Di Renjie or Judge Dee (as he’s better known in Western popular culture) was a Tang Dynasty magistrate first fictionalized in an anonymous 18th-century Chinese detective novel. Dutch diplomat author Robert van Gulik translated and popularized the character in a series of novels beginning in the late 1940s and continuing through the 1960s. The character was picked up by other Western authors and television from the late 1960s. There is something fitting in Qiu Xiaolong, poet and author of the well-received “Inspector Chen” novels, rebooting the character.
In The Shadow of the Empire, Judge Dee is asked to solve the mystery of a murder committed by real-life female poet Yu Xuanji (who lived a century after Di Renjie but for the sake of storytelling the two overlap in this novel). van Gulik also brought these characters together in a 1968 novel called Poets and Murder (or The Fox Magic Murder in US).
The historical Xuanji did kill a maidservant; her story has also been the subject of a number of books, movies and television series in China. In Qiu’s novel, the story opens when Judge Dee is sent away from the capital city of Chang’an (today’s Xian). Empress Wu has yet to choose a successor and it has come down to her nephew, Internal Minister Wu or her son, Prince Li. Dee has expressed a preference for Prince Li; the Empress feels that Dee should be away from Chang’an while the decision is being made.
Dee is not gone very long when he receives a mysterious note at his hostel. The one-sentence note is from the Chinese classic, the Book of Changes: “A high-flying dragon will have something to regret!” Judge Dee is not only confused and curious about this cryptic note, but soon is asked by Minister Wu to look into why Xuanji killed her maidservant, Ning.
Qiu’s rendition is just as approachable and good-natured as his contemporary murder mysteries. He portrays Judge Dee as a serious yet realistic investigator and explains Dee’s role early on:
Dee was no judge. For the moment, however, he had no objection to people addressing him as such. It sounded far less impressive, further away from the center of the imperial power, though he was in no mood to do anything judge-like whatsoever in the midst of the ferocious political infighting around the throne. In the various official positions during his long, checkered official career, Dee had found himself involved, from time to time, in investigations—even when serving as the prime minister or in other high-ranking official positions.
Dee is interested in Xuanji’s case, not just because she’s an unusual murder suspect, but also because he’s a fan of her poetry. Qiu sprinkles her poetry throughout the novel and admits in his author’s note that English translations do not do justice to the original. For instance, a poem that appears in the beginning of the novel is short and causes Judge Dee to think about the area around his hostel.
The crickets chirruping in confusion
by the stone steps, the crystal-clear
dewdrops glistening on the tree leaves in the
mist-enveloped courtyard …
Qiu also weaves in folklore about the black fox spirit that seems to haunt the nunnery where Xuanji was living before she was sent to prison. While few doubt Xuanji’s guilt, some neighbors blame the black fox spirit for overtaking the poet and causing her to murder Ning. Judge Dee is not superstitious and knows there’s another reason for Xuanji resorting to murder. As he explains to a Buddhist monk, Judge Dee jokes:
For the majority of the local folk, they could not help attributing the murder case to the curse of the black fox spirit, as if that alone could have explained all the inexplicable facts in the mystery.
This search for the truth keeps the story moving at a quick pace. Along the way, two more murders take place and Judge Dee eventually visits Xuanji in prison and tries to get her side of the story, to no avail.
At the conclusion of the novel, Qiu includes an appendix of more poetry from Xuanji as well as some from other poets she knew, such as Wen Tingyun, Han Shan and Wu Zetian. Qiu adds to this list a quick note about Judge Dee.