HSK 6 Chinese graded reader review: The Art of War

HSK 6 Graded Chinese Reader - The Art of War

Who doesn’t want to be able to say “I read The Art of War in Chinese”? Reading classics in their original language is cool. Graded readers are supposed to simplify this process. The HSK Academy’s graded reader version of The Art of War completely fails in this respect. Here’s my review!

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 (5000 words level): The Art of War (Sun Tzu)

First some basic information about this graded reader:

  • Publisher: Self-published
  • Level: far beyond HSK 6 (classical Chinese)
  • Audio: no
  • Pages: 114
  • Vocabulary list: no
  • Characters: simplified
  • Pinyin: yes
  • English: yes

Difficulty

Based on the famous “Art of War” from Sun Tzu (5th century BC), this bilingual graded reader is designed for the most advanced learners of Mandarin Chinese as well as for the HSK test candidates. Its vocabulary comes from some of the 5,000 most common Chinese words, and also from rarer ones which are grayed out in the text to help you focus solely on the characters and words that matter to your level.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 (5000 words level): The Art of War (Sun Tzu) – Foreword

Although the title and foreword state differently, this graded reader is definitely not suitable for HSK 6. This is the unabridged version of the classical text by Sun Tzu which requires knowledge of classical Chinese to read and understand. The difficulty lies not so much in the variety of characters used (most of which I can read), but in the interpretation of the classical prose which is very different from Modern Chinese.

How to read it?

This book offers Chinese simplified characters, pinyin and English translation one after the other for each line of text or dialogue. As this book is for the most advanced in Chinese, the translation is a classical one, rather than a literal one. You can also find at the end the full text in Chinese characters (hanzi), in pinyin, and its English translation.

Graded Chinese Reader HSK 6 – Reader’s note

I have to admit that I’m completely at a loss as to how to read this ancient text. The reader includes pinyin and the English translation (by Lionel Giles), rare characters are grayed out, but apart from that, the book offers no guidance or help. To give you a small taste of the text:

怒而挠之,卑而骄之 Nù ér náo zhī, bēi ér jiāo zhī Anger and scratch, humble and arrogant (Google translate) If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. (Lionel Giles)

First Chapter, Laying Plans (page 10)

This is not like anything I’ve read in Chinese before. It is striking how compact the Chinese text is (8 characters) compared to the English translation (20 words). I’m sure this text can be understood somehow, but I’m afraid I’m going to need more than pinyin and the English translation…

This somehow reminds me of studying Latin as a student. It took months of preparation to be able to read even the simplest, ancient text in Latin, but even then, we’d first read some kind of short introduction and there would be lots of footnotes, explaining details that otherwise would go unnoticed – highlighting sentence patterns, peculiarities, grammar structures and the like. This graded reader doesn’t provide any of these things. As a reader without knowledge of classical Chinese I’m completely left in the dark. Surely I can enjoy the English translation, but that’s not the point of a Chinese graded reader.

What about the story?

The book contains a detailed explanation and analysis of the Chinese military, from weapons and strategy to rank and discipline. Sun also stresses the importance of intelligence operatives and espionage to the war effort. Because Sun has long been considered to be one of history’s finest military tacticians and analysts, his teachings and strategies formed the basis of advanced military training for millennia to come.

Wikipedia – The Art of War

Like most people, I had heard of this classic text, but never read it, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The only similar book I’ve read is the samurai warrior code known by the name Hagakure. The Art of War, however, is all about strategy and how to defeat your enemies. In any case, this is non-fiction, so you won’t find a story with a main character in the conventional sense. The text is divided into 13 relatively short chapters, each containing a series of strategems:

  •  始計 – Laying Plans
  •  作戰 – Waging War
  •  謀攻 – Attack by Stratagem
  •  軍形 – Tactical Dispositions
  •  兵勢 – Energy
  •  虛實 – Weak Points and Strong
  •  軍爭 – Maneuvering
  •  九變 – Variation in Tactics
  •  行軍 – The Army on the March
  •  地形 – Terrain
  •  九地 – The Nine Situations
  •  火攻 – The Attack by Fire
  •  用間 – The Use of Spies

Lay-out

Considering the price for this self-published paperback book, the lay-out, binding, paper quality are reasonable. The cover looks serious. Here you can see for yourself:

Publisher

HSK Academy is the ground-breaking educational platform dedicated to the Chinese language and HSK proficiency tests. Our team creates resources tailored to your needs, providing simplicity and offering an actionable knowledge for better and faster progress in Mandarin Chinese.

