In 1949, while posted in Tokyo, Robert van Gulik published a translation titled Dee Goong An: Three Murder Cases Solved by Judge Dee in a limited edition of twelve hundred copies. In 1976, Dover Publications Inc. published a mass-market paperback edition, making this book accessible to the general public.
In the afterword to his translation, Van Gulik noted that his translation covered the first thirty chapters of a Chinese book entitled Four Great Strange Cases of the Reign of Empress Wu. These chapters deal with the early part of Judge Dee’s career as a district magistrate, when he solved crimes and punished criminals. He did not translate the remaining thirty-four chapters that deal with a later part of Dee’s career as a statesman at the imperial court in the capital.
The present book is a translation of the second part of the Chinese novel, describing how Governor Dee rids the court of Empress Wu Zetian of treacherous officials and how he convinces the Empress to keep her own son as the crown prince, instead of replacing him with her nephew, Wu Chengsi. Although the various plots in these chapters are fictional, the general setting does reflect the corruption, strife and degeneration at the Tang court during Empress Wu’s reign. Quite a number of the characters in this novel are historical figures. The author has woven into his storylines numerous events that can be traced back to the historical records in the Old Tang History.
The present story is not a detective story, but a story about perverse behaviour and power struggles at the imperial court. Readers who expect to find another Judge Dee story here are going to be disappointed; readers ready to see a ruthless and diabolically clever Governor Dee who finds inventive solutions to knotty problems should brace themselves for the offensive in which Governor Dee chastises his adversaries.
Setting the stage
At the age of fourteen, a young lady known to us by the name Wu Zetian was selected as an imperial concubine of the lowly sixth rank at the court of Emperor Taizong. After the death of Taizong in 649, she entered a Buddhist nunnery at the age of twenty-seven. In 652 the new emperor, Gaozong, re-installed his father’s concubine at his court, and she was soon promoted to a concubine of the third rank. Subsequently, in 655, she became empress. She wielded far more power than the weak emperor. When the emperor fell ill in 660, Wu Zetian gained an even firmer grip on the handling of state affairs.
Politics at court were not for the faint-hearted. The Empress was ruthless and her biography in the Old Tang History is riddled with the names of statesmen and family members who were killed on her orders. In 683 Emperor Gaozong died and Emperor Zhongzong, Wu Zetian’s third son, ascended the throne. In 684, she instructed the palace guard to drag Zhongzong physically from the throne and forced him to abdicate after he had occupied the throne for a mere fifty-four days. She then installed her fourth son, known as Emperor Ruizong, although he was immediately held incommunicado and all power rested firmly in the hands of his mother. Zhongzong was banished and granted the title of ‘Prince of Luling’. An attempt by officials loyal to the Tang imperial family to remove the empress from power was easily quashed in 684. In reprisal, many branches of the imperial family were decimated, scholars and officials loyal to the Tang imperial family exiled or killed and replaced by officials loyal to Wu Zetian. She set up a secret service headed by three infamous directors who established a system that was in truth a reign of terror, not least because of the extensive use of informers, the utilization of specialized torture chambers, and a gruesome treatise, written by her most infamous henchman, on the rationale of extracting false confessions. In 690, she had Ruizong abdicate, after which she personally took over the throne, and established a new dynasty called Zhou. After this coup, she became the only woman ever to be emperor of China.
What had happened previously
In his capacity as district magistrate, Dee Jen-djieh had solved three baffling crimes in the Changping district. He had sent reports about these investigations to his superior, Governor Yen Lee-ben. The governor was greatly impressed by the boldness and perspicacity these reports revealed and decided that Dee was too capable a man to continue slogging away in a remote northern district. He thought that the empire was in need of strong administrators and he recommended Dee for promotion. Empress Wu, in her turn, was anxious to strengthen the governance of the state, and she had Dee promoted and appointed Governor of Henan province, as well as Grand Counsellor at the imperial court. Upon hearing the news of his promotion, Dee left his post in Changping, and paid a visit to Governor Yen. They discussed court politics and agreed that, after the demotion and banishment of the previous emperor, Zhongzong, the situation at court was dire and that Empress Wu’s favourites had to be removed from power. These favourites included the corrupt official Wu Sansi, his brother Wu Chengye and their cousin Wu Chengsi, all three nephews of the empress, and the very handsome Zhang Changzong (one of the empress’s many lovers). They were fully aware that, with so many dishonest officials present in the highest echelons of power, their struggle to purge the court would be arduous and fraught with danger.