Thursday, April 25, 2024

Judge Dee

It's hard to imagine any TV show being much more enjoyable than the latest Chinese adaptation of Robert van Gulik's "Judge Dee" mysteries. I strayed on it accidentally on Netflix, but was initially put off by my memories of reading a couple of rather dull detective novels starring the (semi-) historical sleuth some years ago.

Judge Dee's Mystery certainly starts off with a bang. The new incarnation of Di is apparently a master of Kung Fu as well as possessing a photographic memory: no details ever escape his notice, and - despite his reputation as a ne'er-do-well - his travels in the wastelands around China have clearly taught him a good deal about the world and its ways.

The effortlessly cool cast is led by forty-year-old Yiwei Zhou, with Wang Likun as his love-interest Cao An, and Zhong Cuxi as the all-powerful (yet beleaguered) Empress.

But of course every detective needs his Watson. In this case, as an official magistrate, Di travels with quite an entourage. There's his father's old friend Hong Liang (played by You Yongzhi), Ta Ji as his muscle, Qiao Tai, and Lingzi Qu as the irrepressible Ma Rong.

This latter is by far my favourite character. She plays a kind of Sancho Panza to Judge Dee's Don Quixote, and is always ready to scull a drink or start a sword-fight. She's also (clearly) deeply in love with Di Renjie, but is forced to accept the fact that he sees her as a comrade rather than one of the delicate, lute-playing ladies he prefers to keep company with.

The plots are (for the most part) absurdly convoluted, and sometimes contain hints of the supernatural. They tend to start in the middle of the hour, presumably to encourage us to continue watching, and last for three or four episodes each. They often begin when Di Renjie is posted to a new district, and is thus forced to try and make sense of the particular intrigues and corruption in his new home base.

Sharon Lathan: Robert van Gulik & Family

Robert Van Gulik, the originator of the series, was born in Holland but brought up in Indonesia, where he first acquired his taste for Eastern cultures and languages. He met his wife Shui Shifang, daughter of a Qing dynasty Imperial, in China during the Second World War. In 1940 he "stumbled across an obscure and anonymous 18th-century Chinese novel," as Sharon Lathan puts it in her brief online biography of the author:
The novel, titled Wu-tsé-t’ien-szû-ta-ch’i-an (Four great strange cases of Empress Wu’s reign), was a fictional account of the deeds of Judge Dee, one of the heroes of traditional Chinese detective fiction, and was set during the 7th-century Tang Dynasty. ... Robert not only translated the novel into English, he delved into the history of Chinese Penal Code and other legal literature of the period. Between WWII and his diplomatic duties, it was not until 1949 that Robert was able to publish his translation — Dee Goong An: Three Murder Cases Solved by Judge Dee ...
My English text was meant only as a basis for a printed Chinese and/or Japanese version, my aim being to show modern Chinese and Japanese writers that their own ancient crime-literature has plenty of source material for detective and mystery stories.
- Robert van Gulik
His fascination with old Chinese detective stories, and with Judge Dee, prompted Robert van Gulik to write original stories for modern readers. His first original story was The Chinese Maze Murders published in 1951, but only in Japanese and Chinese as he believed the stories would have more interest to readers from those cultures. He was correct ... so he soon followed with two more novels about Judge Dee.
"Not until 1956 did he translate and publish his first three novels into English and Dutch. All of his subsequent novels were published in English first, with the translations coming afterwards."

If you compare the picture above with the one below, you may get some idea of the superior attractions of the detailed period recreation of Dee's world in the TV series to the original crude drawings van Gulik insisted on inflicting on his text.

To put it bluntly, he was no artist. He was, however, a craftsman in the classical tradition of the Western detective novel. And this mixture between chinoiserie and golden age detection has proved a potent and (saleable) mixture ever since.

Robert Van Gulik: Dee Goong An (1949)

Nor would it be impertinent to add that the seventh century CE, the highwater mark of the Tang dynasty in China, is a conveniently distant period to set stories in. The costumes and architecture of the era, lovingly recreated in the TV series, represent the golden age of Chinese civilisation, and are thus familiar to history buffs everywhere. As Ezra Pound once put it, with his customary concision:
a snotty barbarian ignorant of T'ang history need not deceive one
- Pisan Cantos, LXXIV: 32.

