WHILE LIVING in Nationalist China during World War II, the Dutch diplomat and scholar Robert van Gulik made a fascinating discovery: an 18th-century Chinese mystery novel centered on the historical figure Di Renjie, a district magistrate from the 7th century, early in the Tang dynasty. Van Gulik set out to translate this novel into English, so Di Renjie became Judge Dee, andDee Goong An: Three Murder Cases Solved by Judge Dee was eventually published privately in Tokyo in 1949. Van Gulik became so enamored of the Chinese style of detection fiction—“fully developed in China,” he argued, “centuries before Edgar Allan Poe or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were born”— that he decided to continue the reallife crime-solving magistrate’s story on his own.
Van Gulik seems to have had an Asian audience in mind for his books at first, in order to prove “that it is possible to write a detective- novel in traditional Chinese style that yet appeals to the modern Oriental reader.” But he continued to write in English, and the 14 Judge Dee novels he wrote until his death in 1967 found an enthusiastic Western readership. These are now being gradually reissued in attractive new editions by the University of Chicago Press, allowing another generation of Sinophiles and mystery lovers to discover the books anew. Van Gulik’s original translation of Dee Goong An was republished separately by Dover Publications in 1976, under the title Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee ($8.95 paper).
All the novels follow a similar basic form and are loosely based on other stories van Gulik found in Chinese literature, with Judge Dee interposed as the central figure. In a postscript to The Chinese Bell Murders, the first of his mysteries to be published in the United States, in 1958 (Harper reissue, 2004, $13.95 paper), Van Gulik explains:
A feature all old Chinese detective stories have in common is that the role of detective is always played by the magistrate of the district where the crime occurred. This official is in charge of the entire administration of the district under his jurisdiction.… As presiding judge of the local tribunal he is charged with the apprehension and punishing of criminals and the hearing of all civil and criminal cases.
These magistrates were transferred to new districts every three years, so van Gulik’s novels span several fictional towns. The books also follow the convention established in Dee Goong An of involving three unrelated criminal cases that Dee must solve simultaneously.
Now the Chicago editors have finally gotten around to The Haunted Monastery, among the strongest entries in the Judge Dee series. The book is unusual in that it takes place wholly outside Dee’s official district tribunal, and everything begins and ends in one frightful night. Dee and his retinue are traveling in the countryside when a brutal storm and a broken axle force them to seek shelter at the isolated Morning Cloud Monastery, a “huge red building with green-tiled roofs” that is a renowned Taoist institution. Dee recalls that there had been three suspicious deaths of young women at the monastery that he had intended to probe further. When the monastery’s abbot himself suddenly dies under mysterious circumstances the night Dee arrives, his short sojourn becomes a full-scale investigation.
A common thread through many of the Judge Dee books is the uncomfortable relationship between China’s three major faiths in the seventh century: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The novels take place just as Buddhism is establishing a firm foothold in China. But like most officials of the time, Dee is a committed Confucianist and is uncomfortable with these two upstart religions gaining ground. So he takes refuge in Morning Cloud Monastery with more than a little distaste, remarking:
A weird creed, Taoism! Why should one need all that mummery of mystery plays and pompous religious ceremonies when we have the wise and crystal- clear teachings of Master Confucius to guide us? One can only say for Taoism that it is at least a purely Chinese creed, and not an importation from the barbarous West, like Buddhism!
In other books, Dee’s animosity is more pronounced. The Chinese Bell Murders involves corruption at a local Buddhist temple, causing Dee to announce early on:
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 blackrobed foreigners from India.
In this and other ways, van Gulik is careful to preserve the historical context of the original Judge Dee stories, and readers of the series will learn much about ancient Chinese culture and, especially, justice. (The books are illustrated with intriguing Chinese-style woodcut prints, also the work of the multitalented author.) If anything, van Gulik seems at times a bit too sympathetic to his protagonist, assuring us that “all in all, the old Chinese system worked reasonably well” despite the widespread use of torture to secure confessions (“such beating with whip and bamboo, and placing hands and ankles in screws”). Sadly, these approaches to justice do not sound as distant and quaint now as they might have just a few years ago.
Yet despite his sometimes primitive methods, van Gulik’s Judge Dee does stand for the thoroughly modern principle that no one is above the law. When a renowned scholar at the monastery tells Dee that “law and custom are only there for the common people” and that he is “far above ordinary human rules and limitations” because of his “superior knowledge and talents,” we know that he will not last long. Judge Dee will find a way to make him answer for his crimes. And in the end, he does.
Taken together, the Judge Dee series gives a unique and entertaining look at China in the age when Buddhism was first taking root. Those interested in ordinary—and sometimes extraordinary—life in the Tang dynasty, and anyone who just loves a good mystery, will find much here to enjoy. ▼
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
This is the first of your three free articles this month. Subscribe today to gain access to our award-winning publication plus all of our online offerings, including films, video dharma talks, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.