Xu Yuanbai (1892-1957), Orchids and Rock. 85 x 33 cm (33½ x 13 in). Estimate HK$12,000-15,000. A portrait of Robert van Gulik, 1940. Guo Morou (1892-1978), Couplet Calligraphy. Each

The detective fiction writer who ‘did more than any other Westerner to bridge the cultural divide between Asia and Europe’

Robert van Gulik, author of the Judge Dee mysteries, enjoyed a diplomatic career that spanned continents. Yet his passion lay in the art and culture of China, and now his remarkable collection of paintings and calligraphy comes to Christie’s

From childhood, Robert van Gulik (1910-1967) was immersed in the art, language and culture of Asia. Growing up in present-day Jakarta, he learned Malay and Javanese, later becoming fluent in Chinese and Japanese as well as Tibetan and Sanskrit. At the age of 25, he joined the Dutch diplomatic service and travelled extensively through China, where he was known as Gao Luopei, and set a path to becoming one of the most accomplished sinologists of the 20th century.

‘Singularly talented, strikingly adventurous and remarkably charismatic, Van Gulik was a true polymath,’ says Dr Man Kung, a specialist in the Chinese Paintings department at Christie’s. ‘His collection reflects the unique qualities of this exceptional figure, who did more than any other Westerner to bridge the cultural divide between Asia and Europe in the mid-20th century.’

Works from Van Gulik’s collection are to be offered at Christie’s in a dedicated online sale, On Wings of Song: Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy from the Collection of Robert van Gulik, from 18 November to 2 December.

Robert van Gulik with his wife Shi-Fang in Chongqing in 1946. Courtesy of the Van Gulik family

Robert van Gulik with his wife Shi-Fang in Chongqing in 1946. Courtesy of the Van Gulik family

In 1943, Van Gulik married Shui Shi-Fang, the daughter of a Qing dynasty imperial mandarin, and was assigned to the Dutch embassy in China, then based in the temporary wartime capital Chongqing. The city had become an extraordinary melting pot of refugee intellectuals, foreign correspondents and political and military figures from across China and the Allied powers; Van Gulik was quickly absorbed into its cultural and political milieu.

Through his mastery of the seven-stringed qin — an ancient instrument revered by literati — Van Gulik was introduced to the city’s pre-eminent scholars. He also joined the Tianfeng Qin Society, which met to celebrate the instrument through performance and discussion. 

‘In Chongqing, Van Gulik was widely accepted by Chinese intellectuals,’ affirms Dr Kung. ‘Being recognised as one of their own was what made him truly special.’

Robert van Gulik, left, watching an acquaintance play the qin. Beiping (present day Beijing), 1946. Courtesy of the Van Gulik family

Robert van Gulik, left, watching an acquaintance play the qin. Beiping (present day Beijing), 1946. Courtesy of the Van Gulik family

In 2014, in recognition of his contribution to the city, more than 100 works from his collection were donated to Chongqing’s Three Gorges Museum. Today they are on display in an exhibition room named in his honour.

Collection highlights

During his diplomatic postings from the 1930s to the 1960s, Van Gulik amassed a significant collection of modern Chinese calligraphy — much of it received as gifts from leading scholars, artists and politicians — in addition to classical paintings, calligraphic scrolls and albums, and collectors’ seals, from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

‘The sale will appeal to collectors interested in the qin, and Chinese music generally,’ notes Dr Kung. ‘It also offers a rare opportunity for collectors interested in Chinese literature and culture, as well as 20th-century Chinese history.’

Scholars and officials

The first section of the sale comprises works by important scholars and government officials, such as the poet and calligrapher Shen Yinmo (1883-1971), the politician Chen Lifu (1900-2001), and Guo Moruo (1892-1978), a radical poet, politician and author who also translated Goethe, Schiller and Tolstoy. Guo’s Couplet Calligraphy  is one of many works in the sale personally dedicated to Van Gulik.

Shen Yinmo (1883-1971), Poems in Running Script Calligraphy. 140.5 x 24.7 cm (55¼ x 9¾ in). Estimate HK$50,000-70,000. Offered in
On Wings of Song Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy from the Collection of Robert van Gulik, 18 November to 2 December 2020, Online

Shen Yinmo (1883-1971), Poems in Running Script Calligraphy. 140.5 x 24.7 cm (55¼ x 9¾ in). Estimate: HK$50,000-70,000. Offered in On Wings of Song: Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy from the Collection of Robert van Gulik, 18 November to 2 December 2020, Online

The Tianfeng Qin Society

The second grouping centres on Van Gulik’s musical circle in Chongqing, whom he cultivated for their knowledge, and who in turn appreciated his connoisseurship. 

