Who exactly is Judge Dee? The question does not require an answer so much as a history lesson spanning 15 centuries and at least two continents. And confusion surrounding the legendary Chinese individual’s identity has surfaced once again with the recent release of action-adventure movie Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings .

As the big-budget film’s title spells out, the Tang-dynasty protagonist’s profession has been refashioned for the silver screen, and the “Judge” of Dutch writer Robert van Gulik’s popular novels from the 1940s, 50s and 60s is now, in fact, a “Detective”.

What’s more, while Hong Kong’s Andy Lau Tak-wah took star billing under director Tsui Hark in 2010’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, in this and the 2013 film (Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon), Dee is played by Taiwanese-Canadian actor Mark Chao Yu-ting.

If all that is not confusing enough, our mutable hero’s story has been dramatically modified before, most notably by jumping from historical fact to fiction. Van Gulik may have popularised Dee with 18 literary outings, but he certainly did not create him.

The real-life Judge Dee was born in 630, in Taiyuan – then in the ancient province of Bingzhou and today the capital of Shanxi – and was called Di Renjie. His courtesy name, Huaiying, can be translated as “embracing what is outstanding”, and the more formal title Duke Wenhui of Liang would be granted to him posthumously by Emperor Ruizong, hinting at Di’s noble family – both his father and grandfather held elevated political office.

British screenwriters adapting China-based Judge Dee novels for mainland TV

Di mixed navigating the choppy Tang political waters with earning his stripes in law. As a perceptive, just and coura­geous young aide to the chamberlain for law enforce­ment, he is said to have settled cases involving more than 17,000 people. It was events of this period of his life that would provide the inspiration for Judge Dee.

In one celebrated case, Di defended two soldiers against Ruizong’s father, Emperor Gaozong. Speaking truth to power involved considerable personal risk, yet Di persisted, commuting their death sentence to exile. He was no less fearless during the perilous reign of Empress Wu Zetian. Di convinced her to shelve a tax levied on nuns and monks to fund a vast statue of herself.

This reforming zeal formed part of Di’s early legend as a staunch advocate of the poor and the forgotten. Many stories of his legal exploits beggar belief, but few compare to the strange turn of events that occurred in the 20th century.

On July 30, 1942, van Gulik, a Dutch diplomat working in Tokyo, wrote in his diary about the exodus of Westerners from the Japanese capital. Van Gulik, like many other foreign­ers, had been under house arrest since the bombing of Pearl Harbor eight months earlier.

Having detailed their departure from Yokohama on board the ocean liner Tatsuta Maru, van Gulik mentioned the Chinese relics and books he had managed to cram into his single suitcase: “Among those was a small, lithograph edition of an 18th century crime novel, describing the exploits in detection of T’ang statesman and master detective Ti Jenchieh.”

The book was Wu Tse-T’ien Ssu-ta Ch’i-an, or The Four Important and Curious Cases in the Time of Empress Wu.

“It was only one year thereafter that I opened this book,” van Gulik wrote in his diary, and five more years would pass before he self-published Dee Goong An, his translation of its first 31 chapters. “Noticing that the book market was flooded by third-rate crime novels about Chicago and New York by younger Japanese writers, I decided to publish my English translation of Dee Goong An, just to show them how much excellent material there was in ancient Chinese crime liter­ature. I financed that edition myself, and it sold so well that within six months I had my outlay back, plus a tidy profit.

“Chinese and Japanese authors like to read it, but felt no urge to write such novels themselves, since, as they frankly said, the subject was not sufficiently ‘exotic’ to them.”

As the Chinese have been so often represented – and too often misrepresented! – in our popular crime liter­ature, it seems only just that they themselves be allowed their own say for once in this field
Robert van Gulik

And writing in the translator’s preface to the book, van Gulik noted, “As the Chinese have been so often represented – and too often misrepresented! – in our popular crime liter­ature, it seems only just that they themselves be allowed their own say for once in this field.”

After Dee Goong An, however, Judge Dee was never to be so Chinese again. A diary entry written in December 1948 suggests that van Gulik wrote two further Dee adventures of his own invention – The Chinese Bell Murders and The Chinese Maze Murders – during his wartime wanderings, and after the publication of the latter, in 1957, the character increasingly became a hybrid of the Chinese source material and van Gulik’s eclectic sensibility. The traditional Chinese gongan narrative, with magistrate as the hero and elements of the supernatural, was now spliced with the racier aspects of the Anglo-American whodunnit. As the series progressed, it gave fuller vent to the writer’s personal obsession with ancient Chinese art, science and music, all tied up with lashings of sexual shenanigans.

