Ti Jen-chieh, or Di Renjie
Judge Dee (630-700)

The first I ever heard of Judge Dee () was from a TV movie I saw when I was living in Hawaii in 1974, Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders. This starred Khigh Dhiegh in the title role and was intended as the pilot for a TV series. The series was called Khan, but it moved Khigh Dhiegh from the T'ang Dynasty to the present. It was not about Judge Dee. Nor was it successful.

I did not realize until two or three years later, when I started finding Judge Dee books in Austin, that the TV movie was based on The Haunted Monastery, one of many Judge Dee stories by the Dutch diplomat and scholar, Robert van Gulik (1910-1967).

In the course of his research, and then while working at diplomatic posts in Japan and China before and during World War II, van Gulik had gotten interested in the long tradition of Chinese detective and crime literature, the existence of which most Westerners were and probably are unaware. Many people even in China and Japan, however, were also unaware of the literature, since it was no longer being produced. Thus, after the war, van Gulik sought first of all to bring its existence to the notice of both Eastern and Western audiences; and he hoped to inspire Chinese and Japanese writers to revive the tradition, rather than just imitate or translate Western detective stories.

His first effort in that direction was to translate and publish in 1949 one of the old stories, the Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee or the Dee Goong An:  , Ti Kung An in Wade-Giles or Dí Gong Àn in Pinyin -- the "Cases of Judge Dee." The title is somewhat ambiguous since , the familiar kôan in Japanese Zen Buddhism, can mean a legal case, so that the title could be Dí Gongàn, "Legal Cases of Dee"; or gong can mean "official" or "judge" (or the feudal rank of "Duke") and , "case," all by itself, so that the title would be be the "Cases," Àn, of "Judge Dee," Dígong. The second reading looks like the right one, as discussed further below.

We see as "justice," literally "public" or "legal uprightness." "Justice" can also be , "upright righteousness." For this, we want to see Judge Dee in action.

The publication of the Dee Goong An did not have quite the effect van Gulik wished, since it did not inspire a revival of the literature. So, he decided to revive the literature himself, by writing the The Chinese Maze Murders. This was published in Japanese in 1951 and in Chinese in 1953. These books were successful, and van Gulik wrote two more, The Chinese Bell Murders and The Chinese Lake Murders.

These all used the character of the same T'ang, , Dynasty (618-907) statesman and jurist as was found in the Dee Goong An, a real person, Ti Jen-chieh, , who lived from 630 to 700. Van Gulik mentions that biographies of Dee can be found in the Old History of the T'ang Dynasty (the Jiu Tangshu of 945, chapter 89) and the New History of the T'ang Dynasty (the Xin Tangshu, by Ou-yang Hsiu and Sung Ch'i, of 1060, chapter 115). The biographies, however, only cover his later career, as a major official in the T'ang Court.
PrefecturesPrefectures2nd Class
DistrictsDistrictsDistrictsDistricts1 District
Earlier, Dee had begun as a District Magistrate, , the person who was the judge, police chief, and administrator in the smallest unit of the Empire of China, usually just one city and the surrounding countryside [
note]. Van Gulik's stories were completely fictional in filling in the details of this early life of Judge Dee, his cases, official postings, family, etc. They were also deliberately anachronistic in using Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) clothing, customs, and culture in describing events in the T'ang Dynasty, seven hundred years earlier. This anachronism, however, reflected the habit of the Chinese literature. It also made it easier to write the stories, since much more was known about Ming daily life than about T'ang.

Van Gulik had actually written his stories first in English, and he soon decided to proceed with their publication in that language also. The English preface of The Chinese Maze Murders is dated 1956 -- after the 1951 Japanese and the 1953 Chinese editions. Van Gulik evidently rewrote the three books slightly for the editions in English, since there is a reference in the Maze Murders to the Bell Murders and a reference in the Bell Murders to the Lake Murders, even though the latter books were written subsequent, not prior, to the former ones. In the chronology of Judge Dee's life, van Gulik at first wrote books from his later life and then moved forward.

