R. H. van Gulik: Diplomat, Orientalist, Novelist
by Henry Wessells
The writings of Dutch diplomat and author Robert Hans van Gulik (1910-1967) reveal his considerable talents as a storyteller as well as the conscientious scholarship and varied interests that characterized his life. His nonfiction works cover a broad range of subjects from Chinese culture, folklore, art, and music, such as Chinese Pictorial Art as Viewed by the Connoisseur, Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Period, and The Gibbon in China. Van Gulik also translated works from Sanskrit and Chinese, was co-author of a vocabulary of the Siksika language of the Blackfoot Indians, and wrote a study on the horse-cult in China and Japan.
He is also widely known for his detective fiction, beginning with Dee Goong An : Three Murder Cases Solved by Judge Dee (a translation of a Chinese work), which led him to write a series of seventeen books featuring the Chinese magistrate Judge Dee, from The Chinese Maze Murders to Murder in Canton and the posthumously published Poets and Murder.
As a diplomat whose career spanned four decades, van Gulik served in posts around the world, and his publication history reflects this fact. He wrote in Chinese, Dutch, English, Italian, and Japanese. In addition to volumes issued by European commercial and scholarly publishers, his books appeared under the imprint of publishing houses in Japan, China, Malaysia, India, and Lebanon. Van Gulik also prepared several important works for private distribution in very limited editions.
Robert Hans van Gulik was born on August 9, 1910, in Zutphen in the Netherlands. His mother, Bertha, née de Ruiter, came from a family of musicians and piano manufacturers. His father Willem was a physician in the Medical Service of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army recently returned from service in Java, where four older children had been born. Willem returned to the East Indies for a second term of service in 1914, again in Java, and the following year his wife and two youngest children joined him. Young Robert Hans attended elementary school at Surabaja and Batavia (now Djakarta, Indonesia) from 1916 until 1922.
In 1923, Willem retired to the Netherlands, and Robert Hans attended secondary school in Nijmegen. He published articles based on recollections of his early years in the East Indies, and it was at this period that his talents as a linguist were first recognized. He began to study Sanskrit and Chinese, and in 1928 published his first articles on Chinese subjects. His work with Amsterdam University linguist C.C. Uhlenbeck on the language of the Blackfoot Indians subsequently led to the publication of An English-