Stories of Judge Dee, a cultural bridge between East and West: Thomas van Gulik
Published: Feb 07, 2024 07:47 PM
Actor Zhou Yiwei (center) stars as Judge Dee in the TV series. Photo: Courtesy of Youku

Actor Zhou Yiwei (center) stars as Judge Dee in the TV series. Photo: Courtesy of Youku

The world knows Sherlock Holmes because of the British author Arthur Conan Doyle and his detective book series about Holmes; while the West knows Di Renjie or Judge Dee, China's Sherlock Holmes thanks to Dutch diplomat and sinologist Robert van Gulik and his masterpiece Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee.

"My father often talked about Judge Dee while he was writing a new Judge Dee story. My bedroom was next to his study and I often fell asleep when he was working on a book, while his typewriter was rattling," Thomas van Gulik, son of Robert van Gulik, who lives in the Netherlands as a surgeon, told the Global Times on Monday. 

Robert came to know Dee, a semi-fictional character based on the historical figure Di Renjie from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and the crime novel Di Gong An when he was stationed in China in the 1940s. He translated it into English and then adopted its style to craft his own original historical mystery stories featuring Judge Dee.

According to Thomas, his father was to write 16 Judge Dee mysteries, including two collections of short stories between 1950 and 1967. In the series, we follow Judge Dee in his career during which, as a district magistrate, he was transferred from one provincial city to another.  The Judge Dee stories have been translated into 29 languages and have sold millions of copies worldwide.

'Wisdom between the lines' 

During the past few decades, numerous adaptations inspired by Robert's books, thanks to his outstanding linguistic talent and diligence, have been made in the world including China. A new TV series, Judge Dee's Mystery, based on his original books have been aired in China on China's Central Television (CCTV) and streaming giant Youku ever since Tuesday. 

The series is set in Tang Dynasty and revolves around criminal cases solved by the upright and shrewd Judge Dee, who as a county magistrate in the Chinese imperial legal system was both the investigating magistrate and judge.

Thomas recalled that he read the books when he was 10 or 11 years old. "It didn't mean very much to me at that time. In later life, I have re-read the books several times and discovered how special Judge Dee was as portrayed by my father in his novels. Between the lines, there is a lot of wisdom in the writing," he said.

In the original books, while describing a series of cases solved by Judge Dee, the author also introduced plenty of culture and customs of the Tang Dynasty. Once the novel was published, it became very popular in the West, and it has been translated into several languages and published worldwide, greatly contributing to the West's understanding of China. 

Cultural Counselor Yu Jian of the Chinese Embassy in the Netherlands stated through a video that the novel Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee is one of the significant works, through which Western audiences can understand Chinese culture. Cultural and Public Diplomacy Counselor Ingrid de Beer of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in China at an event on January 31stated that mutual understanding through television and film has brought the two cultures closer.

Thomas has been following the TV series for a long time and has great expectations for the upcoming TV series, which is also set to be aired on Netflix to a broad international audience, according to its cooperation with China's Youku. 

"My brothers and sister always have looked after the books in order that translations would be good quality and the illustrations well reproduced. We hope that the legacy of our father will help connect the West with China with the Judge Dee stories acting as a cultural bridge," he continued.    

Youku revealed its plan to gift the broadcasting rights to the Netherlands, with COO Wu Qian expressing the desire for the show to become a conduit for cultural exchanges. The series will also be available on the international version of the Youku app, offering subtitles in ten languages, including English, Portuguese, and Thai. 

"The book is a historical echo between China and the Netherlands that spans centuries. The TV series will build a bridge connecting not only book fans but also Chinese culture followers, taking global audiences to experience the unique charm of Chinese culture," stated Wu. 

According to Wu, as a TV series following the American-drama-like narrative with captivating plots, Judge Dee's Mystery has been a new example of China's costume suspense drama exported overseas after the success of The Longest Day In Chang'an.

'Judge Dee, that's me'

Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee mysteries follow in the long tradition of Chinese detective fiction or gong'an, showcasing China's own tradition of detective novels. He created his own stories about this Chinese master detective and published them in the West. 

In the eyes of Thomas, it is fantastic that his father brought the master detective of the Tang dynasty, Di Renjie, back to life in the Judge Dee crime novels which were his own creations. If he were still alive nowadays, I think "he would be very proud that his books are now so popular in China." 

Among all the books, his favorite Judge Dee book was Red Pavilion, recalled Thomas.  

"My father and his creation Judge Dee, had much in common." Judge Dee was his alter ego as he once said: "Judge Dee, that's me." Both are high-ranking officials, smart and in favor of literature, while Robert lived the life of a Chinese scholar who cultivated calligraphy, poetry, and paintings. 

With so many TV and film productions about Dee, including Chinese Hong Kong director Hark Tsui's, Judge Dee is gaining recognition worldwide, akin to Judge Bao. While Judge Bao is a symbol of righteousness, Dee is known for his intellect, seeking to solve mystery cases with a Sherlock Holmes-like abilities. 

Also a book follower, Thomas has high hopes for the TV production, and revealed to the Global Times that "we are very excited about the TV series' release. The trailers look quite spectacular. The producer has worked very long to prepare the series, so we expect the series to be high quality. I believe Judge Dee deserves nothing less!"