Van Gulik continued to write Judge Dee stories until his death in 1967. The earlier books were elaborate affairs that, like The Chinese Maze Murders, etc., covered cases that occured as Judge Dee assumed each of his five successive offices as a District Magistrate. Later stories fill in the details of Dee's career and also gravitate towards a more familiar decective story format, as Judge Dee is not always solving cases in the course of his regular adminstrative duties, operating with his full staff out of his District Tribunal and its Court. This process of simplification culminated with Judge Dee at Work in 1967, which is simply a set of eight short stories from different times in Dee's life.

Judge Dee at Work also happily provided a chronology and bibliography of the stories that van Gulik had written up to that point. A version of that chronology is reproduced below. Gulik subsequently wrote only two more books, Necklace and Calabash (1967) and Poets and Murder (1968), which have been placed in the appropriate period, though it was not clear to me exactly where van Gulik himself would have fit them into the sequence of the other stories -- though Arthur Yin, as discussed below, has worked this out.

When I began finding Judge Dee stories in Austin, the books were scattered around among three different publishers. The Dee Goong An and a combined edition of The Chinese Maze Murders and The Haunted Monastery were put out by Dover Books. The Gold, Lake, Bell, and Nail Murders were all published by the University of Chicago Press. The rest of the stories were issued by Charles Scribner's Sons.

I think that the Dover edition of the Dee Goong An is still in print, but everything else is now handled by the University of Chicago Press (from which they may be ordered on line), which has all the books out in new editions. A recently as 2004 and 2005, Harper has also begun issuing some of the books.

The appeal of the Judge Dee stories is not only that they are good detective fiction but that they also draw on all of van Gulik's vast knowledge about Chinese life, history, literature, and jurisprudence. Part of this involved van Gulik's own unique research into Chinese pornography. Indeed, when van Gulik showed another talent by beginning to illustrate his own stories, in the Ming style familiar to him, he usually worked in a least one nude! It is thus altogether an unexpected, charming, and extraordinary achievement in cross-cultural literature. Shown is van Guluk's sketch of the "smaragdine dancer" of Murder in Canton (p. 79), the tragic and fatal true love of Judge Dee's assistant, Chiao Tai.

The Judge Dee stories have recently been continued by new authors. Frédéric Lenormand has published Le château du lac Tchou-an and La nuit des juges [both from Fayard publisher, Paris, 2004]. In 2006 we also now have the wonderful Tales of Judge Dee from Zhu Xiao Di [iUniverse, New York, Shanghai]. Mr. Zhu at the time was a researcher in city planning at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. The Tales uses the framework of van Gulik's stories, captures much of his style in English, and occurs during Judge Dee's time as Magistrate of Poo-yang. I have inserted the book at the appropriate place in the table below. The Tales consists of ten chapters that are each independent stories of particular cases, but the whole is a chronological sequence, unlike van Gulik's otherwise similar collection of stories in Judge Dee at Work. The tenth capter ends as The Chinese Maze Murders Begins, with the Judge on the way to his new posting at Lan-fang.

Mr. Zhu has suggested that there is a reason why the Dí Gong Àn, although ambiguous, should be read Dígong Àn, and that is because it would be rude to use Judge Dee's surname alone without a title. If we are to be as good Confucians as Judge Dee himself, we would want to observe good manners, , and respect his dignity. This, I now see, is van Gulik's own interpretation. In the Preface and Postcript to the Dee Goong An van Gulik uses kung to mean "judge" and at one point even gives in characters in a footnote (p.iv -- I do not believe characters are ever given in the later stories, except in the illustrations) to mean "Judge Dee." Even better, the frontispiece of the Dee Gong An names him , with the title Liáng Gong translated "Duke of Liang." Here gong has risen to its meaning in the terms of Chinese feudal hierarchy, perhaps the reward of Dee's later career. The earlier Liang Dynasty (502-557) was one of the Six Southern Dynasties.

In 2010 a movie about Judge Dee has come out of China, directed by Tsui Hark. It was shown at the Venice Film Festival. The title was given in Daily Variety and elsewhere as Di ren jie zhi tong tian di guo and translated as "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame." I was not at first able to find the name in Chinese characters; but, even so, the name in Pinyin did not look like it would have the meaning provided. My guess was that the title is , which means "The Great Empire of Renjie Di." My question here was about the syllable tong, which could be the name of the T'ang Dynasty in Cantonese (the language in which the movie was shot); but then the title otherwise seemed to be in Mandarin. My wife pointed out that means "all powerful" or "great," which looks reasonable. Soon I saw that these are indeed the correct characters, as in the movie poster at right [note].

