An Evaluation of Robert Van Gulik's the Gibbon in China and Its Place in Modern Sinological Discourse

By Ye, Shi; Heule, Freerk | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

An Evaluation of Robert Van Gulik's the Gibbon in China and Its Place in Modern Sinological Discourse


Ye, Shi, Heule, Freerk, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


It is a challenge to give a brief overview of Robert van Gulik's (hereafter RvG) records because he is an extraordinarily multi-talented Dutch sinologist. His career combines outstanding achievements in three areas, "[a]ny-one of which would have sufficed to distinguish an ordinary person: a diplomat who served on important posts as a Netherlands envoy; a sinologue scholar, one with extraordinarily wide-ranging interests and knowledge; and an author-artist, creator of the immensely popular Judge Dee novels and the illustrations for them." (2)

In The Gibbon in China (hereafter TGIC), RvG starts his account from the earliest traditions of Chinese culture. Traditional Chinese culture in this sense means both the ancient and the classical cultures from the Shang to the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912. An institution important to the continuation of high cultural standards was the examination system (keju). The abolition of this system was effectuated in 1905 (Franke 1972).

Throughout his life, RvG had as his personal goal participation in the classical Chinese traditions. That is why he explores them in extenso. In traditional Chinese culture, the gibbon is considered the gentleman in the animal kingdom. Its image is similar to traditional Chinese scholar-officials (shidaifu). These scholar-officials were civil servants appointed by the emperor of China to perform day-to-day governance from the Han Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, China's last imperial dynasty. These officials mostly came from the well-educated men known as scholar-gentry (shi). These men had earned academic degrees by passing the rigorous imperial examinations and were trained in both calligraphy and the Confucian texts.

Since only a small fraction of them could become court officials, the majority of the scholar-gentry stayed in local villages or cities as social leaders. The scholar-gentry carried out social welfare measures, taught in private schools, helped decide minor legal disputes, supervised community projects, maintained local law and order, conducted Confucian ceremonies, assisted in the government's collection of taxes, and preached Confucian moral teachings. As a class, these scholars represented morality and virtue. Although they received no official salary and were not government officials, their contributions and cooperation were much needed by the district magistrate in governing local areas and receiving contributions from the imperial dynasty (Weber 1951 and Chan 2000).

RvG takes the position, after his analyses of the classical books and paintings on the gibbon, that the gibbon is depicted as taking a moral leadership position, metaphorically comparable to that of the recluse (yinshi), among the monkey clans and other animals in its forest canopy habitat in the remote mountainous areas. The gibbon is a lesser ape while monkeys are lower on the hierarchical ladder of primates; hence, gibbons (yuan) are not monkeys (hou) (TGIC 33). RvG chooses the gibbon because the animal has been an example of the shidaifu expressed throughout Chinese history in both art and literature. The gibbon also caters to the aesthetic taste of the Chinese scholar-official with Taoist beliefs; thus, the gibbon represents a kind of simplified society that he highly values. During the many years of RvG's professional life he is interested in and gains access to books, paintings, artifacts as well as the real animal (in and around his home). Furthermore, he joins the elite class that shares these ideas and actual pleasures with him. Among the scholar gentry it was not customary to criticize openly the political system of the moment; however, by setting the good example of the gibbon, RvG takes the opportunity to give his opinion of a better society in just the same way other literati did in the Chinese tradition that he idolizes.

TGIC is the first Western monograph that studies the ancient Chinese gibbon culture cross-disciplinarily by researching literature, history, zoology and art. …

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