This delicate conversation between Western and Eastern influences explains why van Gulik’s Judge Dee was parti­cularly loved by the Chinese diaspora, especially in Europe and America, and by sinophiles and sinologists born in the West. Dee fanatics featured in the 2016 documentary On the Track of Robert van Gulik spoke of the novels as bringing China to life for people who had never glimpsed it. Paul Lee, once dubbed the unofficial “mayor of Chinatown” in New York, talks with humour and emotion about learning the vagaries of Chinese etiquette from Judge Dee.

It is impossible to understand this complex cultural exchange without understanding van Gulik, whose attraction to Di was profound and personal.

“Judge Dee … that’s me,” van Gulik confessed in a rare interview.

Van Gulik, like Dee, was a man of contrasts: the intel­lectual and sensual, rational and romantic, popular and re­fined. “He was a strange mixture of conservatism and liberal­ism, a mixture of an unconventional way and conventional living,” says Rob Rombout, the Dutch filmmaker behind On the Track of Robert van Gulik. “He was the kind of guy that was doing scholarly work but also playing billiards in smoky areas, going to brothels and eating in the street. He was doing his own thing.”

Born in the Netherlands in 1910, van Gulik, like Di, came from a relatively privileged background – his father was a doctor in the Royal Netherlands East Indies army – and his love affair with Asia began when his father was posted to Surabaya, on Java. Van Gulik was immediately attracted to Indonesian culture. His love of wayang, or shadow puppet theatre, was so pro­found that he produced a detailed study of the art – a study that survives to this day – when he was just 11 years old.

Visits to the Chinese quarter of the city most captured his imagination. “Chinese life and language were an unknown mystery,” he later remembered. An early reading of Jules Verne’s adventure novel Tribulations of a Chinaman in China (1879) confirmed his growing fascination. “I realised that besides the Javanese culture I so much admired, there were other, superior cultures.”

Van Gulik was denied the chance to indulge his interests any further, however. “I was beginning to think of ways and means for learning more about this mysterious culture when my years on Java came to an end.” His father’s retirement from the army saw the family return to Europe.

Distance did not stop van Gulik’s studies, and he found “the Chinese volume in the Marlborough Self-Taught series” to be “a gate to paradise”. Van Gulik’s scholarly commitment to China was intense and he also mastered Sanskrit, Tibetan, Japanese, Korean and Mongolian. He wrote a study of the guqin, called The Lore of the Chinese Lute (1941), and learned to play the instrument.

At the same time, those early years of studying China in absentia combined with van Gulik’s romanticism to create an idealised portrait. “It was China in the head,” Rombout says. “I have met several sinologists who say they never want to go to China to preserve the China they have in their head. [Van Gulik] was, for instance, against reform of the language. He was a puritan.”

Van Gulik made a very good report [on Mao Zedong for the Dutch government]. The only problem was, he adapted the outcome to his own tastes. The conclusion was Mao was a phenomenon of little importance
Rob Rombout

When van Gulik eventually went to China (he worked at the Netherlands’ embassy in Chungking between 1943 and 1946, while it was the provisional capital of the Republic of China), what he found was not always to his liking.

“It was already far too modern,” says Rombout. “He preferred the China of the dynasties.”

Van Gulik found solace by communing with master guqin players in Chungking, such as Zha Fuxi, Xu Yuanbai and Wang Mengshu, whom he greatly admired. By contrast, van Gulik disliked Mao Zedong as much as he underrated him. Asked in 1946 to write a report on Mao for the Dutch government, van Gulik dismissed the leader of the Chinese Communist Party. “Van Gulik made a very good report,” Rombout says. “The only problem was, he adapted the outcome to his own tastes. The conclusion was Mao was a phenomenon of little importance.”

Such conservative elitism is common to van Gulik and Judge Dee. While Confucian Dee became a magistrate and later a statesman, van Gulik was a diplomat, rising to become the Netherlands’ ambassador to Japan. Both prided themselves on scholarly intelligence, and Dee frequently makes allusions to the poetry, art, music and calligraphy that van Gulik so influenced. The Dutchman’s books include Sexual Life in Ancient China: A Preliminary Survey of Chinese Sex and Society from Ca. 1500 B.C. Till 1644 A.D. (1961). He also wrote numerous essays, such as “The Gibbon in China” (1967).