This movie title curiously recalls van Gulik's own title of The Chinese Maze Murders for the Chinese edition that he prepared in 1953, which he cites as Ti-jen-chieh-chi-an [The Chinese Maze Murders, 1956 Foreword, Chicago, 1997, p.vi]. This reads as , "The Cases of Renjie Di." I would wonder if the form of the one title suggested the other.

In any case, the story is that Judge Dee has been imprisoned because of his opposition to the Empress Wu assuming the Regency. The movie says that this was eight years earlier, but the Regency was actually just five years (684) before the movie is supposed to begin (689). The movie does not mention that Wu deposed one of her sons (Chung Tsung, Zhongzong) to assume the Regency and will depose another (Jui Tsung, Ruizong) to assume sole rule as Emperor in her own right. The sons are never mentioned in the movie. Be that as it may, Court officials have mysteriously been bursting into flame, and the Empress releases Dee, who had been chief of the Metropolitan Court since 677, because of his reputation at solving crimes, even if this one initially looks to be of supernatural origin. It turns out that it isn't, but that is as much as we knew about the movie from the reviews. In 2011, the Chinese version of movie is out on DVD, and, as with Red Cliff [2008], I have been able to obtain a copy and see it.

The nicest thing about such a movie is that it could give us some hint of the life of Judge Dee after all the stories written by van Gulik about him as a judge. Since there are actual historical records about Dee's doings at Court, van Gulik viewed that part of his life as accounted for. But the casual reader certainly knows nothing about it. So, there is nothing wrong with some historical fiction to give us the flavor of Dee's dealings with the Empress Wu, who represents events in Chinese history of great intrinsic interest, and about which van Gulik gives few details -- I have only noticed two:  van Gulik says, "it was because of his energetic protests that the Empress Wu who was then in power abandoned her plans to appoint to the Throne a favourite instead of the rightful Heir Apparent," and, "It is an historic fact that at one time in his career he had a large number of temples where evil practices prevailed destroyed" [The Chinese Bell Murders, Chicago, 1977, pp.285 & 287]. "At one time in his career" could only mean during his years at Court, since "a large number of temples" could not be "destroyed" just on his authority as a Magistrate.

Unfortunately, the movie only gives us the vaguest indications of Dee's actual career at court, with Dee making the Empress promise that the Throne will succeed to members of the dynasty. Again, we aren't told that this will be her own sons. Otherwise, we get a Dee who is far too young -- he would have been 59 in 689 -- doesn't seem to have any family, and has now become an action hero, flying around the landscape like everyone in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [2000], or Hero [2002]. This may be de rigueur for recent Chinese movies, but it has nothing to do with the Dee that we know either from history or from Robert van Gulik. So the effort does not make much of a contribution to Dee lore, although it is nice they used his name.

In 2013 there is a new Judge Dee movie, Young Detective Dee and the Rise of the Sea Dragon. This also has nothing to do with van Gulik's Dee, nor does it have anything to do with the historical Judge Dee either -- it is supposed to be from Dee's early days as a detective, which we know would be as a District Magistrate, but in the movie is already in the Imperial Capital. The title of the movie in Chinese again is a matter of interest. , literally the "Capital City Dragon King of Di Renjie." A striking thing about the characters in the movie poster is that now the simplified character is used in Judge Dee's name, but that the traditional character is used for "dragon," which is not how the name is given, for instance, in the Wikipedia article about the movie. The "Sea Dragon" in the translated title is the , "dragon king," which is a class, not just one, of rain gods. Which rain god seems to be specified by , which is the "sacred" or Imperial "capital." This rain god does figure in the movie, adding the sort of supernatural element evident in the first movie, but that figures in the Judge Dee stories only in rare and small ways. Otherwise, there is no word in Chinese that would correspond to "rise" in the translated title. Nevertheless, this translated title has a lot more to do with the Chinese title than was the case in the first movie.

