei-chow, a fictional district in the far north of Tang China.
    • The Chinese Nail Murders
    • "The Night of the Tiger", a short novel in The Monkey and the Tiger
  • 677 – Judge Dee is Lord Chief Justice in the imperial capital of Chang-An.
    • The Willow Pattern
  • 681 – Judge Dee is Lord Chief Justice for all of China.
    • Murder in Canton

Two books, Poets and Murder and Necklace and Calabash, were not listed in the chronology (which was published before those two books were written); both were set during the time when Judge Dee was magistrate in Poo-yang.

Selected scholarly works[edit]

  • A Blackfoot-English Vocabulary Based on Material from the Southern Peigans, with Christianus Cornelius Uhlenbeck. (Amsterdam, 1934)
  • The Lore of the Chinese Lute: An Essay in Ch'in Ideology (1941)
  • Hsi K'ang and His Poetical Essay on the Lute (1941)
  • Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Period (Privately printed, Tokyo, 1951)
  • Siddham: An Essay on the History of Sanskrit Studies in China and Japan (1956)
  • Chinese Pictorial Art, as Viewed by the Connoisseur (Limited edition of 950 copies, Rome, 1958)
  • Sexual Life in Ancient China: A Preliminary Survey of Chinese Sex and Society from ca. 1500 B.C. Till 1644 A.D. (1961). (In spite of its titillating title, this book deals with the social role of sex, such as the institutions of concubinage and prostitution.)
  • The Gibbon in China: An Essay in Chinese Animal Lore (Leiden, 1967)


  1. ^ "R.H. van Gulik (1910 - 1967)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 27 July 2015. 
  2. ^ a b Herbert, Rosemary. (1999) "Van Gulik, Robert H(ans)", in Herbert, The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. Oxford, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-507239-1 .pp. 38–9.
  3. ^ Marco Huysmans. "Rechter Tie / Robert van Gulik". 
  4. ^ Wright, Daniel Franklin (2004). Chinoiserie in the novels of Robert Hans van Gulik (M.A. thesis) Wilfrid Laurier University
  5. ^ Van Gulik, Robert (1967). The Gibbon in China: An Essay in Chinese Animal Lore. Leiden: E. J. Brill. pp. 94–95.
  6. ^ Geissmann, Thomas (May 2008). "Gibbon Paintings in China, Japan, and Korea: Historical Distribution, Production Rate and Context". Gibbon Journal, No. 4.
  7. ^ "The Chinese Maze Murders". 
  8. ^ a b c d e Wessels, Henry. "R. H. van Gulik: Diplomat, Orientalist, Novelist"

External links[edit]