Self-description on Amazon

Contrary to what you might think, HSK Academy doesn’t represent the organization behind the standardized Chinese test HSK (Hanban) in any way. They acknowledge this fact on the back of the title page. They published three other graded readers (HSK 1, HSK 2, HSK 4) and a number of HSK vocabulary lists. With regard to graded readers, HSK Academy is doing what Hanban could be doing if they were a commercial entity, that is selling HSK readers and other learning materials with the “official” HSK stamp on them. HSK Academy is capitalizing on the “HSK-brand” quite successfully: it has its own Facebook channel with almost 100.000 followers and even sells HSK Academy t-shirts. Most people probably (mistakenly) think that HSK Academy is linked to the HSK test…

Opportunities for improvement

I do see some area’s for improvement:

  • The book presents a 1500 years old, Chinese classic but doesn’t provide any guidance for the reader. This isn’t the kind of text that explains itself. It requires a proper introduction and additional, page-to-page explanations. If you ask me, selling it in this form is irresponsible to interested readers.
  • Another major shortcoming is the fact that a vocabulary list isn’t included.
  • Since this is supposed to be a HSK 6 graded reader, it would be helpful if the vocabulary for this level would be highlighted in some way.
  • The audio version of the text isn’t included. This audio could even include an introduction and explanations, after all, there are plenty of Chinese materials on this classic to be found. Takes some effort, but would be worth it. I found an audiobook version right here by the way.

Conclusion

In short, this self-published book provides the reader with an affordable, Chinese-English version of the classic The Art of War. It should be added that both the translation and original text are in the public domain and can be found on the internet. Be careful: this is not an abridged or simplified version like Pleco’s graded reader Journey to the West! That’s why I think it’s wrong to pitch this book as a graded reader. It simply is not. Moreover, the “HSK Academy-label” wrongly suggests this is official HSK material which – again – it is not. In my opinion, potential readers deserve more transparency.

That being said, I’d recommend this book only to those studying classical Chinese with the serious constraint that it completely lacks an historical introduction, footnotes etc. If you’re preparing for HSK 6 or expecting to receive some kind of simplified, adapted version for Chinese learners, you probably are going to be disappointed by this book like I was.

Thanks for reading this review! Do you have any Chinese graded readers or other books to recommend or maybe you completely disagree with me? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.

Affiliate links

The Art of War Collection: Deluxe 7-Volume Box Set Edition (Arcturus Collector's Classics) (Englisch)
The Art of War (Englisch)
The Art of War: The Essential Translation of the Classic Book of Life (Penguin Classics) (Englisch)
Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners (English and Chinese Edition)
The Oxford Handbook of Classical Chinese Literature: (1000BCE-900CE) (OXFORD HANDBOOKS SERIES) (Englisch)
Classical Chinese Primer (Reader + Workbook) (Englisch)
A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese (Englisch)
Du's Handbook of Classical Chinese Grammar (Englisch) Paperback edition

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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Chineasy vs Uncle Hanzi: two radical approaches to Chinese characters

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The biggest obstacle to mastering Mandarin for many people is its writing system. In a previous post, I focused on deep-rooted bad practices surrounding the study of Chinese characters. A relevant topic, but there was no light at the end of the tunnel. So what does work? In my own quest to improve my command of Hanzi, I found two interesting approaches: one is the well-known “Chineasy method”, the other is the “Uncle Hanzi way”. This is what you can learn from them.

The “Chineasy Method”

Visual mnemonics

Shaolan’s elevator pitch-like introduction to Chineasy (TED talk, 2013)

The Chineasy approach is to put Hanzi into a visual context and memorize them with the help of illustrations that depict the character’s meaning. Shaolan Hsueh, the entrepreneur behind Chineasy, managed to exploit this idea commercially better than anyone else. Chineasy’s impressive design and Shaolan’s smart marketing campaign even helped popularizing Mandarin and Hanzi abroad. For the first time, it seemed, someone had come up with an unique method for Chinese characters that makes them learnable for almost anyone.