This all now looks like a series of movies is planned, with no prospect that they will bear much resemblance to van Gulik's books or to the actual T'ang official. Dee is just a convenient and familiar name around which to build fantasy action films.

I have now incorporated dates for each Judge Dee story as determined by Arthur Yin in his essay, the "Fictitious Judge Dee Chronology." This is based on van Gulik's own chronological framework and various references that he makes in the stories, including seasonal foods and clothing and other clues. The principal difficulty in the dating, what Mr. Yin calls the "Key Issue," concerns his tenure at Poo-yang. His discussion of the problem is included here in a footnote.

The Judge Dee Chronology
(date of first editions in English)
dates according to
Arthur Yin
Magistrate of Peng-lai,
on the north-east
coast of China
in Shantung
The Chinese Gold Murders (1959)Spring 663
Judge Dee at Work (1967),
"Five Auspicious Clouds"
Summer 663
Judge Dee at Work (1967),
"The Red Tape Murder"
Summer 663
Judge Dee at Work (1967),
"He Came with the Rain"
Mid-summer 663
The Lacquer Screen (1962)Summer 664
Magistrate of Han-yuan,
on a lake near the capital
(van Gulik never mentions
the Imperial Capital by name,
but the T'ang
Dynasty capital was
Ch'ang-An, near
the modern Xian)
The Chinese Lake Murders (1960)Summer 666 (665 in preface to Gold Murders)
The Monkey and the Tiger (1965),
"The Morning of the Monkey"
Summer 667
Judge Dee at Work (1967),
"The Murder on the Lotus Pond"
Mid-summer 667
The Haunted Monastery (1961)Autumn 667
Magistrate of Poo-yang, in
Kiangsu Province
on the
Grand Canal,
which had been built
in the
Sui Dynasty
The Chinese Bell Murders (1958)Autumn 668
The Emperor's Pearl (1963)5th day 5th month 669, Dragon Boat Festival
Necklace and Calabash (1967 on the copyright page of the Chicago edition)Summer 669
Judge Dee at Work (1967),
"The Wrong Sword"
probably Autumn 669
The Red Pavilion (1964, but 1961 on the copyright page of the Chicago edition)28th day 7th month 669, Festival of the Dead
Poets and Murder (1968 on the copyright page of the Chicago edition)14th day 8th month 670, 1 day before Mid-Autumn Festival
Judge Dee at Work (1967),
"The Two Beggars"
15th day 1st month 670, Feast of Laterns
669-670, Tales of Judge Dee, by Zhu Xiao Di [iUniverse, New York, Shanghai, 2006]
Magistrate of Lan-fang,
on the extreme western
frontier of China
The Chinese Maze Murders (Tokyo, 1951, as Meiro-no-satsujin; Singpore, 1953, as Ti-jen-chieh-chi-an; in English, London, 1952, but The Hague, 1957 on the copyright page of the Chicago edition)Summer 670, half year before Phantom
The Phantom of the Temple (1966)Summer 670
Judge Dee at Work (1967),
"The Coffins of the Emperor"
Winter, early 672
Judge Dee at Work (1967),
"Murder on New Year's Eve"
Winter, early 674; Judge Dee at Work says late 674, which would be Western, not Chinese, New Year
Magistrate of Pei-chow, a
"desolate district
up in the
barren north"
The Chinese Nail Murders (1961)Winter, early 676
The Monkey and the Tiger (1965),
"The Night of the Tiger"
Winter, early 676
Lord Chief Justice,
in the Imperial Capital
The Willow Pattern (1965)Summer 677
Lord Chief Justice,
on assignment in Canton
Murder in Canton (1966)Summer 680; Judge Dee at Work says 681
Recalled by the Empress Wu to investigate mysterious deaths
Di Renjie zhi Tongtian Diguo, "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" (2010 movie) 
Judge Dee serves in T'ang Court until his death in 700,
during the reign of the Empress Wu (690-705)

In The Chinese Nail Murders, van Gulik describes a home where the bed is made on top of a brick oven. This is something in many traditional Chinese homes, the , "a brick-bed warmed by a fire." I have not noticed any other references to kangs in the Judge Dee stories, but there are frequent references to them, because of its focus on domestic life (and, probably, its location in the North of China), in the classic Chinese novel, A Dream of Red Mansions, [Cao Xueqin & Gao E, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1994, 2005]. If Judge Dee had spent more time in his bedroom, we might have heard more about a kang, since even wealthy homes (as in Red Mansions) used them. As it is, I don't remember a scene where van Gulik ever has Judge Dee in his own bedroom.

