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The Dutch Mandarin

A Dutch diplomat and Sinologist whose writings during the mid-20th century offered the war-torn world deep cultural insight into both ancient and modern China

By Lü Weitao , Zhang Jin Updated Jul.1

Robert van Gulik

In April, French President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to China ended on a pleasant note with his tweet that read, “Long live the friendship between China and France.” He went on to say that “hand-in-hand” cultural collaborations would significantly expand in 2024 to mark 60 years of diplomatic relations between China and France.  

As part of the visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted an informal meeting with Macron in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. The two leaders sipped Chinese tea while enjoying a performance of the musical work Flowing Water on a 1,267-year-old guqin, a seven-string fretless zither.  

Referenced in literature dating back to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BCE), Flowing Water is among the most famous pieces of the guqin repertoire. Its melody evokes vivid images of water as it cycles from melting ice to raging rivers, before peacefully joining the ocean. 
The piece’s legacy lives on today in a famous proverb of enduring friendship between Yu Boya, a public official and guqin master, and Zhong Ziqi, a woodcutter. Though of different stations, the pair became soulmates through Zhong’s appreciation of Yu’s music.  

During World War II, a Dutch diplomat played the same melody for his Chinese friends beside the Jialing River in Southwest China’s Chongqing.  

An avid Sinophile, Robert van Gulik demonstrated wide-ranging interests and skills, such as music, calligraphy and seal engraving, and was a connoisseur of Chinese art. He embodied the Chinese ideal of a scholar-official, who pursued the liberal arts in addition to their prestigious government positions. 

Detective Dee Mysteries 
Van Gulik was born in 1910 in the Netherlands. The son of a medical officer in the Dutch army, he lived in present-day Jakarta, Indonesia from ages 3 to 12. He displayed an interest in Asian languages and culture as a boy, achieving fluency in Malay while in elementary school. The Chinese inscriptions on his father’s collection of porcelain intrigued him, so he started studying Chinese.  

He returned to the Netherlands to study Chinese and Japanese at Leiden University and later Utrecht University. During that time, he added Sanskrit, Tibetan and Russian to his linguistic repertoire. After earning a doctorate with his thesis on the Horse Cult of Hayagriva, the horse-faced Hindu and Tantric Buddhist deity that spread from India to China and Japan, van Gulik joined the Dutch Foreign Service and was stationed in Japan from 1935 to 1942.  

In 1940, van Gulik stumbled upon an anonymous 18th-century Chinese novel in an antique bookstore in Tokyo that would change his career.  

The novel was Four Strange Cases of Empress Wu’s Reign, a fictional account of the deeds of Judge Dee set in the 7th-century Tang Dynasty. The novel’s protagonist is based on the Tang Dynasty (618-907) figure Di Renjie, who served as chancellor during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian.  

Van Gulik was so fascinated with Judge Dee that he translated the ancient Chinese detective stories into English and published his translation in Tokyo in 1949 as Dee Goong An: Three Murder Cases Solved by Judge Dee.  

Superbly translated, van Gulik included notes about Chinese detective novels, the Chinese justice system and Chinese law that were essential to understanding the stories. The book even included several of his own Chinese-style illustrations.  

After Dee Goong An, van Gulik continued the adventures of Judge Dee in a series of original detective stories. He later explained that he intended to show modern Chinese and Japanese writers that their own ancient crime-literature has plenty of source material for the genre.  

Van Gulik’s first original Judge Dee novel, The Chinese Maze Murders, was published in Japanese in 1951 and in Chinese in 1953, as he believed the stories would resonate most with readers of these two cultures. The book was an immediate success, and over the next few years van Gulik followed up with two more Judge Dee installments, The Chinese Bell Murders and The Chinese Lake Murders.  

In 1956, he found a publisher for their English versions, and subsequent Judge Dee novels were published in English and later translated. Van Gulik would go on to write 16 in total, collected as the Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee.  

Van Gulik wrote at a time when British writer Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories had caught the public eye. Fu Manchu was depicted as a villain from a Chinese imperial family on the losing side of the Boxer Rebellion, which was the cult-centric peasant uprising in 1900 aimed at driving out foreign powers from China. The evil Dr. Fu Manchu personified the racist notion of a “yellow peril,” which expressed Western fears of the expansion of Asian influence. Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries provided the West with a more balanced, nuanced view of China and its culture.  

Thanks to van Gulik’s writings and translations, Judge Dee was an international hit. His books have been translated into 29 languages and sold in 38 countries, earning Judge Dee the moniker “the Sherlock Holmes of ancient China.”  