Chineasy – a serious learning resource?

But is Chineasy really a “language learning system” as it says on Wikipedia? To what extent does it teach you to read and write Hanzi? It’s hard to ignore that some Mandarin teachers and other experts have pointed out some serious flaws:

The Chineasy approach: visual mnemonics
Source: Chineasy on Amazon
  • Chineasy teaches all characters as if they were pictographs. Pictographs are easy to explain (my teachers have been guilty of this kind of cherry-picking too), but unfortunately they only make up around 5% of all characters. This is misleading.
  • These characters don’t necessarily match the most frequently used characters which is unpractical for learners.
  • Chineasy mixes traditional and simplified characters for convenience. This is not best practice. Especially for beginners, it’s much less confusing to stick with either simplified or traditional characters.
  • Chineasy overreaches when it calls itself a “learning method” or “system”. It’s not a system, it’s rather a learning technique put into practice. It reaches its limits pretty soon though.

Visual mnemonics can be helpful

That being said, the visual approach exemplified by Chineasy can be useful. Associating a certain image with a character or its individual components makes memorizing Hanzi less of a struggle. It all boils down to this: Chinese characters have to make sense when you learn them. Yes, Chineasy’s approach is quite random at large and disregards the composition and history of the character, but applying some form of visual mnemonics is much more effective than blindly memorizing meaning and stroke order, especially when you’ve just started out.

The “Uncle Hanzi Way”

Richard Sears – also known as 汉字叔叔: “I found that almost all Chinese had learned to read and write by absolute blind memorization and almost no one had a clue where the characters actually came from.

Obsessed with the origin and history of Chinese characters

In the long run though, we shouldn’t stick with random images and stories. Instead, we should try to get the characters “right”. That means caring about their origin and history. Let’s discuss the second approach.

“Uncle Hanzi” is the nickname of Richard Sears, an American physicist, who has been obsessed with the origin and history of Chinese characters for most of his life. He created an online database of more than 96.000 ancient Chinese characters called hanziyuan.net.

In his own words: “At age 40, I got the idea that I needed to computerize the origins of Chinese characters so that I could sort out the crap from the truth. I started researching but did not get started actually doing it. At age 44 I had a near-fatal heart attack and after recovering, but not knowing when I might die, I decided I must get started.” At hanziyuan.net you can trace back the composition and meaning of almost any character to its origins as far as they are known. Take 家 (house) for example:

Hanziyuan: Input single Chinese character for etymology
The search results from hanziyuan.net for 家

Getting back to the source

“Uncle Hanzi” is an extremely interesting case, because he doesn’t come from the field of sinology and seems to be a lone wolf fueled by a hardcore obsession with Hanzi. (Just imagine a sociologist investing 30 years of his life into die-hard quantum mechanics research). Sears obviously wasn’t satisfied with blindly memorizing characters or Chineasy-style mnemonics. He wanted to grasp the “logic” and understand the origins. After all, the ancient Chinese didn’t just “make them up” as they went along according to Sears.

He also argues that practically all the first characters would have been pictographs which evolved and became more abstract over time. In other words, what today seems abstract, used to represent something concrete which we should try to understand to make our lives easier. The case of 家 (a pig under a roof) illustrates this.

Of course, it’s going to slow us down when we take a history tour for each new character, but I’m convinced that the more solid our foundations are the easier it becomes to add new layers. But how to put the “Uncle Hanzi Method” into practice?

How Pleco and Outlier Linguistics can help

Pleco breaks down each character into its components

The dictionary app Pleco (partly) supports this learning method by breaking down each character into its components. That’s good for a start, but doesn’t give you the full story like the example of 名 shows. Its components don’t add up to its meaning (name), so there must be more to tell here.

For those who want to gain insight into the etymology of Chinese characters, there’s a practical solution called Outlier Linguistics. Their dictionaries help you understand the history of Chinese characters that most Mandarin teachers fail to explain. You don’t need to install another dictionary app by the way, because they come as add-ons for Pleco in a “Mini” and “Essentials” edition. For most people this is probably overkill, but for serious Hanzi learners quick access to etymological basics might well be the key to progress. This is how I see it: the more profound your understanding of Hanzi, the easier it becomes to grasp and memorize new characters. They’ll start to make sense.

