Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Judge Dee

Go To
Judge Dee at work.
A judge must be as father and mother to the people,
Cherishing the good and loyal, helping the sick and old.
Though meting out stern punishment to every criminal,
Prevention, not correction, should be his primary aim.

A judge must brave the foaming billows of hate, deceit and doubt,
The only bridge across is straight and narrow as a rapier's edge.
He may not lose his foothold once, once pause to listen to his heart,
Heed Justice only, lodestar unfailing, though always remote and cold.

Judge Dee is a series of Police Procedural novels and short stories set in Imperial China and written by the Dutch diplomat and sinologist Robert van Gulik. The series was Inspired by... the 18th century Chinese novel 狄公案 (dí gōng àn) or Cases Of Judge Dee, which van Gulik had translated during his war service, and had published in 1949 as Celebrated Cases Of Judge Dee.

It is the 7th century AD, and Tang dynasty China is the greatest power in Asia, if not the world. Peace and good order are maintained throughout the empire by a large, efficient bureaucracy of highly-educated gentleman-scholars. Dee Jen-Djieh begins his career as a District Magistrate, the lowest rung of the provincial government. Over the years, he confronts and solves mysteries ranging from conspiracies against the throne to domestic disputes, with the help of his small staff of assistants:

  • Hoong Liang - An old family retainer who the Judge appoints his sergeant of the tribunal. Most often referred to as "Sergeant Hoong".
  • Ma Joong - A former highwayman turned investigator. The uneducated son of a poor fisherman, in addition to his great size and strength he is a master martial artist, holding the "highest rank in boxing" (kung-fu, in modern terms). Admires strong-minded young women of common rank.
  • Chiao Tai - Ma Joong's best friend. Another ex-highwayman and fellow investigator, he is a rather mysterious fellow, obviously of gentle if not noble birth, with peculiarly fatal luck in love. He is an ex-soldier who turned outlaw to pursue revenge on a superior officer who betrayed him and his men. However, when he finally catches up with his man, as a recent murder victim, he decides he wasn't worth the killing anyway.
  • Advertisement:
  • Tao Gan - con-man, swindler and gambler who, like his colleagues, turns over a new leaf as a member of Dee's staff.

The Judge's private life is a peaceful haven from his stressful public duties, shared with his three wives:

  • The First Lady is the daughter of Dee's father's best friend, and their marriage was arranged between the two families. The Judge values her for her sophistication, intelligence, and the tact with which she runs his household.
  • The Second Lady is not as highborn or well-educated as the First, but she is a handsome woman, at least in her husband's eyes, and possesses the kind of staunch, sensible character he admires.
  • The Third Lady is the highly-educated daughter of Dr. Tsao Ho-Hsien, an ambitious scholar, whom Dee met in the course of the investigation described in The Chinese Gold Murders. She was abducted and raped, and subsequently her husband and father disowned her because she refused to kill herself as dictated by custom. The Judge first hired her as a companion for his ladies, and later married her at the urging of the First Lady.

The four of them get along famously and while away their evenings with endless, hard-fought games of dominos. Dee's wives are minor characters in Van Gulik's novels and short stories, but the "sequel" novels by Frédéric Lenormand (see the Fan Fiction section below) change this by having his wives appear far more often, to the point of the First Lady being a main character.

The Judge himself is an unusually tall, powerfully built man with a long black beard, piercing eyes and considerable presence. Men, especially wrongdoers, find him intimidating, but women, sensing the sensitivity and empathy under the formidable surface, tend to trust and confide in him. Particularly attractive young women in trouble.

Judge Dee believes in the spirit of justice, rather than the letter of the law. His aim is not just to punish the wrongdoer but to reward those who do right, and ameliorate the sufferings of the victims as far as is possible. He often goes out of his way to help somebody only tangentially connected with his cases.

Titles (in recommended reading order):

  • The Chinese Gold Murders (1959): Judge Dee sets out to take up his first post and finds a couple of juicy murders and a missing person case waiting for him.
  • Judge Dee At Work (1967): a collection of short stories including a chronology of the series. Features unrelated cases from various points of Dee's career.
  • The Lacquer Screen (1964): The Judge tries to take a few days vacation incognito and finds himself solving a couple of cases of murder and embezzlement.
  • The Chinese Lake Murders (1960): The mysterious death of a courtesan leads Judge Dee to a conspiracy against the Imperial throne.
  • The Haunted Monastery (1961): Bad weather forces Dee and his wives to take shelter at an ominous Taoist monastery and the Judge spends a sleepless night dealing with murder, the occult and thwarted young love. This novel was adapted for television in 1974
  • The Chinese Bell Murders (1958): The Judge brings an end to a generations-long vendetta between two wealthy merchant families, solves a rape-murder and ends the corrupt practices of a famous Buddhist temple.
  • Necklace and Calabash (1967): In Rivertown, an Imperial Enclave, the Judge is of service to the Emperor's favorite daughter the beautiful Third Princess.
  • The Red Pavilion (1964): On his way home from the Capital the Judge reluctantly spends a night at the pleasure resort of Paradise Island and finds himself drafted into a temporary appointment requiring him to solve three murders, one having taken place thirty years before!
  • The Emperor's Pearl (1963): Two murders, and the River Goddess, lead the Judge to a long lost Imperial treasure.
  • Poets and Murder (1968): A poetic gathering in a fellow magistrate's mansion leads to murder and the whiff of scandal in high places.
  • The Chinese Maze Murders (1957): An overgrown maze at an abandoned country manor provides the key to several mysterious murders.
  • The Phantom of the Temple (1966): A long abandoned Buddhist temple is the site of all sorts of strange goings on, all somehow connected with a gold robbery years before.
  • The Chinese Nail Murders (1961): A particularly cunning murderess almost foils the Judge and he comes close to ending his career in disgrace.
  • The Monkey And The Tiger (1965): Two separate cases at far different times in the Judge's career. The first involving a murdered tramp who isn't just a tramp. The second the murder of a young girl - but which girl? - at a lonely manor under siege by bandits.
  • The Willow Pattern (1965): Judge Dee, now Lord Chief Justice of the Empire, deals with the mysterious deaths of two great nobles in a Capital racked by plague.
  • Murder in Canton (1966): Judge Dee's last case takes him to the city of Canton to discover what became of a high Imperial official who vanished there without a trace.

There was a TV adaptation of The Haunted Monastery in 1974, as well as three movies note  in 2010, 2013, and 2018.