I guess that what interests me most about this act of cultural cross-pollination is the complete ease with which it's been carried out. The credits of the TV show are quick to assure us that the stories that follows are fictional, and thus not historically accurate, but the producers seem to anticipate that the fact they were created by "the Dutch author Robert van Gulik" will be of far less significance to their target audience.

Van Gulik was, admittedly, no mere fan of all things Oriental. He had a PhD in Chinese language and culture from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and his publications include a number of Academic works on Ancient Chinese art, music and sexuality: all subjects which recur in his fiction. The Judge Dee stories themselves can be dated fairly precisely between 663 and 681 CE, the apogee of the Tang dynasty, before the interregnum of 690-705. His wife's intimate insider's knowledge of Chinese culture and mores must also have been invaluable to him.

One of the online critics of the TV series complains that:
Despite the short stints of multiple cases, the second half of the drama became rather muddied and less intriguing compared to the first half. Ultimately, this drama didn’t live up to its potential given the high production value and strong cast.
Given that she also casts aspersions on my favourite character, however, I find it hard to take this critique very seriously:
Ma Rong was bringing about problems left and right to the main cast ... She may be used as a vehicle for Judge Dee to impart certain lessons but the character and the actress were more irritating than entertaining.
However, as one of the more succinct comments on her post so eloquently puts it: "Don’t matter to me just give me more."

The series may not be flawless in all aspects, but the Ma Rong / Judge Dee / Cao An triptych seems to me a clear enactment of the classic id / ego / superego paradigm familiar from so much popular fiction: Think Bones / Kirk / Spock in the original Star Trek, or Deanna / Picard / Data in Star Trek: the Next Generation.

You need an emotionally driven character to represent the primacy of bodily appetites: Pigsy in Monkey (for instance) - or Ma Rong. Then you need a more lofty character who embodies wisdom and logical thinking: Tripitaka in Monkey - or, here, the ethereal Cao An.

Finally, you need a fusion of the two - an Everyman character steered from impulse to impulse by these conflicting influences upon them: Monkey himself - or Captain Kirk - or (as in this case) Di Renjie. They represent the ethical person, controlled neither by heart nor head but by both at once ... Where would adventure stories be without them?

Sharon Lathan: Robert van Gulik with pet gibbon

Robert Hans van Gulik

  1. Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. Translated from Dee Goong An (1949)
    1. The Case of the Double Murder at Dawn
    2. The Case of the Strange Corpse
    3. The Case of the Poisoned Bride
    • Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Goong An): An Authentic Eighteenth-Century Detective Novel. Trans. Robert van Gulik. 1949. New York: Dover, 1976.
  2. The Chinese Maze Murders (1950 / 1957)
    • Included in: The Haunted Monastery & The Chinese Maze Murders: Two Chinese Detective Novels. 1961 & 1957. New York: Dover, 1977.
  3. The Chinese Bell Murders (1958)
  4. The Chinese Gold Murders (1959)
  5. The Chinese Lake Murders (1960)
  6. The Chinese Nail Murders (1961)
  7. The Haunted Monastery (1961)
    • Included in: The Haunted Monastery & The Chinese Maze Murders: Two Chinese Detective Novels. 1961 & 1957. New York: Dover, 1977.
  8. The Red Pavilion (1961)
  9. The Lacquer Screen (1962)
  10. The Emperor's Pearl (1963)
  11. The Monkey and the Tiger (1965)
    1. Morning of the Monkey
    2. The Night of the Tiger
  12. The Willow Pattern (1965)
  13. Murder in Canton (1966)
  14. The Phantom of the Temple (1966)
  15. Judge Dee at Work (1967)
    1. Five Auspicious Clouds
    2. The Red Tape Murders
    3. He Came With the Rain
    4. The Murder on the Lotus Pond
    5. The Two Beggars
    6. The Wrong Sword
    7. The Coffins of the Emperor
    8. Murder on New Year's Eve
  16. Necklace and Calabash (1967)
  17. Poets and Murder (1968)

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