The Outlier Essentials Edition should get you a long way:

  • 2700+ characters as of newest update (plus regular updates until they reach 4000)
  • Simplified and Traditional characters
  • Detailed explanation for every character
  • Stroke order for all 4000 characters
  • Meaning tree for every character showing how different meanings relate to each other
  • Ancient forms for all semantic components

The dictionary (meaning add-on for Pleco) looks like this:

Conclusion

The “Chineasy method” and “Uncle Hanzi’s approach” both have their merits. Putting characters into a visual context does help, just like developing a basic understanding of their origin and history does.

Actually, to zoom out for a moment: we’re not really talking about methods, but learning techniques linked to different levels of understanding and experience. Mandarin expert Olle Linge came up with 5 different levels of understanding Chinese characters which gives us something to hang on to. I added Chineasy and Uncle Hanzi in brackets. Most of us are somewhere in the middle of this scale:

  1. Inventing pictures that disregard composition and structure of characters (Chineasy)
  2. Creating stories and associations that obscure functional components
  3. Using superficial pictures while being aware of functional components
  4. Using superficial pictures and encoding functional components
  5. Etymologically correct mnemonics with no shortcuts (Uncle Hanzi)

I’d label myself with level 3, although it differs from case to case. I know I’m nowhere as good as I could be with serious studying. Taking some inspiration from Uncle Hanzi, I keep aiming for level 5. I do hope though that it won’t take me 30 years to get there!

好好学习,天天向上!

What’s your take on Chineasy? Does it work for you? Do you think Chinese characters have logic like that can be understood if you study them long enough? Please feel free to leave a comment down below.


Further reading

Affiliate links

Heisig: Remembering simplified Hanzi
The first 100 Chinese characters
Chinese short stories for beginners
Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.


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崔健 – 一无所有 (1986)

Today the father of Chinese rock, Cui Jian, turns 59! His song Nothing to my name is widely considered his most famous and important work, a political sensation at the time.

一无所有 (1986)

我曾经问个不休
你何时跟我走
可你却总是笑我
一无所有
我要给你我的追求 
还有我的自由
可你却总是笑我
一无所有

噢… 你何时跟我走
噢…你何时跟我走

脚下的地在走
身边的水在流
可你却总是笑我
一无所有
为何你总笑个没够
为何我总要追求
难道在你面前
我永远是一无所有

噢…你何时跟我走
噢…你何时跟我走

告诉你我等了很久
告诉你我最后的要求
我要抓起你的双手
你这就跟我走
这时你的手在颤抖
这时你的泪在流
莫非你是正在告诉我
你爱我一无所有

噢…你这就跟我走
噢…你这就跟我走

(English translation and interpretation)

Chinese dreams (2019): must-watch China doc

In short: You take a Dutch guy who wants to become a professional photographer. You put him in China with a camera team and he starts making an incredible portrait of present-day China. Since these three documentaries are almost unknown outside of Holland, I decided to share them here.

How the Dutch filmmaker Ruben Terlou ended up in China

After finishing high school in the Netherlands, Ruben Terlou went to China to make a living as a photographer. A rather unusual step for a young Dutchman, but Ruben was convinced that China was the place to be for him.

Settling down in Kunming and learning Chinese, he fell in love with the country and the people. He became fluent in Mandarin. But after two years of trying his luck as a professional photographer, he returned to Holland, allegedly broke and disappointed.

He than began studying medicine instead, putting photography second, but still visiting places like Afghanistan to shoot material. He finished his studies cum laude, yet he never became an actual doctor.

All in all, I have spent around four to five years in China, I guess. I appreciate the honesty of the people the most. Chinese people are very open about their emotions and can reflect well. The country is and remains fascinating because it is constantly and massively in motion.

The filmmaker Ruben Terlou in Dutch newspaper Trouw

Ruben Terlou: Holland’s unappointed China ambassador

Ruben’s China documentaries became an instant hit in the Netherlands. In every discussion about China people would mention his name.