These stories provide examples of:

  • Action Girl: Despite the fact that this is Imperial China, where Confucian ideals confine women to the home, the Judge and his lieutenants encounter Violet Liang, a Mongolian wrestler with her own dojo in The Emperor's Pearl and Bluewhite, a skilled street-fighter in The Willow Pattern. Ma Joong marries the latter.
  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: The original Dee Goong An story that the titular Chinese Nail Murder is based on is resolved when the Judge fakes an afterlife trial with his assistants, leading to the murderess' confession. In the latter story, not only is the judge given the solution by a woman who used that very method to get rid of her abusive husband, she does it knowing he'll have to arrest and try her and commits suicide to spare him that fate. And Sergeant Hoong is murdered, although in connection to a different case, and the judge ends up sort of Kicked Upstairs by the end, putting an end to the everyday comradeship he had with his lieutenants. Small wonder that the judge looks to have aged about a decade by the end of the story.
  • Affably Evil: The Big Bad Sun Ming of The Haunted Monastery, privately confesses his crimes (abduction, multiple rape and murder) to Dee, while pointing out, in the nicest possible way, that his eminence, prestige and connections at the imperial court put him beyond the reach of the law. Judge Dee, however, proves he is not beyond the reach of justice.
  • Alone with the Psycho: The Judge's tendency to play a lone hand lands him in this situation more than once. In The Chinese Maze Murders, a young girl detailed to question a witness finds herself in this position, but fortunately the Judge deduces her situation in time.
  • Amazon Chaser:
    • Bluewhite's toughness and fighting ability are a large part of why Ma Joong finds her so attractive.
    • Cheng Pa, the head of the Beggar's Guild, is infatuated with Miss Violet, a Mongolian wrestler. It's apparently mutual, but due to Poor Communication Kills it doesn't go anywhere.
  • Anachronism Stew: Although they are nominally set in the Tang era, the stories describe the China of the much later Ming dynasty. This is partly to respect the convention of original Ming-era detective novels transposing Tang characters into the cultural world of the Ming, and partly because far more is known about everyday life in the later period.
  • Anger Born of Worry: When Tao Gan explodes in fury upon hearing that a blind girl connected with their case in Murder in Canton is missing Chiao Tai knows that his 'brother' has finally met a woman he cares about.
  • Artistic License – History: Leaving aside the transplantation across time and the fictional nature of the cases, the biggest error the series commits is its depiction of Chinese polygyny. note 
  • Arranged Marriage: A normal feature of life in Dee's world. His own marriage to his senior wife was arranged by his father.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: The Taoist abbot in Haunted Monastery is believed to have done this, calling all the monks to his chamber, delivering a long speech filled with obscure references, then liberating his soul from his body. His annotated speech is later used as an instructional text in other Taoist monasteries. He had in fact been poisoned, and the speech was a delirious rambling.
  • As You Know: The characters are presumably familiar with incense clocks, the Imperial government, manners in the 'Flower and Willow' world etc., but they are kind enough to give, and listen to, explanations of things they already know, for the benefit of western readers who do not.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: The judge is a swordsman, stick fighter, and pretty good at kung-fu. He can handle most villains without the assistance of his loyal lieutenants, but he is not the best fighter on his team. Chiao Tai is a superior swordsman and archer, and Ma Joong a better boxer and wrestler.
  • Babies Ever After: Ma Joong marries Blue-White and her sister Coral at the end of Willow Pattern and is reported to have a family of eight in Murder in Canton just four years later.
  • Badass Beard: The Judge is very proud of his full black beard, which combined with his bristling brows and piercing eyes causes more than one guilty soul to confuse him with the Judge of the Underworld.
  • Badass Boast: When trapped on a floating brothel, one of the Mooks tells another to get help from the other boat. Ma Jong's response? "Call all the bastards together!"
  • Badass Long Robe: This being Imperial China even the badasses wear dresses.
  • Bad-Guy Bar: There is at least one of these in every city to which the Judge is assigned.
  • Bad Habits: Ruffians in the Judge's 'verse like to dress themselves up as Taoist or Buddhist monks.
  • Band of Brothels: The sex trade is legal and licensed in Tang China. It is the dominant trade on Paradise Island, the setting for the Red Pavilion. Unusually the guild head is portrayed sympathetically. Normally the Judge despises madams and pimps as much as he is sympathetic to the women themselves.
  • Bash Brothers: There are quite a few badass teams in the series:
    • At the top of the list are Ma Jong and Chiao Tai of course, oath-brothers and comrades-in-arms from their days as outlaws.
    • Crab and Shrimp from The Red Pavillion are a classic big power fighter/small precision fighter team.
  • Batman Gambit: In The Haunted Monastery, the Judge asks the murderer about the other set of secret rooms. The man is quite surprised to learn about rooms even he didn't know about, and willingly follows Dee to a small courtyard where a bear is waiting.
  • Bears Are Bad News: The Haunted Monastery features a troupe of entertainers, one of whom has a pet bear. The bear apparently only likes his owners, as the judge and the murderer find out.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Shortly after their first meeting, Chiao Tai inspects the Judge's sword, the legendary Rain Dragon, and exclaims in admiration: "If it should be ordained that ever I should die by the sword, I pray that it may be this blade that is washed in my blood!" And in the last book, Murder In Canton, a villain steals Rain Dragon, and Chiao Tai is killed preventing him from killing Judge Dee with it.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: By The Red Pavilion Dee is experienced enough to realize that when a young woman declares passionately that she hates a particular man, she never wants to see him again and she's going to marry somebody else at once her actually feelings may be very much the contrary.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Murder in Canton: Chiao Tai's Heroic Sacrifice, and Tao Gan's finding a wife.
  • "Blind Idiot" Translation: The French translation dutifully notes everytime a character says something "dryly". Unfortunately, in French the expression is closer to "sharply", making the judge seem short-tempered instead of sarcastic.
  • Blindfolded Trip: In one story, the victim thinks he was taken somewhere in the mountains in a closed palanquin. Tao Gan, however, thinks it's a ruse- he thinks it more likely that the carriers simply tilted the palanquin and walked around the inner courtyard of a large house, with the occasional "Watch the cliff!" for effect.
  • Blood Brothers: All three lieutenants consider themselves, and address each other, as such.
  • Bluff Worked Too Well: On arriving at his new post in a border province, the judge discovers that Imperial authority has been usurped by a local crimelord. The judge fakes the arrival of an army regiment in order to scare the mooks away and arrest the crimelord, but this ends up working against him when the citizens really think he has a bunch of soldiers on call, whose existence must be strictly denied to the populace.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Ma Joong.
  • Bondage Is Bad: Particularly depraved characters are fond of whipping young women.
  • Born Unlucky: Hwang San feels this to be the case. One can't help but feel he has a point when the executioner's sword gets stuck in his neck during his decapitation.
  • Bottle Episode: The Haunted Monastery, compared to the other novels, takes place over an extremely compressed period of time, with a very tight cast of characters, and concerns only a single series of crimes. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is highly-regarded as an excellent jumping-on point for the series.
  • Boy Meets Girl: happens all the time to Judge Dee's lieutenants, with comedic results if it's Ma Joong or tragic ones if it's Chiao Tai.
  • Brother–Sister Incest / Villainous Incest: In Murder in Canton, the Big Bad tried to force himself on his sister during his youth, citing bygone rulers who did the same to keep bloodlines pure. When she refused, he poured boiling water in her eyes while she was asleep, blinding her.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Dee's colleague Lo appears to be overly fond of drinking and womanizing (a Gold Digger once almost manages to get her claws into him), but when Dee works with him on a case is pleasantly surprised by Lo's insight and experience. Also, late magistrate Wang in Chinese Gold Murder.
