The genres I like best for leisure reading are historical fiction and mysteries. So naturally I’m especially fond of historical mysteries. My all-time favorite series is the Brother Cadfael books by Ellis Peters, set in medieval England (another of my interests). And I’d be reading more of Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee novels, if our local library had any.
The first of Van Gulik’s books I read was The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, his translation of a Chinese detective novel, Dee Goong An. I was fascinated to find out that Judge Dee was a real person from history, a district magistrate from the time of the Tang dynasty. The fact that the story was a genuine Chinese detective story, translated to English, rather than a Western detective story set in ancient China, made it all the more interesting to me.
I was somewhat disappointed to discover that this book I just finished, The Willow Pattern, was not of the same origin. But as I read more about Van Gulik, I learned that his original stories about Judge Dee were based on his own extensive knowledge of Chinese history and culture. I sometimes wonder, reading historical fiction, just how true to life the people and incidents are. With Van Gulik’s writing, I can be more confident than with many other writers that I am getting a reasonably accurate picture of life back then.
Well, sort of. The real Judge Dee lived from about 630 to 700 (The Willow Pattern is set in 677). But Van Gulik – like the Chinese author whose work he translated and then based his own books on – deliberately used elements of culture and customs from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). This use of anachronisms is apparently a typical feature of Chinese literature.
In any case, it is fascinating to read the details of how investigations were carried out and justice rendered, according to precise rules that governed the magistrates as well as the people under their jurisdiction. During the same time period in the West (considering either the Tang or the Ming dynasty), “justice” was often governed far more by might than right.
Not that the ideal was fulfilled perfectly in China, either. One interesting facet of this novel is the attempt by some people of the lowest classes to take justice into their own hands. Judge Dee rebukes them for this, insisting that justice is to be equal for all, regardless of social class. If wrongs done to them have not been righted, he says, it is because in their distrust of official justice they have not even appealed to it. But likely their experience tells them that not all officials are as honorable and fair-minded as Judge Dee.
Another (deliberate) anachronism in this novel is the “willow pattern” found on porcelain dishes. It comes from much later in history, but the legend told in the book does exist – among others associated with its uncertain origin. The story Van Gulik creates based on this motif is carefully crafted and very satisfying right to the final sentence.