A detail in Tales of Judge Dee merits a note. The Judge has an heirloom sword, which we've seen in many stories, called "Rain Dragon" (). His young son makes a wooden sword he calls "Fire Dragon" (). The explanation of the name is that he doesn't want it to imply that his sword could overcome his father's sword. The background here is the theory of the "mutually overcoming" cycle in the system of the Chinese five elements. Water overcomes fire, as explained at that link.

Van Gulik mentions in The Chinese Maze Murders that the Chinese gavel is an "oblong, square piece of hardwood of about one foot long" (Chicago, p.315). This is called the , or, evocatively, the "wood that frightens the hall [or court]" (Wade-Giles ching-t'ang-mu). Zhu Xiao Di enjoys repeating this meaning several times. The device reminds me of a teacher in my Junior High School who silenced the class by slapping a yardstick on his desk. Eventually, the infamous "ruler" began to break apart, and the pieces were distributed as souvenirs at the end of the semester.

In the judicial system of Imperial China, torture was technically illegal but tolerated because no one could be convicted without a confession. It could then be used with these provisions:  (1) Questioning could only be done in open court. Since torture would then be administered in public, the public should agree, from the evidence, that the suspect is probably guilty. If it appeared that an innocent person was being tortured, a riot might result. The Magistrate would be held responsible for the civil disturbance. (2) Punishment for the actual offense would be mitigated in proportion to any suffering inflicted by torture. And, most importantly, (3) if it turned out that an innocent person was convicted, the punishment he suffered could be imposed on the Magistrate. This was called (fan-tso), "reversed judgment." The principle is discussed and illustrated by van Gulik in several books, especially the Dee Gong An and The Chinese Nail Murders. Curiously, Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary [Harvard University Press, 1972, character #1781, binome or digraph #30, p.255] only gives the meaning of fan-tso as "retribution." In turn, the ABC Chinese-English Dictionary, edited by John DeFrancis [University of Hawai'i Press, 1996, 1999], gives the meaning of fanzuò as "sentence an accuser to the punishment facing [somebody] he falsely accused." This is closer to what we see with Judge Dee, but not quite the same thing.

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Ti Jen-chieh, or Di Renjie, Judge Dee (630-700), Note 1

Van Gulik describes the administration of China at four levels: (1) the Metropolitan government in the capital, which in the T'ang Dynasty was at Ch'ang-an (Chang'an), now Sian (Hsian or Xi'an) in Shensi (Shaanxi) Province; (2) the government of the or Province; (3) the government of the or Prefecture; and (4) the government of the hsien or District. A District is now frequently called a "County," but this implies too large a territory. Since a District was usually just a single city with its surrounding countryside, this would be more like a "Township," the division of a County in many American States.

Although van Gulik gives us no hint about any variations in this system, it did vary greatly over Chinese history. Originally, the level of administrative organization above the District level was that of the "Commanderies," chün, , which were at first feudal fiefs of the Chou Dynasty.
Then by the end of the Later Han the Commanderies were organized into Provinces, using the term chou, . As time went on, there were about 200 Provinces, 600 Commanderies, and 1000 Districts. In the Sui, the Commanderies were abolished, and then in the T'ang they were replaced by Prefectures, . Under the Yüan Dynasty, the number of Provinces was greatly reduced. These became the familiar Provinces of subsequent history.

The term , which would have still been used for the Provinces in Judge Dee's time, came to used for "Second Class Prefectures" or "Departments." These are said by Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary [Harvard, 1972, character #1289, p.181] to be "an independent District... not under a prefecture, directly governed by provincial authorites." They thus would contain a single District and would fall directly under the authority of a . But the term continued as the character for Provinces, Shû, in Japan -- battleships were named after them. The Departments otherwise functioned like Districts, with their own first level examinations and schools.