  • Bury Your Gays: Fan and Tang in Chinese Gold Murder.
  • Busman's Holiday: The Lacquer Screen and Necklace and Calabash as well. After that the Judge pretty much gives up on vacations.
  • Card Sharp: Tao Gan. He is also a Short Con artist and general Trickster.
  • Cassandra Truth: After bluffing a local gangster lord with an imaginary regiment of regular soldiers the Judge reassures concerned civic leaders that there is no army unit just the deserters and former highwaymen he's recruited. They don't believe him. What is more, he predicted that this is exactly what would happen.
  • Chemically-Induced Insanity: In The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, a woman who murdered her husband to have an affair with a neighbor gave her daughter a drug that rendered her unable to speak comprehensibly to keep her from exposing her. During the trial Judge Dee cures the daughter so she can testify.
  • The Chessmaster: Mostly averted as far as the Judge goes, but many of his opponents are chessmasters, usually defeated by their inability to foresee all possibilities. In a handful of notable case, The Chinese Bell Murders especially, the Judge does, in fact, play chessmaster, with a politico-legal plan or two.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Even Ma Joong is a little bewildered by his own motives for buying out a prostitute then handing her over to the man she prefers along with twenty silver pieces to give them a start on married life.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: In Judge Dee's world of Confucian justice, great importance is placed on obtaining confession of guilt from the accused. Even where Dee has a "water-tight case" (and remember he is investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury, all in one), he must obtain a confession in order to convict and pass sentence. Torture is applied as necessary to this end, and while Dee dislikes it, he does not hesitate to do his duty.
  • Confucian Confusion: Subverted. Being a Confucian magistrate in Tang Dynasty China, Judge Dee only quotes Confucius in the proper context and never as a joke.
  • Connect the Deaths: Judge Dee does this all the time. Most of his cases turn out to be linked.
  • Conspicuous Gloves: In one story, a character keeps his gloves on to hide the fact that he badly injured it by touching a freshly-lacquered table after murdering a woman.
  • Consummation Counterfeit: Discussed when it's mentioned that Mongol women never have to do this because all the horseback-riding they do would tear their maidenhead.
  • Conveniently Precise Translation: On at least two occasions Judge Dee is able to identify the Big Bad by realizing that the last utterances of one of the mooks and The Dragon, respectively, were not after all common English words (how and you) but in fact their corresponding homonymic English transliterations of Chinese names (hao and yoo). Naturally, some Artistic License – Linguistics and the MST3K Mantra are needed to make this work, as Van Gulik himself acknowledges in his postscripts. Then again, the books have been successfully translated into several languages, and the real-life translators were able to handle these problems (occasionally by changing the characters' names); why should the Translation Convention be any dumber?
  • Critical Staffing Shortage: In one story, the judge is trapped by a flood in a country estate under siege by bandits. The inhabitants bitterly note that there used to be dozens of men hired just to guard it, now they'll be lucky if they have enough rusty lances and bows to equip all the old men and women that took refuge there.
  • Cryptic Conversation:
    • A speciality of Taoist recluses like Master Gourd (Necklace and Calabash) and Master Crane Robe (The Chinese Maze Murders).
    • The Judge is pretty darn good at it himself; his conversations with the Big Bad of The Chinese Bell Murders are a fine example of politely indirect threats.
  • The Cynic: Tao Gan is, as the text puts it, "an adroit student of human nature" as a result of his former profession. Whenever discussing possible actions by suspects, Tao Gan always presents the most cynical possible interpretation of events. He's often wrong, but not always.
  • Damsel in Distress: Most cases involve at least one of these.
  • Damsel out of Distress: In The Chinese Lake Murders and The Willow Pattern the young ladies prove to be anything but helpless - even if they are distressed.
  • Death by Sex: There is one case, where a bridegroom thinks he has done this to his bride on their wedding night, freaks out, goes into hiding, and is accused of murder. Turns out that she had only fainted.
  • Defiled Forever: Present in Judge Dee's world, but much more nuanced than you might expect. On the one hand, women are expected to remain virgins until marriage, and to commit suicide if raped, especially if they're married. On the other, Dee's own Third Lady is a rape survivor, and he fully accepts her as his wife. After leaving their "unfortunate profession" even "common prostitutes" are depicted as able to find happy marriages with "honest farmers", and high-class courtesans are seen as suitable wives even for gentleman-scholars.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The original Dutch writer went to great lengths accurately to depict Chinese social values and attitudes in the period:
    • The routine use of torture in the judicial system, and gruesome public executions of the guilty.
    • The distressing practice of selling young girls into prostitution is treated as a matter of routine, even by the girls themselves. To be fair in most cases it's shown that it was that or starvation for the whole family. However one girl, sold by her gentleman-official father to pay his drinking debts, is clearly embittered.
    • The judge telling the father of a Plucky Girl to marry her off quickly, despite her being against it.
    • The central place of filial piety is repeatedly displayed, especially in the crime that gets the judge angriest we see in the series: General Ting's son was having an affair with one of his father's concubines, and tried to poison him. The judge outright tells him to commit suicide.
    • In Murder in Canton, every Chinese character is casually racist against the Arabs living in Canton.
  • Disability Alibi: One story has Mr. Wang claim he killed Mr. Twan and carried his body up a hill before chopping off his fingers with an apothecary's knife. The judge sees through this right away (both men being old and frail) as well as identifying the real culprit (Wang's huge but mentally-retarded son). He gives Wang a chance by stating that with his father in jail, the son will have no one to protect him, causing Wang to confess his son killed Mr. Twan as a result of a misunderstanding (the mutilation was an entirely separate event, essentially a Yubitsume gone wrong). The judge assures him that he'll see to it that his son is well taken care of, and take the circumstances for Wang's attempted perjury into account at the trial.
  • Downer Ending: The Chinese Nail Murders, which sees Sergeant Hoong dead in a way that could have been avoided given a few more hours' time, the Judge worked to the brink by a combination of dealing with a crafty criminal who maneuvers him into mortal peril and unfulfilled and unfulfillable love with a married woman who commits suicide after essentially admitting to a murder of her own to save him. Then he gets appointed to Chief Justice of the Empire, and quickly starts to learn that his father was right, and it's Lonely at the Top. No surprise that he starts going grey and looking his age after this one.
  • Dub Name Change: Han Yun-Hang from The Chinese Lake Murders is renamed Han Sei-Yu in the French translation to keep an important plot point (the murderer thought the dancer was on a First-Name Basis with Han when she was actually saying "Your Honor"/"Seigneur Juge").
  • Dragons Up the Yin Yang: The correct orientation of the taijitu symbol is a plot point in "The Haunted Monastery".
  • Dressing as the Enemy: The Judge is only moderately convincing but his big ex-outlaw bruisers Ma Joong and Chiao Tai can easily pass. Tao Gan actually IS a barely-reformed criminal and Master of Disguise.
  • Dynamic Character:
    • Not so much over the course of any single book, but Judge Dee's character undeniably evolve over the course of the series: the Judge Dee of The Chinese Lake Murders never could have pulled off what the more experienced Judge Dee of The Chinese Bell Murders does. And while he remains dedicated to the absolutes of Confucian ethics, the Judge becomes painfully aware of the ambiguities and gray areas implicit in Real Life over his long years as a District Magistrate, particularly when circumstances push him to the brink in The Chinese Nail Murders.
    • Also Ma Joong goes from a happy womanizer to a man looking to settle down - but having trouble finding a girl to settle down with. He finally does so in the next to last book The Willow Pattern.
  • Elite Man–Courtesan Romance: It was entirely expected for a High-Class Call Girl to snag a rich husband this way in Imperial China.
