Friday, June 26, 2015

Target Audience for Judge Dee

Some time ago, I wondered about the existence of detective stories in Chinese literature.
Many friends told me that they were fans of the Judge Dee stories, rather like being fans of Agatha Christie, or of "the cat who" series, or of Nero Wolfe. You get the picture. I looked into this and soon discovered that there were more than two dozen Judge Dee stories from the clever pen of Robert van Gulik. I discovered among them The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, published in 1949 by Dover Press, that he did not write but translated from an eighteenth century edition published in vernacular Chinese.

I learned also that there was a historical Judge Dee, a Di Renjie, who served the Tang Empire in the seventh century. His title was not literally a judge and certainly not a judge in the same way that Rumpole of the Bailey or Judge Judy were "judges." You might be closer to the truth to compare his position to that of judges under the Napoleonic Code/Continental System who often served as prosecutor, judge and jury. His real position was that of an imperial official much like the thousand or so men with whom the English boasted they ruled India. They represented the Empire and fixed whatever was broken--fences, water supplies, domestic situations, as well as actual crimes against society or the state.

The Celebrated Cases impressed me enough to lead to the adaptation that I wrote and published as The Ingenious Judge Dee, a Play (this is described more fully in the tab for Books in this blog). Despite the eighteenth century "original" that van Gulik worked with, I chose to set the play in the seventh century. There isn't anything that is historically linked to that time in the play, but it seems a fitting tribute to the historical person. I imagined him as lean and athletic unlike the figure on the left, but his clothing might have looked similar. (This is a genuine Tang dynasty artifact, excavated in Xi-an, the capital of the Tang Empire and its image has been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.)

Then the thought intruded: Who would make up the "target market"?

Much of a writer's motivation, I believe, is internal. At least mine is. I write because something has piqued my interest or challenged my understanding or demands resolution between conflicting ideas or beliefs. This is very different from the writer who scopes out a target audience and develops a formula to appeal to it. Nevertheless, as a writer, I am grateful to be read even if I do not set out with an audience in mind; the main purpose of writing, I find it necessary to remind myself, is to be read. Reviews, even negative ones, are gratifying indications that one's work is making some sort of impression.

I imagine that the audience for this play will be those who are curious as I was about Chinese "detective" stories. No doubt, there will be fans of Judge Dee. (A video game has recently been released, I understand, but this runs outside the limits of my activities.) I hope also that those who are interested in Asian plays will look for my take on Judge Dee. Fans who have experienced a performance have one more aspect of the Judge Dee experience to share.

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