For most Dutch people China used to be a far away place. Little did they know about the people who live there and their daily lives. Ruben’s China series made a change, focusing on a broad variety of topics and letting Chinese locals tell their own story. He showed that Chinese are not incomprehensible strangers, but fellow human beings. Not an easy task, especially under growing political tensions:

It would be nice if my work touches the audience. Because with all that news about the Chinese trade war, misunderstanding towards the superpower is growing. “What a horrible country, that China,” many people say. I want to remove that distrust, hope to paint a balanced and human image of China.

Ruben Terlou in Dutch newspaper Trouw

Not the usual biased approach

Many China documentaries made by westerners fail insofar that they are deep-rooted in prejudices (and often ignorance) and choose the moral high ground. Most importantly, they don’t bring any new insights.

Ruben Terlou cannot help but see China through the eyes of a westerner, but at least he makes a serious effort of leaving judgement to the viewers. But there’s more that makes him stand out from journalists and filmmakers that cover China:

  • He holds back his opinion and allows people to tell their stories
  • He’s not looking for cheap sensation
  • People open up to him and tell him very personal things
  • He’s a keen observer and a brilliant listener. He knows what to ask at the right moment.
  • Not only his Mandarin is fluent, he also knows a lot about Chinese history and culture. This is demonstrated in his interviews as well as in his selection of topics and filming areas.
  • He captures unusual places, people and situations like hospitals, circus artists and vanishing minorities.

China is the ideal laboratory for story telling. Had I made the same series in Belgium, or even in India, my conversations would affect the audience less. Those countries are closer to us. Precisely because China is strange to us, I can expose the essence of mankind. Do you understand? China is linguistically and culturally so different from us that it serves as a mirror.

Ruben Terlou in Trouw

Three times China

Three different series of Ruben’s China adventures have been produced. The main language is Mandarin Chinese with Dutch moderation and – most important – English subtitles. Starting with season 1:

Along the banks of the Yangtze (2016)

The six episodes

Along the banks of the Yangtze, langs de oevers van de Yangtze, Ruben Terlou, TV-series (2016), aflevering 1 - 3

Along the banks of the Yangtze, langs de oevers van de Yangtze, Ruben Terlou, TV-series (2016), aflevering 4 - 6

  • Year: 2016
  • Duration: 6 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Through the heart of China (2018)

The seven episodes

Through the heart of China (2018), door het hart van China, Ruben Terlou, documentary, Aflevering 1 - 4

Through the heart of China (2018), door het hart van China, Ruben Terlou, documentary, Aflevering 4 - 7

  • Year: 2018
  • Duration: 7 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Chinese dreams (2019)

Episode 3: Ruben wonders how it is possible that each year nearly five million marriages go on the rocks in China. He travels with a judge across the countryside, attends divorce cases in a court, and joins a so-called “mistress hunter”. In a “love hospital” in the mega city of Shanghai, he witnesses a relationship therapist in action.
  • Year: 2019
  • Duration: 4 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: Dutch
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Chinese like any other language ultimately is a tool for communication. Ruben mastered the language and moved on to use his wits and talents to do great things. What’s your dream? What do you think about his China doc? Please feel free to leave a comment.

Sixteen China podcasts to listen during lockdown

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Tired of listening to endless corona-updates and Covid-discussions? Here’s some China-focused listening material for you sorted by topic.

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

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.

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.

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

“Dutch Mandarin” Robert van Gulik

Who was the Dutch writer and diplomat Robert van Gulik (1910 – 1967)? 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
Introduction to the documentary “On the Track of Robert van Gulik

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”.

Intellectual and artist

Van Gulik with his wife and children

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

“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

Affiliate links

Judge Dee at Work: Eight Chinese Detective Stories (Judge Dee Mysteries)
Dutch Mandarin: The Life and Work of Robert Hans van Gulik
The Monkey and The Tiger: Judge Dee Mysteries
Hayagriva: Horse Cult in Asia by Robert Hans van Gulik
The Lore of the Chinese Lute by Robert H. Van Gulik
The Chinese Bell Murders: A Judge Dee Detective Story
Sexual Life in Ancient China: A Preliminary Survey of Chinese Sex and Society from ca. 1500 B.C. till 1644 A.D. (Sinica Leidensia, Volume LVII) Hardcover
The Chinese Gold Murders: A Judge Dee Detective Story (Judge Dee Mysteries)

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