    • The judge once had to deal with the fallout of a high-ranking official committing suicide after being spurned by a courtesan, who was found dead soon after. The man's suicide had nothing to do with the courtesan, she just assumed he'd killed himself out of despair and used his death as publicity. In fact, he thought he'd caught leprosy like his father and killed himself before he became too disfigured, the father thought the girl was responsible and killed her out of grief.
    • In another, he comes across a scam where a courtesan is to be bought off her madam by a high-ranking official despite already being freed. He recognizes the likely victim as his friend and colleague Magistrate Lo, and intervenes to prevent him adding the Gold Digger to his extensive harem.
    • One short story has him accompany a young prostitute to her home, then listen to her problems, learning her fiance is about to be executed for the murder of a fellow officer's wife. When she tried to visit him in prison, she ended up flogged by the guards, badly scarring her chest (which is not good for her job, in addition to being a single mother). The judge saves the man's life, though he's not exactly grateful, telling the judge he has nothing to look forward to ever since his fiance quite sensibly never visited him in prison. The judge drops him off in front of his house, tells him his wife and son are inside, and leaves.
  • Enlightened Self-Interest: There's a scene in The Red Pavilion where Ma Joong is talking with two casino guards, one of them explaining that the place remains stable and prosperous thanks to the three major merchants (the casino owner, an antiques dealer, and a whorehouse owner) recognizing that it's better to make less money in the short term by working with the other two (if a player loses big, he can always sell off an antique or a concubine, if he wins big, he'll want to exchange it for something easier to carry around or a more visible status symbol) than get rich quick via dishonest dealings.
  • Eunuchs Are Evil: A given in the Judge's world; 'The necessary but horribly dangerous source of evil in every palace!'. And yet he clearly feels a certain respect for the Chief Eunuch in Necklace and Calabash. It's mutual. One biological eunuch is also driven mad by unfulfilled sexual lust in The Chinese Nail Murders, and he even murders Sergeant Hoong.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Mo Mo-te in The Haunted Monastery presents himself as an itinerant Taoist friar, which means, of course, that he is actually a petty crook. However, he is not the criminal behind the murders, and actually came to the monastery to hunt down the one responsible for murdering his sister.
  • Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting: As this is Imperial China not only the Judge and his lieutenants Ma Joong and Chiao Tai know kung-fu (or "Chinese boxing" as Van Gulik calls it), but so do a number of supporting characters, both friend and foe.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The names of Dee's First and Second Ladies are never revealed. Only Third Lady, whom he met in the course of his work, is ever named, and even then we only learn her family name, not her personal name. Once married to the judge, all his wives are known simply as <ordinal number> Lady.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The peasant providing the water buffalo for an execution by quartering refuses his compensation (a piece of silver) despite the fortune it represents, regarding it as unlucky.
  • Exact Words: Dee is able to solve some problems by applying the letter of the law.
    • The only real crime he can accuse the Big Bad of The Chinese Nail Murders is smuggling salt, which is a state monopoly but hardly an instant death sentence, giving him the time to bring his connections and influence to get acquitted. So he gets the man to confess to having trapped the judge and his lieutenants under a huge bronze bell (where they nearly suffocated) as a "prank", then reveals that an attack on an Imperial functionary is legally considered a crime against the state, meaning an instant death sentence and a first priority treatment for the examination of his case by the higher courts, meaning all his friends in high places won't be able to help him.
    • At the end of The Willow Pattern Murders, the judge asks Coral if she was ever paid for her dancing for an old pervert, then reassures her by saying that there's no law against dancing for free and thus it didn't count as illegal prostitution.
  • Exit, Pursued by a Bear: Literally in The Haunted Monastery.
  • Expy: Dee is pretty much universally considered by the Chinese as their answer to Sherlock Holmes.
  • Eyepatch of Power: The Imperial Marshal in Coffins of the Emperor lost an eye to an arrow in a previous battle.
  • Faked Gift Acceptance: Justified in "The Chinese Bell Murders". The abbot of a Buddhist monastery suspected of scamming the women who come to pray for fertility presents the judge with several ingots of precious metal which he accepts, to Sergeant Hong's chagrin. At the end, the judge reveals the money was used solely to trap the villain by buying a pair of young prostitutes and having them spend a night in the temple to find out what was going on (the monks rape the women who spend the night in the temple, counting on the social stigma of knowingly bearing a bastard to silence them). The reason he couldn't reassure the sergeant earlier was because of the increasing influence of Buddhism in Chinese society, who would have accused the judge of slander.
  • A Family Affair: One case involved a young man having an affair with one of his father's young concubines, even planning to murder his father and frame a local artist who claimed the father was a traitor to his country. Unfortunately, in Confucianist China the issue of disrespecting one's father is so important that the son might as well have been screwing his biological mother, and the judge indirectly orders him to commit suicide (the father was murdered, but for entirely different reasons by someone else).
  • Fan Fiction: In a sense, all of van Gulik's Judge Dee stories are fan-fiction based on the original Chinese novel, but in turn they have inspired quite a lot:
    • French author Frédéric Lenormand wrote eighteen more Judge Dee books (2004-2011), but these have not yet been translated into English.
    • The Chinese/American author Zhu Xiaodi wrote Tales of Judge Dee (2006), set in the same time period as The Chinese Bell Murders.
  • Fanservice: Robert van Gulik was a collector of Ming-era erotic art, wrote a book on sexuality throughout Chinese history and illustrated his own work with line-drawings that usually include a naked lady or two. This might have been at the insistence of his publisher.
  • Fantastic Foxes:
    • In Poets And Murder from the original series, a girl lives in The Shrine Of The Black Fox, which is infested by foxes, and is believed to be possessed by a fox spirit. Unfortunately, she catches rabies from her foxes, goes mad, and dies horribly.
    • The sequels have a Huli Jing show up (sort of): a priest explains that he was always sort of shunned because his father had been tricked into marrying a fox-woman, who turned back into a fox some time after he (the priest) was born. The judge (and everyone else) stare at him in silence for a while, because it's blindingly obvious that the wife ran off with another man, the father passing it off as the fox spirit going back to the wild.
  • Fatal Attractor: Chiao Tai can't fall in love with a woman without her dying.
  • Five-Man Band: The main cast. Judge Dee is the hero. Chiao Tai is his lancer; though closest to Judge Dee in social class and education, is a definite contrast; brooding and abrupt where Dee is polished and urbane, unlucky in love where Dee is happily married, devoting his life to vengeance where Dee is committed to perfect justice. Ma Joong is the big guy. He freely admits that his only use around the place is beating down dangerous people. He also takes pride in that he's extremely good at beating down dangerous people. He has elements of the Genius Bruiser however, being capable, with the help of Chiao Tai, of pulling off schemes to apprehend criminals quietly. The arrest of the Uigar chieftain Ooljin in The Chinese Maze Murders, is an example. The Smart Guy is Tao Gan, the best detective of the bunch next to Judge Dee, and the go-to man for complicated schemes and tricks. Sergeant Hoong is The Chick as the kindly old man whom everybody likes and trusts, and to whom none of the team would dream of speaking harshly, even at their truculent worst. The worst fighter of the bunch, he differs from the classic portrayal only in that the chain of command leaves him in charge when Dee is absent, and that he's male.
  • Foreshadowing: Chiao Tai's death by the judge's sword is repeatedly, but subtly, alluded to.
  • Gargle Blaster: If 'the amber liquid' isn't strong enough there's always 'rosedew', a white liquor (probably baijiu) capable of reducing even Ma Joong to incoherence followed by unconsciousness.
