01 June 2017

A wise judge and chancellor

Di Renjie 狄仁傑

My first exposure to Confucian thinking was in my eleventh-grade area studies class, where it was juxtaposed and contrasted with Daoism as a system of thought. (This being a public high school, the studiousness of Confucianism and the civil service element were particularly emphasised.) But my second, stronger, more lasting impression of Confucianism came from the murder mysteries written Dutch-Indonesian sinologist and diplomat Robert Hans van Gulik. The protagonist of these murder mysteries was ‘Judge Dee’, a semi-fictionalised version of a real historical figure named Di Renjie 狄仁傑. Di Renjie was a principled, but remarkably shrewd and observant, chancellor in the court of the infamous Empress Wu Zetian. The fact that he was one of the most prominent Confucians in a court where Confucianism was out of favour, that he managed to live to an old age with his career intact, and that he managed to quietly build a shadow bureaucracy that could survive the Empress and restore the Tang Dynasty, rather showcases his political astuteness. But he is much more famous in Chinese lore for his earlier career as a county magistrate or xianzhang 县长, during which he gained a reputation as China’s Sherlock Holmes.

Robert van Gulik translated a Qing-era mystery novel about Di Renjie’s exploits (Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, 狄公案), but he went on himself to write an entire series of murder mysteries with Di Renjie as the main sleuth, aided by several assistants and officers of the court (Hong Liang 洪亮, a retainer of the Di family and often the Watson to Di’s Holmes; Ma Rong 马荣 and Qiao Tai 乔泰, two brigands who befriend the Judge after he thwarts their attack on the road; and Tao Gan 陶甘, a small-time swindler whom Di Renjie saves from some of his angry marks), as well as by his three wives. In these mysteries, Di Renjie relies heavily on his powers of induction and his knowledge of human nature – though in many of his cases he sends out his officers or himself goes into his district incognito to gather information. Also, true to the form of Ming-era murder mysteries featuring a xianzhang as the main character, Di Renjie and his assistants are confronted by three mysteries at once, some (but not all) of which sort themselves down to a single larger criminal investigation.

When I first started reading the Judge Dee mysteries, I was already a convinced fan of Edith Pargeter’s Brother Cadfael mysteries, a series of historical novels set in the Anarchy in which the eponymous Welsh Benedictine monk of Shrewsbury Abbey is the detective. It was a pleasure to discover another, older and very different series of historical-fiction murder mysteries. But more to the point, these mysteries were an education: van Gulik’s Di Renjie is a Confucian paragon. A product of the civil service examinations, Di Renjie exemplifies not only the high-minded family morals, emphasis on humane conduct, belief in the ultimate benevolence of the state and enthusiasm for ritual which were hallmarks of post-classical Confucianism, but also certain degrees of circumspection and cunning, and a penchant for ‘weighing circumstances’ 适权, all of which add to his excellence as a detective and criminologist.

The treatment of Confucianism in these books is often a bit forced and expository, but it’s an excellent exposition in any case. Di Renjie often has to deal with Buddhist monasteries and Daoist hermits and mendicants in the course of his investigations; these are treated with varying (but often low) levels of sympathy; very often, van Gulik’s Di Renjie gives voice to Han Yu’s suspicions of non-Confucian ideas and faiths. In many of these novels, Buddhist monks are greedy, duplicitous swindlers whose ascetic pieties mask lascivious appetites, and Daoist hermits and mendicants are often vagrants, thugs and violent bullies. One of the mysteries has a Daoist master as a sociopathic criminal mastermind who believes that the doctrines of Laozi have freed him from all merely-human morality. But in one of van Gulik’s more sympathetic treatments of Daoism, Di Renjie encounters an elderly Daoist hermit named Master Heyi:
His host slowly tugged one of his long eyebrows. Then he chuckled and said: “After all those years, and after all he had seen and heard, Yoo still studied the Confucianist Classics. He sent me a cartload of books out here. I found them most useful. They made excellent kindlings for my kitchen stove!”

Judge Dee was going to offer some respectful objections to this derogatory remark on the Classics, but his host ignored him. He continued: “Confucius! Now that was a purposeful man for you! He spent his entire life rushing all over the Empire, always arranging things, always giving advice to whomsoever cared to listen to him. He buzzed about like a gadfly! He never paused long enough to realize that the more he did the less he achieved, and the more he acquired the less he possessed. Yes, Confucius was a man full of purpose. So was Governor Yoo …”

The old man paused. Then he added peevishly: “And so are you, young man!”

Judge Dee was quite startled by this sudden personal remark. He rose in confusion. With a deep bow he said humbly: “Could this person venture to ask a question …”

His host had risen also. “One question,” he gruffly replied, “only leads to another one. You are like a fisherman who turns his back on his river and his nets and climbs a tree in the forest to catch fish! Or like a man who builds a boat of iron, makes a large hole in the bottom and then expects to cross the river! Approach your problems from the right end and begin with the answers. Then, one day, perhaps, you will find the final answer. Good-bye!”

Judge Dee was going to bow his farewell but his host had already turned his back on him and was shuffling back to the screen at the end of the room.
(The Chinese Maze Murders)
This was, of course, after Master Heyi had given him – seemingly by a serendipitous accident – a vital clue toward solving his more pressing difficulties in his new county posting. But in general, of course, van Gulik’s Di Renjie is a staunch advocate for China’s civil service; he pays deep respect to the elderly; he advises young people to get married and have children. (At one point, he remarks ironically that he should turn in his magistrate’s insignia and set up shop as a matchmaker, because – as he puts it in The Haunted Monastery – ‘I have brought together two young couples, but I can’t find a dangerous maniac!’) He even evinces a mild form of the anti-capitalist and anti-oligarchical bias of several noteworthy post-classical Confucians; several of the main criminal masterminds he goes after are powerful businessmen or shipping agents who have managed to weave together large underworld networks.

I realise, of course, that the character of Di Renjie portrayed in van Gulik’s novels is (mostly) fictional. For the sake of that character, though, I’ve come to have a certain fondness for the historical original, whose cunning and ‘weighing of circumstances’ allowed him not only to navigate the treacherous political waters of Wu Zetian’s court, but to end his illustrious career as the Empress’s single most trusted adviser and quietly set the stage for a restoration of the Tang Dynasty at the end of her reign. There are, I suppose, far worse ways to be introduced to Confucianism and its doctrines!

Di Renjie (a duke in rank by the end of his life) was buried in Luoyang, and it was humbling for me to visit his tomb at the White Horse Temple.


  1. Fine piece, thanks. Time to liberate a Van Gulik from my library shelf.

  2. Thank you for the comment, CB. Glad my recommendations were convincing - and hope you enjoy the Judge Dee books!

  3. This sounds interesting.

    As a native speaker of Dutch, I do find myself wondering whether I should read these novels in English or in Dutch. Do you happen to know which version the author preferred?

  4. Hello, Tom! Welcome, and thank you for the comment!

    The English versions are the ones I'm familiar with and I found them very enjoyable. I know van Gulik did publish the 'Rechter Tie' mysteries in Dutch as well; from what I can tell they were first published in English, though. I wouldn't be able to comment on whether the Dutch or the English versions would be better, though, sorry...

  5. Spooky, Matt, I feel like I just my very 知音 doppelganger. And here's the kicker: I think we crossed paths in Beijing. You're from Rocky River, right? My aunt knew your mom and they thought it would be so cool for us to get together, but you were deluged at the embassy and I was at CNN. Have I got the right guy? In any event, love your blog (and Judge Dee too). -Jason Clower