Judge Dee / Rechter Dee

Real Name: Dee Jen-djieh (English) /Tie Jen-tsjiè(Dutch)/ Ti jen-tsie(French)/ Dí Rénjiè (Pinyin)

Identity/Class: Normal human

Occupation: District Magistrate, later Lord Chief Justice

Affiliations: Sergeant Hoong/Wachtmeester Hoeng, Chiao Tai/Tsjia Tai, Ma Joong/Ma Joeng, Tao Gan and the local law enforcement.

Enemies: Empress Wu (historical, after “defeating” her he was made Duke of Liang), many criminals.

Known Relatives: Two unidentified wives, married third (miss Tsao) in 663 A.D. Known to have had two sons and a grandson (historical). Children are mentioned but not described.

Aliases: None

Base of Operations: fictional city in or the capital of a China being a mix between Tang China(618-906) and Ming China (1368-1662).

First Appearance: Dee Goong An, Tokyo 1949 (Translation and to a certain degree adaptation by Robert van Gulik of a Chinese book from around 1750 by an unknown author)

Powers/Abilities: Like any of the great “Holmesian” detectives Judge Dee has very keen observational and deductive abilities; even though the paranormal is (nearly) always present in some form, the judge uses his rational abilities to fight crime. Unlike most, if not all, of the other deductive detectives (who are generally independent from the authorities), he is in the period described in the series (663-681 AD) the highest authority in a district (Mayor, Chief of Police, Prosecutor, Judge, Jury, Supervisor of the Executioner and more in one) or an even higher authority, representing the emperor.

Apart for these legal powers, Dee is a large, strong man, not much, if at all, less than Ma Joong and Chiao Tai, the “strong men” among his helpers. He is trained in stick fighting by Chiao Tai, and is very dangerous with a sword. His sword is the legendary Rain Dragon, already three centuries old, an antiquity and a masterpiece an admirer does not want to desecrate with his breath, and makes him wish to die by that blade, and a weapon cutting through common swords, bringing death from the moment of its creation.

As any magistrate he has a lot of knowledge about a wide range of subjects, if he impersonates a doctor, he has the knowledge to do a doctor’s job for instance.

History: Di was a Chinese district magistrate, good enough to get promotion to a high function in the capital. Born in 630 AD, he got his first appointment as magistrate in 663 in Foe-Lai/Peng-Lai, where he went with Sergeant Hoong, and met on his way Ma Joong and Chiao Tai. He also married his third wife there, and was still there in 664, solving crimes. By 666 and 667 AD he was the magistrate of Mien-Yuan/Han-yuan. In his first year there he first met Tao Gan. Dee was the magistrate of Kao-Yang/Pou-yang in the period 668-670, but in 670 he was transferred to Lan-fang, staying there until at least 674. In 676 he was for a short time, about a month, the magistrate of Ning-Tsjo/Pei-tcheou/Pei-Chow, where Sergeant Hoong was killed, after which he was promoted to Lord Chief Justice and his high position career in the capital began. (Chang’an/Tch'ang-ngan/Xi’an, not named in any book of the series, but certainly not to be confused with Peking, as is often done). There he became briefly the ruler of the capital (not the country, of course). Ma Joong married twin sisters. The judge had to deal with all kinds of delicate and secret Imperial issues, and during this period he visited Canton, where Chiao Tai was killed with Rain Dragon, Tao Gan decided to marry a blind girl. (The novels ends here unfinished, but his helpers had been all killed or married off, the ones most likely to be of any use in high politics have been killed, Dee is left without assistance.)

This is followed by the period with Lady Wu, after which he was made Duke of Liang for saving the T’ang Dynasty. He died in 700 AD.After Di’s death only his grandson made history in politics, but his family kept flourishing and produced many great men in other fields.

Comments: Profile by Theodoor Westerhof. He notes "We can presume that everything, known about the historical Di, is true for Van Gulik’s Dee too. Van Gulik made very little up, he based the stories on real cases, solved by other judges. He even met one of Di’s descendants in 1936.

The mystery novel seems to have been invented during the Ming era, and it was then and in later times time far from uncommon to introduce elements from the more recent past and present into “historical” stories. That Robert van Gulik -in some aspects perhaps to be considered the greatest sinologist ever- would describe and draw Dee as living in the Ming period (of which much more is known) in error is a misconception: Di had been popular as a magistrate detective in “historical fiction” for ages. Van Gulik took one book from those Chinese mystery novels that was exceptionally acceptable to the reader of Western mystery novels -including modern Chinese and Japanese readers-, translated it and found that it had created a huge demand for more like it, and using the first book Dee Goong An, as a sort of template wrote more books, based on actual cases, and more books, and more books about Judge Dee and his helpers (all four present in Dee Goong An), until he died aged only 57, in 1967. It seems he still had plans for at least three more novels/stories, among them about his time with Empress Wu, that way the history of Van Gulik’s Dee would have been connected with the historical Di.

As Van Gulik wrote (mostly) in English and translated (and rewrote) the books in Dutch the canon exists in two languages, which I would judge of equal value. The writing of the series led by the Japanese publisher desiring a lady in the nude on the cover to Van Gulik’s publications “Erotic Color Prints of the Ming Period” and “Sexual Life in Ancient China.”

In the 60’s (probably 1964) Van Gulik started as writer of Judge Dee-newspaper strips, drawn by Frits Kloezeman. Kloezeman based his drawings of the main characters on the Ming style illustrations by Van Gulik, but used a much more realistic style. Van Gulik was the “reference man” too. The first 4 stories were text balloon strips, the other 15 were strips of pictures with the text written below. The 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th story were original, adding 4 stories to the Dee canon. The 2nd story was based on Dee Goong An itself, and was as such the first publication of that in the Dutch language. In 1967 the 5th story was published in a coloured version with text balloons in the Belgian magazine Spirou (French language)/Robbedoes (Dutch language) (picture 1). The most notable difference between Judge Dee in the novels and the one from the illustrated stories, is the fact that in the illustrated stories the judge has just Chiao Tai as assistant, Hoong, Ma Joong and Tao Gan are not even mentioned in the newspaper strips. Some of the comics have been published in Italian too, and in the English language at least in the Malay Mail. It is clear that if Van Gulik had lived longer more stories would have been added both to the series of regular books and the series of illustrated stories, the Spirou series ended with the equivalents of to be continued, for instance.

CLARIFICATIONS: Not to be confused with

The locations mentioned in the stories where Judge Dee was active, with the exception of Xi’an and Canton,  are as fictional as Metropolis, Duckburg or Gotham City, and should not be confused with any real Chinese towns, cities, regions or provinces.

Any Additions/Corrections? Please let me know.

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