    • There is mention of a Mongol wedding feast where he was invited; whatever it was he drank left him with the worst hangover of his life.
  • Go and Sin No More: Candidate Wang in The Chinese Bell Murders is guilty of seducing an unmarried girl (yes, it's a crime despite her consent; the punishment for rape is much worse), an act that brings disgrace upon the girl's family, Wang himself, and the scholarly class as a whole. However, Judge Dee judges that Candidate Wang truly loved the girl and was heartbroken by her murder, and as such has been sufficiently punished by his grief (and the rough treatment he'd already received during his interrogation). Instead of inflicting further punishment, Judge Dee proposes a plan that restores everyone's honor and allows Wang to return to his studies.
  • Good Is Not Soft: Dee is deeply committed to his moral code, while leavening it with considerable compassion, but he does not hesitate to act ruthlessly in the pursuit of law and his duty to the state. At times, he goes beyond the law in the interests of justice, particularly with villains who would otherwise use corrupt connections at the imperial court to escape.
  • Graceful Ladies Like Purple: Gentlewomen and courtesans alike seem to favor shades of purple or violet for 'best'. And then there's Miss Violet Liang, a Mongolian wrestler who singlehandedly curbstomps three ruffians trying to kidnap a girl.
  • Gun Struggle: Knife variant. A suspect claims to have stabbed the victim in a struggle. The judge finds the angle of the wound questionable and asks Ma Joong for his expert opinion. Ma Joong agrees the angle is odd but 'strange things happen' in a fight and in his judgement the claim of self-defense is possible. The victim was already dead when he was stabbed.
  • Happily Married: A possibly unique polygamous example. The harmony of the Judge's marriage is based on his genuine love and respect for each woman and their equally genuine liking for each other (the Third Lady only came in because the First convinced the Judge to marry her to spare her from being Defiled Forever). Given the Judge's tendency to get wrapped up in a case the First Lady would probably lead a very lonely life if not for the Second and Third Ladies.
  • Hereditary Curse: Tang in Chinese Gold Murder mentions his grandfather having the same weretiger curse as himself.
  • Heroic Ambidexterity: Judge Dee is mentioned to be ambidextrous, as are all high-level swordsmen.
  • Hired Help as Family: Sergeant Hoong was the Dee family's steward and took good care of their son Jen-Tchieh, even following him as his manservant for more than thirty years (being named tribunal sergeant in the various cities his master was sent to) and eventually dying in the judge's service. He's mentioned to have had a son, but it's not mentioned if Hoong's family travels along with him.
  • Historical Domain Character: The judge himself was a Tang dynasty official noted for his morals, although ost of his crime-solving feats appear to have been ascribed to him later on.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Pretty much every prostitute except the high-class courtesans. Brothel owners, on the other hand, are vicious harpies only too glad to ignore an abducted woman's story.
  • Hordes from the East: Well, from the West. Several stories set on the north/western border involve the local Tartar tribes uprising (or threatening to).
  • Horny Devils: A villainous witch in The Chinese Nail Murders murdered her husband for failing to provide her with enough life force to absorb through coupling. She is able to sense the refined "vital essence" of a martial arts master, who has abstained from sex for many years, and uses her powers and hypnotism to seduce him against his will, draining it out of him to keep herself young, then murdering him when he threatened to reveal what she had done by poisoning his tea. Once the Judge (finally) manages to wring the truth out of her and break her spirit, the stolen life force leaves her and she ages twenty years in an instant in the sight of the whole court, leaving only a listless Empty Shell.
  • Inspired by...: Although the novels read like authentic Chinese detective novels, they mainly follow the Western mystery canons with Chinese flair. Van Gulik outlined the difference between these literary traditions in detail in the preface to his translation of Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (which itself was rather unusual for Chinese mystery stories):
    • Ancient Chinese detective novels would often reveal the culprit at the beginning (as in Columbo), with the interest lying in following the development of the motive. Here the criminals are shown but not named.
    • Cases are almost always solved via the intervention of a Deus ex Machina in the form of a deity, spirit, or ghost that either reveals a key clue or compels a suspect to confess. Or at least a simulation thereof proffered by the Judge. Van Gulik often replaced this element with a more earthly one in adapting some classic Chinese detective plots.
    • There would be practically no characterization other than describing people as they fit the contemporary stereotypes of their class and profession.
    • Midway through the novels (as well as many works in other Chinese literary genres) a poem or short play having nothing to do with the story is presented as an "intermission."
  • It Never Gets Any Easier: To the end of his career as a detective Judge Dee is moved by the suffering of the victims, and hates witnessing the often brutal punishments of the guilty.
  • Job Mindset Inertia: In one story, the judge infiltrates a gang of criminals under pretense of being a former court guard who applied a little too much Police Brutality. When he discovers a freshly-committed crime, he forgets himself and starts giving out orders not to touch the crime scene, leading to the other crooks pointing out he no longer works for the law.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: The Judge must frequently deal with this when he's got a large military command in his district.
  • Justice by Other Legal Means: the Judge resorts to this in The Chinese Bell Murders.
  • Just One Little Mistake: On the part of the perp solves many of Judge Dee's cases for him. He's also very good at Bluffing the Murderer. Both are common to Chinese crime fiction, where a confession on the part of the witness is required before conviction of a crime, and torturing someone into a false confession can have dire consequences.
  • Kneel Before Frodo: Apricot, a common prostitute that Judge Dee has bought out of her "unfortunate profession", gives him crucial assistance in solving an extremely difficult case in The Chinese Bell Murders at significant personal cost. When the Judge greets her, he bows to her, and the other high-ranking officials with him follow his lead.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Arguably a meta-example on the part of Van Gulik himself in the framing introductions to some of the books. These introductions are told from the point of view of a Ming dynasty gentleman - an Author Avatar for Van Gulik - who devotes his gentlemanly leisure time to studying the history of crime detection and jurisprudence. Invariably he has an encounter with a mysterious person or circumstance through which he learns of three cases solved by the famous Judge Dee "in antiquity" during the Tang era. The strangeness of the encounter compel him to record the cases and present them to the reader as the present work. This allows Van Gulik to lampshade the facts that a) the Ming-era novels upon which his series is based always transposed the historical characters (whether Judge Dee or some other famous magistrate) they described into the conventions and culture of the Ming era and b) that the situations into which he inserts Judge Dee are based on real or fictional cases from other sources but are largely embellished and invented.
  • Large and in Charge: The Judge is somewhere around six feet tall. In the short story The Coffins Of The Emperor, he meets the Marshal of the Imperial Army, who is taller still and towers over his officers.
  • Leave Behind a Pistol: Suicide is an acceptable, face-saving alternative to execution:
    • In The Coffins Of The Emperor the confessed murderer is permitted to "die as an officer" by cutting his own throat.
    • The Judge allows a parricide and his partner in technically-incestuous adultery (one of his father's concubines) a chance to save the family reputation from further damage (the father having sold out many of his men early in his career) by committing suicide.
    • In exchange for a list of those engaged in a conspiracy against the throne, Dee also permits the Big Bad to take "medicine" knowing perfectly well it is poison.
  • Lightning Bruiser:
    • Ma Joong is not only one of the largest and strongest men in China, he's also a master martial artist, holding the second-highest rank (ninth degree) in "boxing" (kung-fu) and quick on his feet.
    • Violet Liang from The Emperor's Pearl single-handedly cripples three armed male thugs, and drags them to Dee's tribunal, where they can't wait to confess and be locked up safely in jail.