While their public aspirations were for social order, pri­vately the pair could be viewed as eccentric and sensual­ists. Even in his first adventure, Dee Goong An, the judge was not averse to breaking rules: he goes absent without leave in the pursuit of a double murderer and exhumes a corpse at considerable personal risk.

As with the guqin, van Gulik’s interest in monkeys extended beyond the academic. He kept several varieties, as well as hedgehogs and canaries. He would also claim to have worked in Africa as a spy for British intelligence, tasked with following Princess Kerime Halim of Egypt, who was supposed to have Nazi affinities.

“It looks very romantic and we don’t know if it’s true or not,” says Rombout. “He is the only one who could tell. He created his own mystery, in a way.”

Van Gulik and Judge Dee’s taste for the outré is most inescapable in their sexual escapades. Dee Goong Anis fairly innocuous, but one can detect interest in the voluptuous young widow whom the magistrate suspects of murdering her husband. The temperature rises when Dee tortures her for information, watching impassively as she writhes naked in ecstasy and pain.

By the time van Gulik wrote The Haunted Monastery and The Red Pavilion (both 1961), his sadomasochistic tendencies had been given full reign. Dee now has three wives, and florid passages regularly mix sex and violence.

His wife suffered a lot from his image [as a philanderer]. In the 1930s in Japan, he lived with three women. This was pretty unusual in the very nearly Victorian Dutch atmosphere
Rob Rombout

The Red Pavilion, which van Gulik wrote in one month, overflows with such scenes, including: “A naked girl was half hanging, half standing with her face to the pillar, her arms raised above her head. They were lashed to the pillar with a woman’s silk sash. Her shapely back and hips showed red weals.”

Van Gulik’s attraction to China and Asia clearly extended to their women, and he wrote in his notes, “Although I had met attractive Western girls in Cairo and Alexandria, it had become clear to me there were slender chances that I would make a western wife permanently happy, nor she me; the best chance of mutual happiness lay in marriage with an Asiatic woman, preferably a Chinese.”

In 22-year-old Shui Shifang, van Gulik found his partner – she was intelligent, refined, beautiful and from the right background. Shui was the daughter of a diplomat and the “scion of an old Peking mandarin family”, he wrote. While she had an interest in “western things”, van Gulik adds this was “never so deep as to want to become westernised”.

Van Gulik, however, was far from loyal to his spouse.

“His wife suffered a lot from his image [as a philanderer],” says Rombout, who also tells of van Gulik’s nonchalance during police raids of brothels in China, and of his requests to fellow diplomats to find him girls. “In the 1930s in Japan, he lived with three women,” Rombout adds. “This was pretty unusual in the very nearly Victorian Dutch atmosphere.”

The doctor who cared for van Gulik before he succumbed to cancer in The Hague at the age of 57, in 1967, quotes his patient as saying, “I married Shifang not only because I was in love with her and loved her deeply, but also because I thought: were you to mix the wisdom and erudition of the East with our Western civilisation, surely something very special must emerge from it.”

The doctor took van Gulik to mean his children as well as his marriage, but the sentiment also applies to Judge Dee, whose methods have as much in common with Hercule Poirot as Di Renjie.

Reinterpretations of a different sort occur in Judge Dee’s numerous screen appearances.

Television film Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders (1974) was faithful in its stately pace. With the exception of its American star, Khigh Dhiegh, who hails from an Egyptian-Sudanese family, the cast was exclusively Asian.

That outing feels ancient, however, when compared with Tsui’s blockbusters, in which Detective Dee has clearly been taking martial arts lessons, his terse investiga­tions now accompanied by gravity-defying superheroics. And Tsui has diluted the more extreme aspects of van Gulik’s sado­masochism to brief glimpses of soft-focus romance. Newly present are epic scope and design, Tsui embracing the super­natural – and CGI effects – with Dee battling sea monsters, instances of spontaneous combustion and, in the latest instalment, a golden dragon statue brought to life.

Doubtless van Gulik would have preferred director Qian Yanqiu’s 2004 TV series Amazing Detective Di Renjie, in which the protagonist is a realistic incar­na­tion. He might even have admired the logical contrivances of video game Judge Dee: The City of God Case, in which the player solves puzzles, finds hidden objects and interacts with underlings.

But in another sense, the new Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings is merely following van Gulik’s lead as a successful hybrid of Chinese and Western sensibilities designed to entertain, illuminate and titillate. Tsui is not the first to breathe new life into the Tang-dynasty hero, and will not be the last, whether Dee be deemed a judge, a detective or whatever else.