Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Goong An)
"Authentic 18th-century Chinese detective novel; Dee and associates solve three interlocked cases. Led to van Gulik’s own stories with same characters. Extensive introduction. 9 illus." (text from Alibris)
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Review of Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee
Review by Dr. David Kenley
This is the first in a series of mystery novels written by Robert van Gulik and featuring the renowned Judge Dee. Celebrated Cases was first published in 1949. Over the next two decades, van Gulik continued using the Judge Dee character in several subsequent novels and short stories. In each story, Judge Dee solves crimes with intelligence, honesty, and an untiring pursuit of justice.
Judge Dee is based on the historical character Di Renjie who served in the Tang Dynasty (seventh century). Like Judge Dee, Di Renjie was respected for his abilities and character. Serving under the vilified Empress Wu, Di Renjie provided a more humane and upright version of good governance for his contemporaries and for subsequent storywriters over the next several centuries. Robert van Gulik discovered one such story written in the nineteenth century and decided to create Western-versions of these Chinese stories.
In most Judge Dee texts, van Gulik presents multiple stories involving various crimes and characters. Only in the end does the reader discover how all the stories and characters are connected. Judge Dee solves murder mysteries that often include unsavory characters from all social strata. He is not afraid to use violence and deception, but only in the pursuit of virtuous goals. For anyone frustrated with search warrants and Miranda rights impeding the fulfillment of justice, Judge Dee is a likeable character.
The Judge Dee stories are set in the deep historical past, though students do not need any historical knowledge to make sense of the plotlines. Readers quickly see how Judge Dee combines executive, judicial, and legislative powers in one person. He has earned his position not through connections or birthright, but through his own intelligence and hard work.
When using van Gulik’s stories in my own classroom, I encourage the readers to make comparisons between Western values and those exemplified by Judge Dee. For instance, I ask them to consider the following questions:
How would you characterize the concepts of justice, evidence, and punishment in pre-modern China?
What are the heroic qualities of Judge Dee? What are his foibles? How does he compare with a hero in Western novels?
What does this teach about politics, class, religion, and the role of public opinion in governance?
How is this similar and/or different from Western detective novels?
Since the stories are set in the Chinese past, many readers fail to remember they are written by a Westerner, in English, for a Western audience. After pointing this out, we engage in a discussion of cross-cultural understanding, universal values, and cultural authenticity.
The Judge Dee novels are appropriate for all high school students and very bright middle schoolers.