  • Locked into Strangeness: Dee himself after particularly trying events in The Chinese Nail Murders. He ends up with graying hair and prematurely aged.
  • Locked Room Mystery: The Judge is faced with one of these in The Chinese Maze Murders and The Willow Pattern.
  • Loophole Abuse: In The Chinese Nail Murders, a man confesses to the Judge that before he married his recently-deceased wife, she confessed to him that she had murdered her late husband, but he didn't care and neither reported this crime or spurned her. As this makes him an accessory to the late husband's murder, the man is expecting to be arrested, but the Judge tells him that A, he won't arrest someone for a crime if the only proof is hearsay and there's no solid evidence or testimony from the actual murderer, and B, since the man did not confess in court or before any witnesses, there's nobody to demand that the case be taken any further.
  • Love Forgives All but Lust: Started a massive chain of crime in The Chinese Bell Murders: The ruthless businessman Lin Fan had murdered his business rivals, who happened to be his wife's brother and father, but she did nothing against him. But when Lin Fan raped his sister-in-law, his wife went into full Woman Scorned mode (especially tragic as she finally gotten pregnant, and she had been a calming influence on him, and the judge believes Lin Fan's actions were just a passing whim rather than actual attraction), culminating in arranging for Lin Fan to murder her son (the son he didn't know about with her).
  • Magnetic Hero: The Judge, definitely. Ma Joong, Chiao Tai and Tao Gan all decide to go straight as his assistants after their first encounter with him. He also has had some difficulty getting shut of attractive young females he's recruited as temporary assistants. Three wives are quite enough thank you!
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: The beautiful Third Princess is actually the daughter of Master Gourd; the Emperor almost has to know she isn't his but she's his favorite daughter anyway. Although this affection is interpreted rather differently by some in-universe.
  • Mama Bear: The Judge and his lieutenants rather easily subdue a band of rather incompetent bandits who've ambushed them on their way to the Judge's new assignment in The Chinese Maze Murders. Going to check on his family the Judge finds his First Lady crouched by the window of their tilt-cart with a dagger in her hand and the other women and children hiding under quilts on the floor behind her. Luckily for the bandits none of them got that far.
  • Marry Them All:
    • The Judge's First Lady urges him to take her lady companion, the rape victim from The Chinese Gold Murders, as his Third wife. The Judge is not adverse to the idea but he fears he would be taking advantage of the girl's gratitude. Eventually he decides in her favor and she becomes his Third Lady.
    • Averted in The Chinese Bell Murders: the Judge dismays his ladies by buying out two common prostitutes and installing them as concubines, but the girls prove good-natured and teachable and the wives warm to them. It turns out the Judge bought them as part of a plan to trap the corrupt monks of the local Buddhist temple. When the girls indicate their desire to stay afterwards he firmly but kindly turns them down. Three wives are clearly enough.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The narratives remain creatively ambiguous about whether a rational explanation exists for every last strange phenomenon the Judge witnesses. See Skepticism Failure below.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: In The Chinese Bell Murders, the Judge brings two prostitutes into his own home and orders his wives to teach them the skills appropriate to their own rank, leading to the Top Wife making acerbic comments that he could have given her a little notice before expanding their household. It later turns out he needed them to pass as the concubine of a rich man to root out a fertility scam run by a depraved monk with spies inside the judge's household. When the girls do ask to marry him, he lets them down as gently as he can.
  • Motive Rant: The Judge hears a lot of these. Sometimes with disgust, other times with sympathy.
  • Must Let Them Get Away: Judge Dee sometimes encounters criminals, as in The Haunted Monastery and The Chinese Bell Murders, who are of such high rank, and so well connected at the imperial court, that Dee cannot touch them legally. However, he finds ways to prove that they are not beyond the reach of justice.
  • Named Weapons: The Judge's sword is the ancient and legendary jian "Rain Dragon".
  • Never My Fault: Hwang San from The Chinese Bell Murders, who blames everything on his "bad luck". He loses a fight to Ma Joong because he makes a rookie mistake? Bad luck. His kung fu master had a beautiful daughter who had no interest in him? What bad luck! He really had no choice but to rape her, and then had to flee for his life. He mugs a wealthy-looking merchant, kills him, and finds nothing but "worthless receipts"? Bad luck. He rapes and murders a young maiden and steals her gold hair pins (the only thing of value she had), which turn out to be cursed (and which allow the crime to be traced to him)? Bad luck.
    • On the other hand, when he is executed it requires two blows to remove his head. Bad luck indeed.
  • Nice Hat: Hats denoted status in Imperial China, so there are many, especially Judge Dee's winged cap of office.
    • Tao Gan has a hat that can be turned inside out to suit different roles as part of his Master of Disguise kit.
  • Nice to the Waiter: The Judge often goes out of his way to do a kindness to poor people he comes across in his cases.
    • In 'Poets and Murder' he arranges for the wife of a poor shopkeeper to get all the sewing from the Chinwa Residence which should give them a good income and improve their standard of living.
    • In 'Murder In Canton' the Judge arranges for a prostitute who gave him valuable information to be bought out of her unfortunate profession, gifted with a reward sufficient to reestablish herself in respectable society and transport back to her native place.
  • Nobody Here but Us Statues: The Big Bad of Haunted Monastery hides his victim by disguising her as one of the figures in a hall of horrors.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The poetess accused of murder in Poets And Murder is essentially Yu Xuanji, the famous historical Tang Dynasty poet.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity:
    • In The Chinese Gold Murders, a drunken, Brilliant, but Lazy poet is a lot more than he seems. By the middle of the story, Dee and his lieutenants think that he's a Diabolical Mastermind and behind all the criminal events of the book. He's not.
    • Dee's colleague Lo at first glance seems a carefree man who bought his position, and spends his time on wine, women and poetry. However, on the occasion he and Dee work together the latter is impressed by Lo's competence and intuition.
  • Old Retainer: Hoong Liang, who was already old when Dee was a boy and has served him all his life.
  • One Case at a Time: Played with, as in most full-length novels, Judge Dee tackles three concurrent cases at the same time.
  • OOC Is Serious Business: Judge Dee's behavior in setting up his scheme to take down a gang-rape scam perpetuated by scoundrels posing as monks seemingly involves accepting a large bribe, buying two prostitutes and adding them to his household, and affecting sudden interest in military matters. From his First Lady to Sergeant Hoong, his household is very distressed, though Tao Gan, at least, was certain it was all a clever plan from the beginning.
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: Tang in The Chinese Gold Murders
  • Parental Incest:
    • It's believed by the conspirators of Necklace And Calabash that the Emperor of all people is harboring unnatural feelings for the Third Princess, and could be blackmailed into obedience. Especially since she isn't his daughter.
    • Liu from The Chinese Lake Murders clearly has unnatural feelings for his daughter, to the point of accusing her husband's father of abducting her for his own perverse ends.
  • Passed-Over Promotion:
    • The reason one of the generals in Coffins of the Emperor accuses one of his younger colleagues of treason.
    • Discussed in The Chinese Bell Murders, where a group of high-ranking officials are trying to find an appropriate reward for Dee's work. They decide that a promotion would be premature, and that an official commendation would be better suited to the occasion.
  • Platonic Prostitution: The Judge never accepts anything but information - and perhaps a cup of tea - from a prostitute, and he usually repays them by buying them out of their "unfortunate profession", or arranging for their regular lover to make honest women of them. Ma Joong, on the other hand, is more than happy to ignore the platonic side, and gets the information anyway. Chiao Tai too, though his tend to end in tragic romance instead.
  • Please Put Some Clothes On:
