“Dutch Mandarin” Robert van Gulik

Today it’s been exactly 52 years since the Dutch writer and diplomat Robert van Gulik (1910 – 1967) passed away. Best known for his Chinese detective novels, Van Gulik also was a respected scholar, chain-smoker and gibbon admirer. He spent most of his life, however, serving the Dutch government in diplomatic service.

Career

After his studies in Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese in 1935, Robert van Gulik joined the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Although he made a career as a diplomat, van Gulik devoted most of his spare time to his books, writing and musical instruments.

The duty to his country brought him to unusual places: He lived and worked in China, India and Lebanon. In 1958 he became ambassador to Kuala Lumpur and in 1965 his appointment as ambassador to Tokyo followed.

It’s been said about Van Gulik that he was “a westerner with an eastern heart”. Looking back, Van Gulik wrote that his childhood in Indonesia played a crucial role in this:

In 1914, four years old, I left with my parents from my hometown of Zutphen to Java and attended primary school in Surabaya in Batavia. In 1923, we returned to the Netherlands for good and my father settled in Nijmegen where I went to the Stedelijk Gymnasium. My childhood in Java, however, had made a deep impression on me, and it were these memories which would determine my future path: the Chinese banners in Glodok aroused my interest in Chinese writing, and wajang performances gave me a preference for the eastern story that I never quite forgot. The nostalgic memories of my early childhood made me decide in my high school years to return to the East as soon as possible. That happened immediately after my promotion to a doctorate in Eastern literature, in Utrecht in the year 1935; be it then that the east turned out to be China, Japan, India and Malaya, and not Java where I have never been back.

Tong Tong — Het enige Indische blad ter wereld 8e jaargang, nummer 12, december 1963, p. 9
Quellbild anzeigen
Robert van Gulik playing the guqin in his study

Throughout his life, Van Gulik was admired for his deep understanding of Chinese culture. His identification with the culture was deep-seated and reached a level where he seemed almost more Chinese in his ways and thinking than Dutch, although this last point was denied by people who knew him well. This is how a former colleague remembers Van Gulik:

Knowledge of Eastern languages and insight into foreign civilizations can be mastered by Westerners to a certain extent, but a complete identification with them remains rare. Van Gulik was such an exceptional appearance, as a result of which he had already become a legendary figure in China and beyond during his life. His complete command of language and culture preferably led him into areas of scientific work that others had recoiled from or were too peculiar to be approached by a Westerner.

H.N. Boon (in Voorpost, tijdschrift voor de buitenl. dienst), in newsletter nr. 102 (rechtertie.nl).

He served three years in China (1943 – 1946) as first secretary of the Dutch delegation during particularly turbulent times and was located in Chongqing, the provisional capital of the Republic of China under Chiang Kai-Shek.

One anecdote from this era has survived. When asked by his government for a political assessment of Mao Zedong, he was grievously mistaken and more or less assumed thousands of years of tradition would prevail over current turmoil. Van Gulik saw Mao as a “temporary figure, a phenomenon of limited duration”.

Introduction to the documentary “On the Track of Robert van Gulik

Intellectual and artist

Van Gulik always found time for his intellectual and artistic pursuits and published on Chinese ink stones, painting, music and gibbons, his favorite animals. He himself was a highly skilled calligrapher. Playing the guqin, the qin (琴), was another of Van Gulik’s passions. Of his scientific works, his studies of sexual behavior in Chinese antiquity is most renowned. In China, he is know as 高罗佩 (Gāo luō pèi):

As Chinese rendering of my name I chose KAO LO-P’EI, KAO representing the GU in van Gulik, and LO-P’EI being a phonetic rendering of my personal name Robert. To this name I have stuck throughout the years, and it is by this name that I am known in the Far East.

Robert van Gulik
Van Gulik with his wife and children

“I am Judge Dee and Jugde Dee is me”

Van Gulik’s best-known works, however, are the sixteen Judge Dee detective novels. These he wrote in English and were later edited into Dutch by himself. He also illustrated these stories with his own Chinese-style drawings.

The character of Judge Dee is based on a historical figure who lived in the Tang Dynasty. Van Gulik was inspired by ancient Chinese detective stories which he adapted and made accessible for non-Chinese readers. Reading the novels, you get a taste of ancient Chinese society, its judicial system, Confucianism, Taoism, superstition and elite culture:

His novels accessibly deal with aspects of Chinese history and culture. Judge Dee, the main character of the novel Dee Goong An, was based on the judge/ official and detective Di Renjie, who lived in the 7th century (during the Tang Dynasty). The classic 18th century version of Dee Goong An, with the name The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee was first translated into English by Robert van Gulik. This became a success and Van Gulik decided to continue his writing and to create his own original judge Dee stories. There are many interesting differences between the traditional 18th century version of the classic 18th century novel and the version written by Van Gulik. He mixed styles of Western detective novels into traditional Chinese stories with an eye to modern Western readers.

Rechtertie.nl newsletter 83, Interview with researcher 施晔 (Shīyè) from Shanghai Normal University

Van Gulik’s detective novels have been translated into 29 languages and published in 38 countries. They continue to promote Chinese culture all over the world.

Even in China itself.

That’s why Robert van Gulik is still remembered today as the Dutch Mandarin.

In this episode of the China History Podcast Laszlo Montgomery speaks about the life and works of Robert van Gulik

More reading

Article in Shanghai Daily

Short biography

Radio program about Robert van Gulik (1996)

Judge Dee homepage

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