On Wings of Song: Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy from the Collection of Robert van Gulik
Collector, connoisseur, diplomat, historian, polyglot, world traveller, musician of the guqin, lover of gibbons and widely popular author, Robert Hans van Gulik (1910-1967) was a true virtuoso and preeminent force behind the expansion of scholarship and appreciation of Asian art, history culture in the twentieth century. Born in Zutphen, the Netherlands in 1910 to a physician father in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, and a mother from a family of musicians and piano manufacturers, Robert van Gulik moved to Java at the age of four. He attended elementary school in Surabaya and present-day Jakarta where he learned Malay and Javanese. After returning to the Netherlands in 1923, he took lessons in Mandarin and Cantonese, and wrote poems and stories based on his childhood memories from Asia. His writings appeared in the scholarly magazine China, published by the Dutch Chinese Culture Association. In 1928, he entered Leiden University to study politics and law, in addition to Chinese and Japanese language and culture, later transferring to Utrecht University and adding Tibetan and Sanskrit to his impressive repertoire. A relentless scholar, practising calligrapher and exceptional linguist, he wrote his master’s thesis on Mi Fu and inkstones, and his doctoral dissertation on the horse cult in Northeast Asia.
In 1935, the 25-year-old van Gulik joined the Dutch diplomatic service. He was first stationed in Tokyo and travelled extensively to China, where he was known by his Chinese name Gao Luopei. He pursued his scholarly interests during this period, which focussed on the Chinese artistic and literary traditions. While on a trip to Beijing in 1936, he met the renowned guqin master Ye Shimeng (1863-1937), who taught him to play the ancient Chinese musical instrument, and led to a life-long fascination. In 1941, he translated and published Hsi K’ang and His Poetical Essay on the Lute, and wrote The Lore of the Chinese Lute: An Essay on the ldeology of the Ch’in – the primary published English language source for guqin history and ideology, a testimony to van Gulik’s intimate knowledge on the subject. Later, still in Japan, he actively collected the writings by the Buddhist monk Donggao Xinyue (Tōkō Shin‘etsu, 1639-1696), a well-known qin master. The Obaku Zen master, Mu’an Xingtao (Mokuan Shōtō, 1611-1684), was another figure who captured his imagination, whose calligraphy van Gulik also collected. In 1944, he published The Ch’an Master Tung-Kao: a Loyal Monk of the End of the Ming Period.
Van Gulik was assigned to the Dutch Embassy in China in 1943, then located in Chongqing, which brought him into close contact with powerful political, cultural and artistic figures active in the temporary capital at the time. He joined and helped organise the Chongqing Tianfeng Qin Society, which met frequently for performance and discussion. The president of the Society was the master Xu Yuanbai (1893-1957), with Xu Wenjing (1895-1975), Yang Shaowu (1894-1959), Feng Yuxiang (1882-1948), and others as members. Van Gulik was also acquainted with Wu Zhihui (1865-1953), Dong Zuobin (1895-1963), Shen Yinmo (1883-1971), Guo Moruo (1892-1978), and Ma Heng (1881-1955), Xu Shiying (1873-1964), Wang Pengsheng (1893-1946), Zheng Manqing (1902-1975), Chen Fang (1898-1962) and others, many of whom gifted and directly dedicated paintings and calligraphy to him.
It was in Chongqing that van Gulik met Shui Shifang (1919-2005), known as Frances, the daughter of a diplomat. After graduating from Cheeloo University in 1940, she worked in the Dutch Embassy. Van Gulik fell in love with her at first sight and the couple married on 18 December 1943 in Chongqing, celebrated with both a Christian ceremony and traditional Chinese wedding. Van Gulik adopted the studio name The Ode to Moon Pavilion soon after and asked Wu Jingheng for his calligraphy. Lot 1725 is such a gift to van Gulik and Shui Shifang from their Chinese friends.
Van Gulik returned to the Netherlands in April 1946, where he worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Hague before postings to the United States, Japan, India, Malaysia and other countries. He also stayed in Hong Kong and Macau briefly between postings, meeting with friends such as Xu Wenjing, Rao Zongyi, Xiao Lisheng and others, with whom he played the guqin and composed poetry. In Macau, he acquired GhostAmusementby the Qing artist Luo Ping (Lot 1744).
Throughout his distinguished diplomatic career spanning four decades, van Gulik continued to publish impeccably researched scholarly writing, including Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Period (1951), Chinese Pictorial Art as Viewed by the Connoisseur (1958), Sexual Life in Ancient China (1961) and The Gibbon in China (1967). His perhaps most popular writing – the Judge Dee mysteries with a protagonist borrowed from early Chinese detective novels – unequivocally reveals his talents as a gifted storyteller in addition to his formidable intellect. Hailed as the Dutch Mandarin by many, van Gulik passed away on 24 September 1967 in the Hague. As his wife recalled: he was really Chinese.