    • Yu-soo, a young Korean prostitute in The Chinese Gold Murders, is urged by a hot and bothered Chao Tai to not remain naked in his presence. Which she declines as she is in the mood to 'receive' him.
    • A similar event happens to the judge in Necklace and Calabash. The girl later apologizes for her attempt at seduction.
  • Plucky Girl: The Judge and his staff frequently encounter these. They usually serve as a love interest for Ma Joong.
  • Poisoned Chalice Switcheroo: At the climax of Murder in Canton, the judge notices the murderer's cup has a slight crack in it, empties it into a box holding go stones, and switches cups before asking for a refill. However, he tells the murderer he put the poisoned tea back in the cup before switching them, causing the murderer to think he was dying.
  • Polar Opposite Twins: Twin sisters Blue-white and Coral in The Willow Pattern. Blue-white is a tough, strong-minded, outspoken Action Girl. Coral is quieter, more subtle, and excels at music and dancing rather than fighting. They play vital, but very different, roles in the book.
  • Police Brutality: By our standards anyway, is the norm in Judge Dee's court where the accused and witnesses can be beaten and tortured to make them talk. The Judge uses such means (it is pretty much required by law), but with discretion.
  • Poor Communication Kills: After the Judge frees a town from a crimelord, three monks enter the yamen asking him to find their precious statue which the crimelord has stolen or at least make him pay what the statue was worth. The Judge smells a rat, so he asks the monks if they spent a lot of time near the statue. When they say they did, the Judge has them sit far away from each other, gives them sheets of paper, and tells each man to draw the statue from memory. Naturally, every drawing is different, and the monks are given a god thrashing by the constables.
    • In The Chinese Lake Murders, a young courtesan tells the Judge that she must speak to him in private about a conspiracy in the town, addressing him as 'Your Honor'. The courtesan's lover, who was present in the same room, was reading her lips, but accidentally misread 'Your Honor' as 'Yung-han', the personal name of one of his rivals. Assuming that the courtesan was sleeping with his rival on the side, the lover became furious and later murdered the courtesan, though his assumption was entirely false.
  • Psychic Powers: Various characters dabble in the occult, a practice of which the Judge strongly disapproves; however, there are indications that he himself is psychic. At least he is extraordinarily sensitive to atmosphere, often sensing evil even before he knows a crime has been committed.
    • He also explains a fortune-teller's Sherlock Scan as her having limited Mind Reading abilities, like most people in her profession.
  • Psycho Lesbian: The Judge is normally sympathetic to lovers, even unconventional ones, but not when their passions lead to murder.
  • Public Execution: The public execution of offenders is often described in detail, because this was an important feature of the original Chinese accounts that inspired van Gulik. One that stands out as particularly grim appears in The Chinese Bell Murders, where the villain is quartered alive by having his limbs pulled apart by four water-buffalo.
  • Real After All: The ending of some stories imply that there was some supernatural influence at work (and in one case, the judge is about to investigate, but decides against it, citing that These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know).
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Judge Dee as a general character trait. Some other imperial officials get a chance to shine in The Chinese Bell Murders: Judge Dee uncovers a rape and blackmail scheme perpetrated by some fake Buddhist monks, and asks those other officials to back him up in lying to the public so the women in question are protected from being Defiled Forever. The officials gladly agree, with the stipulation that the higher authorities are told the true facts.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Ma Jong and Chiao Tai are both big men, but Ma Jong is the more fight-happy one while Chiao Tai thinks more.
  • Reformed Criminal: Ma Joong, Chiao Tai and Tao Gan, to varying degrees.
  • Revenge via Storytelling: In "The Willow Pattern", Ma Joong is told to look through a crack in a wall by a puppeteer named Yuan and sees a naked and bound woman being whipped to death by a man. Furiously, he tries to go for help, but then Yuan shows him it was just done with cutouts. We later learn that this was based on Yuan's own life story (his wife was abducted, raped and whipped to death by a degenerate aristocrat) and this was the only form of revenge he had. The murder is avenged by the end, but the judge tells him off for poisoning his and his daughters' lives by endlessly retelling the story.
  • "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: Ghost sightings in the novels are usually found to conclusively be this. van Gulik notes in the Postscripts to many novels that Judges using this to trick criminals into confessing (making them think they are speaking to the Judge of the Underworld) is common in Chinese crime fiction, but that he prefers to have the Judge show off his deductive prowess.
  • Self-Imposed Exile: In "The Chinese Maze Murders", the judge finds the reason for which a brilliant official voluntarily ended his own metropolitan career and buried himself in a town of the Tartar border, refusing even a request by the Emperor to resume his duties: Yoo Shou-chien discovered that where he had tried to practice exemplary virtue during his life, he had entirely failed to transmit any of those virtues to his eldest son. As said son later commits several murders, including an official magistrate, and plots to create his own satellite kingdom, not to mention despoiling his father's second wife and son of any belongings, you kind of see his point.
  • Shameful Source of Knowledge:
    • Played for Drama in Chinese Nail Murders. The judge is facing a crime that he cannot prove (examinations of the body show no poison and no wounds), so a young woman tells him offhandedly about wives married to abusive husbands, sitting in their rooms repairing their shoes with a hammer and tiny nails, and how easy it is to drive the nail into the skull of a sleeping man... The judge has the body reexamined, finds the nail, and has the victim's wife arrested. The young woman who told him commits suicide to prevent the judge agonizing between his conscience and his duty (she admitted to murdering her husband in front of him, but she had every reason to).
    • In one Fan Sequel (where the judge is looking for the head of a vast conspiracy to send troublemakers and criminals to an out-of-the-way town), a shopkeeper reports Tao Gan's shoplifting to the local judge. This turns out to be a mistake, since Dee deduces that if the shopkeeper caught Tao (a very good thief), he must be a professional himself. And if he can go and report it without caring that this automatically marks him as a criminal as well, then there is a very good chance the man he's looking for is in the town. He's right.
  • Sherlock Scan: One criminal tries this against the judge (as he's traveling incognito with Chiao Tai), explaining why the judge is not a peaceful merchant as he claims. He certainly gets a few points right, like the pair practicing stick-fighting (an activity favored by the lower class), but then he claims the judge's beard was grown to ape his local magistrate. Whoops.
  • Shipper on Deck: The Judge's Third Lady was encouraged to join the family by the Judge's Top Wife.
  • Show Some Leg: In The Chinese Lake Murders, Moon Fairy, a young woman, distracts a rebel who was going to inspect the junk hold where Ma Joong and Chiao Tai were hiding by taking off her shirt and flashing her breasts at him.
  • Show Within a Show: The theater play in The Chinese Gold Murders.
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: Mrs. Kuo, the doctor's wife in The Chinese Nail Murders, is a remarried widow. Her first husband was a notorious Domestic Abuser, before his sudden death. Her second husband, though a hunchback, is also a sweet, supremely loyal man who loves her dearly and has helped her become a literate and educated woman with a very progressive position as a female doctor. (Male doctors are only allowed to take a woman's pulse.) She and Judge Dee, who has been separated from his beloved family for some time, also form a kind of mutually unfulfilled romance. After she ultimately kills herself to spare Dee the pain of having to arrest her for murdering the first husband, Doctor Kuo comes forward to confess, expecting to be executed so that he may loyally follow her in death. Deeply moved, Dee instead puts a recently-orphaned young girl into his care, so that he will have something to live for.
  • Skepticism Failure: The Judge prides himself on not being an impious man, meaning he does not deny the existence of the supernatural, but always looks for a natural explanation first. Usually he finds one. Usually.
  • Smart People Play Chess:
    • One Affably Evil criminal (who views the judge as a Worthy Opponent) asks the judge if he plays chess and is disappointed to learn that he prefers playing dominoes with his wives.
