Judge Dee & Dee Goong An

Robert Van Gulik lived most of his life in the far East, worked professionally as a translator, and married a Chinese woman.  He introduced Judge Dee mysteries partly in an attempt to counteract the dose of racism that came with most of the Chinese culture that was fed to a west hungry for information about the mysterious east after WWII (he mentions Charlie Chan specifically).  I like the series because there are lessons on Chinese culture and history that are respectful,  aren’t preachy and don’t gloss over controversial issues like drugs, prostitution, etc (hey- it’s a crime drama).

You can buy Judge Dee paperbacks cheap online, and easily get  a copy in Chinese; for the Chinese version of the first book, a translation/ adaptation of an authentic Chinese mystery find it at Amazon here.  We have this particular text in the Billington library.

I like how it approaches popular culture – what really affected the lives of everyday Chinese.  This is a series, and while the first is a faithful translation from a traditional Chinese text, subsequent books incorporate more of the author, Robert Van Gulik, though he draws on the many Ancient Chinese mysteries he’s translated.  Judge Dee was a historical figure from the 6th or 7th century AD, though many of the stories Gulik draws from or translates were written in the 1700’s to 1800’s.  As he notes in the introduction, the Chinese legal system worked well and was reasonably fair compared to the rest of the world at the time, and didn’t change significantly from the 7th century through the 19th.

This first book (Dee Goong An) contains a very good introduction. In it the author notes that the Chinese were using the printing press to produce detective novels for a mass audience before Gutenberg printed his first Bible.  Gulik also explains how some of the different conventions of the typical Chinese detective story won’t sit well with western readers expectations.  For example, the gruesome details of the punishment and torture, a focus on the methods of the detective rather than suspense re: the perp, and the deux ex machina  – usually in the form of a visit from a ghost or actual god, bodhisattva or similar supernatural thing. Traditional Chinese mysteries also had enormous numbers of characters: over-populated really from my perspective.

The first Dee novel was chosen specifically for western consumption, but to be authentically Chinese none-the-less.  Reminds me of how Chinese restaurants here aren’t serving real Chinese food, but a version imagined to be more palatable for Americans.  Other than myself really, how many Americans would take to stinky tofu, duck blood, or chicken  hearts?  Dee Goong An does however show an emphasis on relationships that is uniquely Chinese and the Judge is a staunch Confucian – which ought to please my Title VI colleagues.  He and I also share the same family name (Dee).

Detective work in China was (is?) done not by detectives in the western sense, but by judges or magistrates. This reminds me of a personal experience.  Back in ’96 or so I lucked into teaching conversational English to some “big heads” – what an old boss of mine called people of power or significance.  It paid obscenely well – almost $100 USD an hour  – and they loved to talk so it was like hanging out.  Anyway, one of my students was a prosecutor  – perhaps a magistrate of some sort.  These sort of translations can be fraught with peril.   I was shocked to learn that lawyers didn’t argue cases in court.  He explained, “We let the facts and evidence speak.”  I expressed skepticism and he asked me how that O.J. Simpson trial was working out.

I’ve read that Chinese people have not sarcasm in their culture and language  – maybe it was C. G. Jung who said it.  If that ever turns out to be incorrect I’m going to have to have a long talk with my wife.