The Dutch diplomat, orientalist and author Robert van Gulik (1910-1967) translated Dee Goong An (Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee) into English and had it published in Tokyo in 1949. The original Chinese text was written some time in the 18th century and was published anonymously, hence it was written by a literatus/scholar who would have been embarrassed to have his peers know that he had composed such a work, since they generally viewed fiction as useless, even damaging to the proper mindset of the people. In an informative preface van Gulik tells us that the Chinese have a thousand year old tradition of detective stories which differs in significant ways from the one developed in the modern Occident, including such conventions as the announcement of the guilty early in the text and a detailed accounting of the condemned criminal's punishment - often even their subsequent punishment in Hell is related to satisfy the reader's sense of justice (and possibly other desires). Also, the supernatural is allowed to play a significant role in such stories. Van Gulik chose Dee Goong An because it most closely conformed with Western expectations of the genre. Nonetheless, the typical genre reader will likely be shocked and disappointed by this book.
However, I am not reading this book as a representative of a well established Occidental genre but as an exemplar of a Chinese tradition. After reading wonderful classic Chinese poetry for years, recently I have been exploring classic Chinese prose, both fiction and nonfiction. And this text, though no masterpiece, is enjoyable and interesting.
According to van Gulik, the central figures in the Chinese detective tradition are the district magistrates, powerful local administrators who along with their administrative duties must also serve as investigators and judges in local criminal cases. In this text the magistrate is Dee Jen-djieh (Di Renjie), who was a prominent magistrate and high official during the second half of the 7th century. Though the book was written a thousand years later, van Gulik informs us that the Chinese justice system had not changed, indeed, did not change until the early 20th century. Reading this book provides one with lively insight into a tradition of justice which was an important part of Chinese culture at least since the T'ang dynasty. In this tradition there is no conviction without a confession, and an often employed tool of this justice system was the beating and torture of suspects and recalcitrant witnesses, though van Gulik explains that there were checks built into the system which assured that extreme abuse of such means was minimized.(*)
The story itself is excellent, with the intrepid Judge Dee solving four murders with the help of his loyal assistants and a few honest citizens. The settings are clearly evoked, the action is involving, and there is suspense even though one knows the culprits quite early on, because it is not at all clear how the Judge will overcome the ruses and resistance of the suspects. For, as powerful as he may be locally, there really are checks and balances in the system, both formal and informal, and the anonymous author makes them clear to us. At one point the Judge risks his own head in the face of these checks for the sake of justice. And, on the side, one learns no small amount about the lives of ordinary Chinese people. Entertaining and informative, but only for the strong of stomach!
Van Gulik subsequently wrote a successful series of mysteries with the same Judge Dee as protagonist. I may have to look into that, because I have a weakness for mysteries set in foreign lands...
(*) Remarkably, none of the instances of torture in this book produced information useful for the resolution of the cases. It's sole useful purpose was to force the most stubborn of criminals to confess to their crimes after overwhelming evidence against them had been accumulated. Was the author making a subversive point?