2nd Class
Two other levels of administration are mentioned in the notes for Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling (1640-1715) [Penguin, 2006, p.471]. Those are the or "Circuit" and the or "Sub-Prefecture." The of course is the Tao, the "Way" of Taoism, but Mathews' does identify it as "A district; a political division of a province" [p.884], with the binome or digraph defined as "the former intendant of a circuit." We do not know from this when the Circuit was an active division of government. Calling it a "Circuit" would tend to imply that there was not a permanent seat of government involved, but that the "intendant" traveled a round of inspection in the Province, like a , a Censor (cf. Judge Dee's terrifying encounter with an Imperial Censor in The Chinese Lake Murders). The is defined by Mathews' as "A hall; a court; a lodge; a room. A Sub-Prefecture" [character #6403, p.931] but gives no more information; so I don't know either when this was an active level of government or if it involved a permanent seat. Since the notes to Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio describe the culture and government of the Ch'ing Dynasty, when the book was written, that may answer the former question.

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Ti Jen-chieh, or Di Renjie, Judge Dee (630-700), Note 2

In the movie poster, one sees a different character from the third one that I have used here in Judge Dee's name, . Insead, we get . In either form, Judge Dee's given name means "Benevolent Hero."

I notice at Wikipedia that is given as a "simplified" character. It is indeed simpler than , but it is not really a "simplied" character in the sense of being introduced by the character reform program of the People's Republic of China to replace the traditional character. Instead, is an alternate traditional character [Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary, character #774, p.105]. Sometimes the new "simplified" characters actually are alternate traditional characters (as I have noted elsewhere in relation to the characters for "air"). On the other hand, I am puzzled about why I have been using this alternate character, when van Gulik himself uses the more complex traditional one (cf. Dee Goong An, p.227). I may have gotten the character off a website about Judge Dee, without consulting van Gulik; but I don't remember.

The most curious thing here, however, may be that the characters in the movie poster are all in the most traditional form. This is certainly not for the benefit of Western audiences, who can't read any of this anyway. It may be for the benefit of Chinese audiences who do not live in the PRC. But that would leave me with the question whether this poster is also used in the PRC, without a simplified version being provided. My impression, indeed, is that the rigors of the "simplified" character regime may have been relaxed, and traditional characters have become more common.

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Ti Jen-chieh, or Di Renjie, Judge Dee (630-700), Note 3

This is the section in Arthur Yin's essay dealing with the "Key Issue" of Judge Dee's tenure at Poo-Yang:

The key issue in the re-evaluation of the fictitious chronology is whether Judge Dee spent one or two summers in Poo-yang, the determination of which seriously impacts the Poo-yang chronology. Both van Gulik chronologies [i.e. in the Preface to Gold Murders and in the table in Judge Dee at Work] establish Judge Dee’s arrival in Lan-fang in Maze, hence his departure from Poo-yang, in year 670.

The only argument for Judge Dee’s serving two summers would be the assessment that the events in Maze occurred in late summer or autumn 670. Supporting evidences include White Orchid clad in a single thin robe of white silk, the blossoming orchids, and the opening of a chrysanthemum bud.

Arguments for Judge Dee’s serving just one summer are more convincing. First, his transfer occurred long before his term of office in Poo-yang had expired and was a retaliation by the remnants of the Buddhist clique and friends of the Cantonese merchants following Judge Dee’s actions in Bell. Second, spring or early summer 670 is suggested by the mentioning of a flowering magnolia tree, flowering plants of well-nigh a man’s height, and the soft humming of an invisible bee in Maze. However, the most convincing evidences are in The Phantom of the Temple.

One of the subplots of Phantom concerns the theft of imperial gold a year earlier on the second of the eighth moon in the Year of the Snake (669) when Judge Dee was still in Poo-yang. The almond blossoms at the beginning of Phantom, taking into consideration the northwest location, places Phantom in early summer 670. Since the events in Maze occurred half a year earlier with Sergeant Hoong complaining about the severity of the past winter, Maze cannot be placed in 670 and should be forced to year 669.

In summary, the majority of evidences suggest that most of the Poo-yang events occurred in summer and autumn 669. Moreover, only winter can be ruled out for Maze since nothing in the story reflects a cold climate, and its year is not reconcilable between the van Gulik chronologies and the aforementioned substantiations in Phantom.

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