08 March 2011

Crime & Law Enforcement: Judge Dee

Jeannie Lin

The Tang Code was a complex legal system of offenses and punishments established during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) Consisting of twelve sections and 500 articles, the written code was considered the pinnacle of Chinese traditional law. It became the model system for subsequent dynasties as well as other governments in East Asia such as Japan and Korea.

The code was adjudicated by an array of magistrates who played a part in the investigation of crimes as well as the meting out of punishment. The most famous of such officials is arguably Di Renjie (630-700 A.D.), a statesman and magistrate of the Tang Dynasty who was highly revered by Empress Wu Zetian for his logical nature and honesty.

During part of his career, Di Renjie served as magistrate in Pengze County before promotion to prefect and eventually becoming a trusted and longtime adviser to the Empress herself. Yet despite his illustrious imperial career, he would be relatively unknown to the West save for an interesting turn of events.

In the Ming Dynasty (18th century), a Chinese historical detective novel was written about a crime solving magistrate called Judge Dee, a figure based on Di Renjie. Robert van Gulik, a Dutch diplomat and writer, found a copy of the novel, titled Dee Goong An, in a used bookstore. He later translated the novel into English and published it as The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee.

During the effort, van Gulik translated the text faithfully, but he recognized that the supernatural element and the heavy application of philosophy might alienate western readers. On top of that, the murderer in one of the cases was revealed at the beginning with all of his motivations laid out! What fun was that for mystery readers?

Inspired by the tales, Robert van Gulik proceeded to write his own detective stories, borrowing the figure of Judge Dee. The first one, titled The Chinese Maze Murders, contains three mysteries: "The Case of the Sealed Room", "The Case of the Hidden Testament", and "The Case of the Girl with the Severed Head". All three were based on actual Chinese casebooks and van Gulik often drew from documented cases for his material.

The series contains sixteen books featuring the crime solving Judge Dee, who uses his sharp instincts and keen judgment to investigate the crimes and piece together the mystery. True to traditional Chinese detective novels, each book usually features the investigation of three seemingly unrelated crimes. A common theme is the introduction of a seemingly supernatural element, though logic and rationality prevails in the end. Along with the mystery, readers explore the ancient Chinese landscape (though the details often represent Ming rather than Tang culture) and get a glimpse of the imperial justice system.

As a result of the popular series, Judge Dee is often referred to as the Chinese Sherlock Holmes, a sharp mind with a boxer's physique. The books feature a cast of secondaries such as Dee's three wives (it's good to be a magistrate) and the thugs and bandits who Dee is able to impress into his service with his integrity. Not to mention an array of courtesans, entertainers, merchants, noblemen, and officials. In typical whodunit fashion, the books start out with a strange murder or disappearance. Dee's mode of operation is to investigate and interrogate each witness and suspect personally, making his way through the colorful city as he chases down clues and red herrings.

Jeannie Lin writes sweeping historical romances set in Tang Dynasty China, featuring sword play, politics, and, above all, honor. Her Golden Heart award winning debut, BUTTERFLY SWORDS, and the linked short story "THE TAMING OF MEI LIN" are currently available from Harlequin Historical.