As a scholar, van Gulik is probably best known for his groundbreaking studies of sexuality in ancient China, such as his 1951 book Erotic Color Prints of the Ming Dynasty and Sexual Life in Ancient China and 1961 title Sexual Life in Ancient China: A Preliminary Survey of Chinese Sex and Society from circa 1500 BC-AD 1644.  

According to Professor Shi Ye, a van Gulik expert at Shanghai Normal University, these studies place cultural products such as literature and art within the history of sexuality, creating perfect examples of “new cultural history,” or history that interprets experiences in terms of cultural factors. 

Poster for the 2011 Chinese film Detective Dee

Gaga for Guqin 
Van Gulik was fascinated with the tastes and preferences of Chinese scholar-officials, whose favorite pastimes included playing the guqin.  

Van Gulik became interested in the guqin during his post in Japan from 1935 to 1942. On his first visit to Beijing in 1936, he purchased a guqin made in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and became a pupil of master Ye Shimeng, nephew of the Qing Empress Dowager Cixi.  

Van Gulik named his guqin “pine wind,” a reference to the Taoist master Tao Hongjing (456-536), who enjoyed listening to the sound of wind rustling in the pine forest. Back in Japan, he bought a tuning whistle, had a special table made for practicing his guqin and took lessons from a Chinese master in Tokyo.  

Master Ye Shimeng taught van Gulik the piece Three Variations on Plum Blossom. The plum blossom is known to withstand the rigors of winter weather, its delicate fragrant blossoms persist despite the bitter chill. The flower is often used to describe people who are noble and forthright.  

Van Gulik learned 10 guqin pieces from Ye, whom he deeply respected. In his grief after Ye passed away, van Gulik dedicated his 1940 monograph The Lore of the Chinese Lute to his memory.  

In this work, van Gulik combines a player’s appreciation and enthusiasm with a Sinologist’s informed insight. He traced the evolution of guqin melodies and theory within the context of larger historical changes and cultural trends through different dynastic periods.  

He translated the word guqin as “lute” instead of the usual term “zither” because the lute “since olden times in the West has been associated with all that is artistic and refined, and sung by poets.” Thus van Gulik set the tone for his interpretation of the ideological meaning of the guqin as the highest symbol and expression of Chinese literati culture.  

The next year he followed up with another book, Hsi Kang and His Poetical Essay on the Lute. His works are arguably the first academic studies on the ideology of the guqin and major non-Chinese sources for the study of the guqin.  
After Japan declared war on the Netherlands in 1941, van Gulik was evacuated along with other diplomatic staff of the Dutch mission. He spent most of World War II as the first secretary of the Dutch delegation to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in the wartime capital of Chongqing.  

It was in Chongqing that he met Shui Shifang, granddaughter of Zhang Zhidong, one of the four senior officials of the late Qing Dynasty known for advocating controlled reforms and modernization. Shui, who also worked at the Dutch Embassy, first tutored van Gulik in Mandarin. They went on to marry and have four children. Shui said in an interview that the four years van Gulik spent in Chongqing were the happiest of his life.  

With much of the heartland of China occupied by the Japanese, intellectuals and artists flocked to Chongqing, which enabled van Gulik to befriend many well-known guqin players, including local master Yang Shaowu and Zhejiang master Xu Yuanbai.  

In 1945, van Gulik supported the foundation of the Chongqing Tianfeng Qin Society, which boasted several prominent figures among its founding members. Van Gulik took this opportunity to build a rapport with them, including Christian warlord Feng Yuxiang and senior Kuomintang leader and calligrapher Yu Youren.  

In his biographical sketch of van Gulik, fellow Chinese diplomat Chen Zhimai remembered watching him play a few guqin tunes for friends after dinner on several occasions. 
After World War II, van Gulik embarked on a succession of foreign service posts in the US, India, the Middle East, Malaysia and Japan. Despite constantly moving, he continued his research, writing and translations. He died of cancer in The Hague in 1967 while serving as Dutch ambassador to Japan. He was 57.  

In 2014, van Gulik’s family donated 116 pieces of his personal collection to the Three Gorges Museum in Chongqing, including his “pine wind” guqin, his rosewood desk, collected antiques and his own calligraphy, paintings and writings.  

Van Gulik realized his dream of living like an ancient Chinese scholar-official who wrote poetry, practiced calligraphy and painting, and played music in their spare time. As Chen Zhimai wrote about van Gulik playing Flowing Water for Chinese friends beside the Jialing River: 
“For how could we help being enthralled by this young man from Europe, whose physical features were anything but Chinese, playing for us this tune which had remained in the Chinese mind for 2,000 years.”

A more than 1,200-year-old guqin, the Palace Museum, Beijing