“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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Knowledge is power: Sixteen China podcasts you should know about!

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I just tried to find my way through the ever-changing landscape of China podcasts and I can tell you it really wasn’t easy. Podcasts come and go. Here’s an overview of the most relevant shows sorted by topic.

If you are looking for a podcast about learning Chinese, check out the you can learn Chinese podcast. You find some great discussions and inspiring interviews here by the makers of the Mandarin Companion.

One of my personal favorites is definitely The China Africa Project Podcast. If you are into politics and want to broaden your views about China’s engagement in Africa, you will love the show. Another favorite of mine is China Tech Talk for insights into the Chinese tech-start-up scene.

The general idea here: When learning a language, having some topics that really interest you, can be very motivating to keep pursuing your goals.

Current affairs

The ChinaPower Podcast covers critical issues underpinning China’s emergence as a global power and brings together the leading experts on China and international politics. Host Bonnie S. Glaser offers her listeners critical insights into the challenges and opportunities presented by China’s rise.

Carnegie-Tsinghua Podcast discusses China’s relations with the rest of the world and is hosted by Paul Haenle, Director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center based in Beijing, China.

The Little Red Podcast offers interviews and chat celebrating China beyond the Beijing beltway. Hosted by Graeme Smith, China studies academic at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs and Louisa Lim, former China correspondent for the BBC and NPR, now with the Centre for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University.

  • Host: Graeme Smith
  • Frequency: Monthly
  • Duration: 40-50 min.
  • Since: 2016
  • For more information click here

The MERICS podcast discusses and analyzes developments and current affairs in China: What is behind the Belt and Road Initiative? What kind of leader is Xi Jinping? How should we assess China’s climate change policies? How does the Chinese government use social media to its own ends? In addition to MERICS’s own staff, other experts on China and guest speakers at MERICS also take part in the interviews.

The China Africa Project Podcast was launched in 2010 and focuses on China’s engagement in Africa.

  • Host: Eric Olander, Cobus van Staden
  • Frequency: Weekly
  • Duration: 45 min.
  • Since: 2010
  • Organization: The China Africa Project

History

China History podcast covers 5000 years of Chinese history and is hosted by Laszlo Montgomery. Topics include PRC history and leaders like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, US-Chinese history, but also the Chinese dynasties, history of tea and even Chinese philosophy.

  • Host: Laszlo Montgomery
  • Frequency: irregular
  • Duration: 40-60              
  • Since: 2010
  • Organization: Teacup Media 2017

Investing in China

CHINA MONEY NETWORK Podcast covers all the news headlines in the China venture and tech sector on a weekly basis live from Hongkong.

  • Host: Eudora Wang       
  • Frequency: Weekly        
  • Duration: 10 min.
  • Organization: CHINA MONEY NETWORK

The Harbinger China Podcast is a monthly Q&A with China’s top venture investors and tech company founders.

  • Host: Tim Chen
  • Frequency: Monthly
  • Duration: 40 min.
  • Since: 2017
  • Organization: The harbinger China

Tech

Techbuzz China is a bi-weekly technology podcast about China’s Innovation and (tech-related) cultural trends.

  • Host: Ying-Ying Lu, Rui Ma
  • Frequency: Bi-weekly
  • Duration: 30 min.
  • Since: 2018
  • Organization: Techbuzz China is a part of Pandaily.com and powered by the Sinica Podcast network

Digitally China is a bi-weekly podcast from RADII hosted by Tom Xiong and Eva Xiao, and produced by Jacob Loven. On each episode, the team will tackle a different timely tech-related topic, providing key insights on all you need to know about the fast-changing nature of innovation in China.

  • Host: Tom Xiong and Eva Xiao
  • Frequency: Bi-weekly
  • Duration: 30 min.           
  • Since: 2018
  • Organization: RADII

China Tech Talk is an almost weekly discussion of the most important issues in China’s tech. From IPOs to fake data, from the role of WeChat to Apple’s waning influence, hosts John Artman and Matthew Brennan interview experts and discuss the trends shaping China’s tech industry.

  • Host: John Artman, Matthew Brennan                 
  • Frequency: Weekly
  • Duration: 60 min.
  • Since: 2016
  • Organization: Technode

Culture and people

Wǒ Men Podcast is produced and hosted by Yajun Zhang and Jingjing Zhang, who discuss a variety of topics and share a diversity of voices from on the ground inside contemporary China.

  • Host: Yajun Zhang and Jingjing Zhang
  • Frequency: Bi-weekly
  • Duration: 40-50 min.
  • Since: 2017
  • Organization: RADII

Bottled in China brings you into Asia’s food and drink scene through conversations with the some of the most happening personalities. Hosted by Emilie Steckenborn, the show is your one spot for all things food, beer, wine and spirits from across the world.

Middle Earth Podcast brings you first-hand insights into China’s cultural industry and hosts guests who work in China’s marketing, gaming, movie and virtual reality industries.

Ta for Ta is a new biweekly podcast, which captures the narratives of women from Greater China at the top of their professional game. “Ta for Ta” is a play on the Chinese spoken language that demonstrates equality between the sexes. Tā 他 is the word for “he”; tā 她 is also the word for “she.”

  • Host: Juliana Batista
  • Frequency: Bi-Weekly
  • Duration: 60 min.
  • Since: 2017
  • Organization: SupChina