October - December 2006 Dateline
 
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Tales of Judge Dee by Zhu Xiao Di


Old Judge Dee began solving cases thirteen hundred years ago, and he is still going strong today. In China's Tang dynasty, word spread of a local official, renowned for his intelligence, humanity, and skill in solving crimes. He combined the skills of Sherlock Holmes, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Fiorello La Guardia. Robert van Gulik, a Dutch diplomat, translated the original case book and went on to write at least fifteen volumes of Judge Dee stories, published in the 1950s and 1960s. Now Zhu Xiao Di brings the judge back to life again, in an extremely entertaining and enlightening volume.

As always, the characters fight over time-honored issues such as money and sex. An old man leaves a mysterious will, which seems to disinherit his wife and her son and give all his money to his wealthy son-in-law, who is accused of being illegitimate. Meanwhile, a new bride is raped by an imposter on her wedding night. The judge uses his famous powers of logical reasoning, plus the threat of torture, to get the real criminal to confess. The evil rich merchant and rapist young scholar are exposed, while the poor victims receive justice.

Crimes of passion dominate. A woman takes a lover, who murders her husband, but blames his death on another man. Through intensive investigation and clever tricks, the judge discovers the real murderer. A sexy widow dallies with men, but blames their visits to her house on her modest, but beautiful daughter-in-law. The judge protects the young and modest girl, while exposing lecherous schemers. Yet he does more than simply punish the wicked. He enjoys his food, treats his wife and concubine fairly, reads the Chinese classics regularly, and appreciates the beauties of nature.

In Judge Dee's world of imperial China, there are many criminals, greedy people, charlatans, and lazy scholars and incompetent officials, but also innocent victims, skilled artists, and at least one highly intelligent, benevolent judge. The judge tries his best to enforce the basic ideals of filial piety, generosity, family integrity, and righteous behavior in a highly imperfect world. He has total power over his county, but he gets no help from his superiors, and political struggles could unseat him any day. He gets little public recognition except for the gratitude of the local population he serves. He is not a democrat, but a stern patriarch. Yet he keeps Chinese society together.

Zhu Xiao Di has researched the Chinese literature of crime well, as he very carefully follows van Gulik's pattern. He brings back to life the vanished age of imperial China, implying that traditional China had many admirable values which modern society should respect. His earlier work, a memoir of his family's life in Communist China dedicated to his earnest father, a party official, read like an expression of filial piety. Here he shows vividly that he has mastered the art of drawing a convincing portrait of imperial Chinese society in all its richness. I highly recommend this book for anyone who likes crime fiction and anyone with an interest in Chinese history.

For a book review by Zhu Xiao Di on the Thirty Years in a Red House: A Memoir of Childhood and Youth in Communist China, click here.
Peter C. Perdue is T. T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations and Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He teaches courses on Chinese history and civilization, Chinese social and economic history, the Silk Road, and historical methodology. His first book, Exhausting the Earth: State and Peasant in Hunan, 1500-1850 A.D. (Harvard University Press, 1987), examined long-term agricultural change in one Chinese province. His new book, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Harvard University Press, 2005), discusses environmental change, ethnicity, long-term economic change and military conquest in an integrated account of the Chinese, Mongolian, and Russian contention over Siberia and Central Eurasia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He served as Chair of the China and Inner Asian Council of the Association of Asian Studies for 2005. He is now beginning a new project of comparative research on Chinese frontiers.
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