China’s Sherlock Holmes

Di Renjie, garbed in an elegant official gown, whip in hand, walks across the Chinese countryside. (Taste of Life)
Di Renjie, garbed in an elegant official gown, whip in hand, walks across the Chinese countryside. (Taste of Life)

What if Sherlock Holmes was appointed to be a top advisor to a tyrannical queen? There would, of course, be the twists and turns of all Holmes stories: he’d moderate the monarch’s temper, uphold justice, and solve no shortage of puzzles. And there would be a stunning end, an astonishing unexpected revelation.

All that and more happened during China’s Tang dynasty under the watch of an earnest, intelligent official, Di Renjie. His exploits are famous in Chinese culture, partly because of a “Judge Dee” series of novels by an anonymous 18th century author, translated into English in the 1940s.

Before ascending Tang bureaucracy ranks, Di gained a taste of the system’s underbelly. Di, after completing the imperial exam in 656 AD, so impressed his superiors they immediately appointed him Secretary of Bian prefecture. But a jealous colleague framed him on trumped-up charges and Di was thrown in jail.

Empress Wu Zetian usurped the throne, set up a system of spies and secret police, and killed or exiled anyone she saw as a threat. She is suspected of even killing two of her own children to advance her ambitions. Nevertheless, she was a capable administrator of the state. Her rule ended in a coup, engineered by Di Renjie, and the Tang Dynasty was restored. Image taken from An 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes. Originally published/produced in China, 18th century. (Taste of Life)

Empress Wu Zetian usurped the throne, set up a system of spies and secret police, and killed or exiled anyone she saw as a threat. She is suspected of even killing two of her own children to advance her ambitions. Nevertheless, she was a capable administrator of the state. Her rule ended in a coup, engineered by Di Renjie, and the Tang Dynasty was restored. Image taken from An 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes. Originally published/produced in China, 18th century. (Taste of Life)

A chance meeting with Yan Liben, Minister of Public Works, led to Di’s freedom. Yan recognized Di’s superlative mind. Believing Di innocent, Yan cleared the charges and promoted him.

Years later, Di was again framed and imprisoned. Inexplicably, he pleaded guilty. Day in and day out, he could be seen mumbling and gesturing oddly in his cell. After months of softening the guards’ watch over him, he saw his opportunity. His clothes, a letter of redress in the lining, went home for washing. His plea restored him to the chancellorship.

In one tale, he investigates a bride’s poisoning; in another, he exposes the murderer of a “strange corpse” in a quiet village. Yet others involve supernatural intervention, guidance from dreams, and Di disguising himself as a doctor. His deductions depend on subtle clues and careful interrogations.

Di’s true light shone brightest at the end of his career.

After years as a magistrate, he was chosen as chancellor to the mercurial Wu Zetian, one of the most controversial figures in Chinese history. Originally a concubine to the emperor Taizong, one of the Tang Dynasty’s founders, Wu installed herself as Empress after the death of Taizong’s son. This was an unprecedented act in China. She called her reign the “Zhou Dynasty,” and sought to have her nephew installed as the next monarch, rather than the crown prince (her real son) whom she had exiled.

Di is remembered as the wise and careful advisor who tempered the dangerous Empress, and she respected him enormously, calling him, simply, “State Elder” — even after he turned against her. Early in Wu’s reign, Di accepted her ascension: there was no better alternative. Foreign invaders threatened, and China needed stability. But Di and many of his fellow Mandarins considered Wu’s reign fundamentally illegitimate. He patiently strengthened the bureaucracy, recruiting and promoting upright officials loyal to the Tang Dynasty and the Empire. For years, they disguised their true feelings, and quietly served the usurper.

On February 20 in 705 AD, heavily-armed troops surrounded the Empress’s Palace of Eternal Life, in the Tang capital of Chang’an. The palace gates squeaked open, and, slowly, the frail, sickly 82-year-old walked out. Calmly surveying the scene, she knew she had no choice. With a few strokes of her brush, she signed the abdication edict and resigned. She tottered back inside, drained, and sat, closing her eyes.

Five years had already passed since Di had breathed his last. But before he died, he made sure that all arrangements were in place for a military coup that would restore the Tang. The Empress did not suspect a thing. It was so brilliant and delicate a dance that even she could not help but admire it.

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