We do not know who wrote "The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee", but the anonymous author of this Eighteenth Century Chinese detective novel gives us a great insight into the way in which the criminal justice system worked in the country at that time. The novel is based very loosely on the short stories of Di-Renjie, a county court magistrate and statesman of the Tang Court in the years between 630 and 700. An anomaly in the novel is that it's cultural settings and details are from a much later dynasty than the Tang. The book was only published in Chinese until a Dutch diplomat by the name of Robert van Gulik was indulging his passion for old books and came across a copy in a used bookstore in Tokyo. He translated the novel into English and used it as the springboard for his own series of fictional detective novels about Judge Dee. The original translation was a small run of only twelve hundred numbered and signed editions, published privately by Van Gulik. The originals are accompanied by nine drawings including three copies of original Chinese art.
The Judge Dee book is actually only half the size of the original Chinese version and contains only half of the chapters and cases. Can Gulik's translation concentrates on three cases that Judge Dee was solving all at the same time which earned him promotion to the Imperial Court. Judge Dee is all things to all people in his crime solving; he is lead investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury - something that in the West would be seen as grossly overstepping his boundaries and also as a miscarriage of justice waiting to happen. His methods are unorthodox to say the least- he tortures suspects until they give him the answers he wants and exhumes a corpse before actually ascertaining the deceased was murdered.
All three cases are illuminating from the perspective of social anthropology as they show the way in which different classes of people lived and were treated. Traders embody the spirit of adventure, traveling cross country at considerable danger to themselves. Shopkeepers by contrast rarely leave the confined world of their village. Landowners are the "landed gentry" who see themselves as superior and expect to be treated as such. The reason for enlightening the reader as to these distinct classes of people is to show how difficult it was for Judge Dee to assume disguises and identities in the course of his investigations and to explain why some disguises were more successful than others.
The current publication of the novel is true to the original translation and is the most popular of the early Chinese Gong'an detective fictions.