Offered for sale are works gifted to Van Gulik by fellow members of the Tianfeng Qin Society, including its president, Xu Yuanbai (1892-1957), below left, the musician Xu Wenjing (1895-1975), and military leader Feng Yuxiang (1882-1948), below right.

Xu Yuanbai (1892-1957), Orchids and Rock. 85 x 33 cm (33½ x 13 in). Estimate HK$12,000-15,000. Offered in On Wings of Song Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy from the Collection of Robert van Gulik, 18 November to 2 December 2020, Online

Xu Yuanbai (1892-1957), Orchids and Rock. 85 x 33 cm (33½ x 13 in). Estimate: HK$12,000-15,000. Offered in On Wings of Song: Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy from the Collection of Robert van Gulik, 18 November to 2 December 2020, Online

Feng Yuxiang (1882-1948), Clerical Script Calligraphy. 59 x 31.3 cm (23¼ x 12⅝ in). Estimate HK$10,000-15,000. Offered in On Wings of Song Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy from the Collection of Robert van Gulik, 18 November to 2 December 2020, Online

Feng Yuxiang (1882-1948), Clerical Script Calligraphy. 59 x 31.3 cm (23¼ x 12⅝ in). Estimate: HK$10,000-15,000. Offered in On Wings of Song: Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy from the Collection of Robert van Gulik, 18 November to 2 December 2020, Online

Travels to the Netherlands, the United States and across Asia

Finally, the sale features a small but notable grouping of academically significant classical works, mostly acquired in Japan. These include historic imperial edicts from as early as the 16th century, which record official proclamations in exquisite script.

Donggao Xinyue (Tōkō Shin’etsu, 1639-1696), Correspondence. 25.5 x 43.5 cm (10 x 17⅛ in). Estimate HK$8,000-12,000. Offered in On Wings of Song Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy from the Collection of Robert van Gulik, 18 November to 2 December 2020, Online

Donggao Xinyue (Tōkō Shin’etsu, 1639-1696), Correspondence. 25.5 x 43.5 cm (10 x 17⅛ in). Estimate: HK$8,000-12,000. Offered in On Wings of Song: Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy from the Collection of Robert van Gulik, 18 November to 2 December 2020, Online

A fascinating moment in the history of Buddhism is documented in several calligraphy scrolls by senior monks of the Zen Ōbaku sect — monastic émigrés who left southeastern coastal China for Japan in the mid-17th century. These include the Buddhist monk Donggao Xinyue (Tōkō Shin’etsu, 1639-1696), whose writings Van Gulik actively collected, and the Ōbaku Zen master Muan Xingtao (Mokuan Shōtō, 1611-1684).

Van Gulik returned to the Netherlands in April 1946, where he worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague before taking up diplomatic postings in the United States and across Asia. Works acquired at that time include Rural Village Life, a painting by Singaporean artist Seah-Kim Joo, which will be offered on 3 December in the Modern and Contemporary Art Morning Session at Christie’s in Hong Kong; and Ghost Amusement (1749), below, by the Qianlong period artist Luo Ping, which was bought in Macau.

With Signature of Luo Ping, Ghost Amusement. Dated summer, jisi year of the Qianlong period (1749). Album of twelve leaves, ink on paper. Estimate HK$40,000-60,000. Offered in On Wings of Song Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy from the Collection of Robert van Gulik, 18 November to 2 December 2020, Online

With Signature of Luo Ping, Ghost Amusement. Dated summer, jisi year of the Qianlong period (1749). Album of twelve leaves, ink on paper. Estimate: HK$40,000-60,000. Offered in On Wings of Song: Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy from the Collection of Robert van Gulik, 18 November to 2 December 2020, Online

Throughout his career, Van Gulik continued to publish translations, scholarly works and fiction. ‘Perhaps his most popular writing was the Judge Dee mysteries,’ says Dr Kung. Van Gulik borrowed his protagonist from Ming dynasty detective stories, themselves based on a real magistrate of the earlier Tang dynasty.

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A series of novels depicting the exploits of a Sherlock Holmes of ancient China might seem a prosaic pastime for such a gifted scholar, but they serve to ‘illuminate Van Gulik’s extraordinary knowledge of historical detail, revealing his talent as a gifted storyteller in addition to his formidable intellect,’ says Dr Kung.