Netherlands Embassy and Consulates, China

Biography Robert van Gulik

Dutch orientalist and diplomat Robert Hans van Gulik (1910 – 1967) is known among the wider public mainly for his Judge Dee novels, which were inspired by Chinese folk tales around a Tang dynasty magistrate.

Van Gulik spent a major part of his childhood in the Dutch East Indies, where he learnt Mandarin and other oriental languages. During his high school days in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, he also studied Russian, Sanskrit, Mandarin and Cantonese. He went on to study East Indian Law, and oriental languages and cultures at the universities of Leiden and Utrecht, eventually obtaining his doctorate in the humanities with distinction. His doctoral thesis “Hayagriva, mantrayanic aspects of horsecult in China and Japan” is a treatise on esoteric aspects of buddhism.

In 1935 dr. Van Gulik joined the Dutch diplomatic service, after which he was stationed in several countries in the Middle and Far East. After an initial posting in Tokyo, he then spent some time in East Africa. In 1943 he was appointed first secretary at the Dutch Legation in Chongqing, then capital of free China during the Japanese occupation. While there, he married Shui Shin-fang, daughter of an imperial mandarin.

In 1946 he was transferred from China to the political affairs department of the ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague, after which he held offices in the USA, Japan, India, and Lebanon, before becoming ambassador in Malaysia and later on, in Japan. Over the years he wrote many scientific works on divergent topics, varying from linguistics and Chinese art to gibbons. However, what made him famous were his stories about Judge Dee.

Van Gulik’s first inspiration for the Judge Dee stories came from his English translation of an 18th century Chinese mystery novel, the Dee Gong An (狄公案), in 1947. His private publication of this translation became such a success he made up sequels. The Judge Dee series eventually ran to 16 volumes, was translated into several languages, and is still a great commercial success.