    • In a different story, the judge is familiar enough with it not just to realize his opponent has the mind of a chess player, but the kind of game chess: not Weiqi (where all pieces have the same value) but Tabletop Game/Xiangqi (closer to the Western version of chess with a queen).
    • The sergeant is mentioned as studying chess problems in his spare time.
  • Society Is to Blame: While the Judge fully realizes that Tang China is no Utopia, he never accepts this as an excuse.
  • Spot of Tea: The Judge hits the teapot like Sam Spade hits the bottle. His Lieutenants prefer 'the amber liquid' (ie: wine). A cuppa "bitter tea" is even offered to witnesses and accused in court to lubricate testimony or confession.
  • The Spymaster: Imperial Inquisitor Meng Kee.
  • Stout Strength: A minor case with Judge Dee. He has a desk job and he eats very well (when he's not so busy that he just grabs a couple bowls of rice at his desk), so he does have a bit of excess fat on him, but when Ma Joong sees him getting ready for a fight, he decides that the boss would actually be a very unpleasant customer. A boxing master believes that where the judge's assistants would have difficulty adopting the strenuously ascetic lifestyle needed to become tenth-degree boxers, the judge presents the mental and physical fortitude to do so.
  • The Summation: The Judge is prone to these, usually at the insistence of his bewildered lieutenants. One Big Bad even calls him out on it (before being Out-Gambitted by the judge), leading the judge to realize his days of criminal investigations are over (both because he's been Kicked Upstairs and now has to deal with political issues, and because his methods are by now known to criminals everywhere).
  • Sweet on Polly Oliver: Miss Ting, a young actress, is disturbed by her strong attraction to fellow actress Miss Ou-Yang and asks the judge for advice. He tells her not to make any moves until she is quite sure of her own feelings and Miss Ou-Yang's intentions. He adds that as a free woman her love life is entirely her own business whatever she decides. And, as the trope name implies, Ou-Yang is actually a disguised man.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: The Judge occasionally encounters these, including one who means a great deal to him, but never lets them off. One killed herself to spare him from having to make that decision.
  • Tattooed Crook: One of the victims in The Phantom of the Temple. According to the tattoo artist, ten coins extra would have gotten him the tiger's whiskers (and a different fate).
  • Those Two Guys: Ma Jong and Chiao Tai, though they get more screen-time than is usual, and one story even has them witness a crime and take immediate action while the judge is away.
  • Third-Person Person: Chinese etiquette requires this in court or other formal occasions: "This person begs to report a crime."
  • Three Lines, Some Waiting: Most novels concern a number of crimes that are all dealt with at once, in accordance with the Chinese traditions of crime fiction. Robert van Gulik comments in the postscript to The Chinese Bell Murders that he actually prefers this to "tighter" stories, as it corresponds closer to the toils of operating a court in real life.
  • Token Enemy Minority: As fits the Confucian POV of the original stories, Buddhists and Taoists are generally held in a certain amount of contempt by Dee, and a lot of stories will depict the local monastery as a Corrupt Church. However, there always seems to be at least one good monk who is disgusted by the corrupt behavior of his fellows, if not a broad base of genuinely devout monks unaware of the scoundrels in their midst. Itinerant priests, however, are generally crooks pretending to be actual friars at best.
  • Token Evil Teammate: The tribunal's head constable is almost universally a greedy, lazy, easily-corruptible brute and the constables not much better before the judge's lieutenants whip them into shape. The French translation goes further by calling them "sbires", which has the same negative connotations as "henchmen" or even "mooks".
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Blue-white and Coral from The Willow Pattern are a tough, outspoken fighter and a shy, discreet dancer and musician, respectively. Ma Joong ends up marrying both.
  • Top Wife: The titular character has three wives, the first of whom (aptly named "the First Lady" by the books) is the daughter of his father's Best Friend and generally runs the Judge's household though she delegates certain duties to Second and Third Lady. The other two view her as their 'Elder Sister' and superior, even though Dee himself does his best not to play favorites.
  • Turn in Your Badge:
    • In The Chinese Lake Murders, the judge uncovers a conspiracy to overthrow the Emperor in a town not far from the capital. The Imperial Inquisitor arrives in response to Dee's report, only to reprimand and suspend him for taking so long to uncover the plot (which higher-ups were already aware of). Dee is only reinstated because he deduces the hiding-place where the key to an encrypted list of all participants in the plot is concealed.
    • In The Chinese Nail Murders, the judge's failure to extract a confession from the murderess leads him to publicly declare he'll resign and accept the punishment given to the murderess. Fortunately, someone who already used the exact same method to get rid of her Asshole Victim husband tells him what to look for.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The character Judge Dee is based on the real Di Renjie (c. 630?-c. 700), and most of the plots are from actual Chinese sources, either fiction or real cases recorded for the edification of judges and coroners of the era. The forewords and afterwords of each book are as fascinating as the books, since van Gulik was a noted and respected scholar of Chinese culture. He did the illustrations, too.
  • Wake-Up Call: In The Chinese Maze Murders, a Brilliant, but Lazy painter has been happily sitting on his laurels by creating lurid imagery for Taoist monasteries rather than the elegant landscapes the Confucian administrators prefer, and having an extraordinarily high alcohol tolerance gives him a very good reason to enjoy renting an apartment above a wineshop. But after the girl he fell in love with is murdered, he decides to make something of himself in memory of her, including moving house... which the wineshop owner takes as a personal insult.
    The painter had become a changed man. He had foresworn drinking, a decision which involved him in a bitter quarrel with his landlord, the owner of the Eternal Spring wineshop. The latter took this decision as a reflection on the quality of his stock. All winebibbers of that quarter sadly called this breach the end of a beautiful friendship.
  • Watching the Reflection Undress: The judge's lieutenant Ma Joong is sent to interrogate a girl, who tells him to turn around while she's changing. He complies, and she turns around, clothes dropping to the floor. She then tells him he can turn around now, but he replies that the mirror in front of him does the job just fine. A Sexy Discretion Shot ensues.
  • Why Mao Changed His Name: The books include lots of idiosyncratic romanizations of the characters' names. Curiously some names, chiefly the religious names of monks and the names of courtesans and some other female characters, are translated.
  • The Wicked Stage: Mentioned in a story, where an actress tells the judge he probably thinks actresses are all prostitutes.
  • Wife Husbandry: An unintentional case with Captain Ni, who raised the orphaned daughters of the woman he'd loved, but they fall in love with him. The judge later confirms he's not their father.
  • Wizard Beard:
    • The judge goes undercover as a Fortune Teller where his beard grants him considerable credibility. However, it also makes him recognizable, as a testifying Cheng Pa is horrified to see a soothsayer has been named Imperial judge before the situation is explained to him.
    • Doctor Tsao in the first story is a philosopher with a three-pointed beard, which gives the judge some insecurities. It was actually a fake and the doctor a criminal.
  • The Worf Effect: In a non-combat situation, surprisingly enough. Investigating a monastery where women are granted children by a goddess (staffed by male monks), the judge tells Tao Gan to look for hidden passages, which he does disguised as a carpenter. Once he's satisfied there aren't any, the judge discards that theory... and it turns out there is a passage after all.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Tao Gan pulls one off when followed by a suspect much larger than he is. Passing by a rack of clay jars, he upsets the whole thing onto his pursuer. When the employees come rushing out, the man claims he was attacked. They take one look at the shrimpy Tao Gan and the brawny accuser and decide for themselves what happened. Tao Gan ends his recollection saying that he left as they were breaking a jar on the man's head.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: