Born in Zutphen, the Netherlands, on August 9, 1910, to Willem Jacabus van Gulik, a physician, and his wife, Bertha de Ruiter, Robert Hans van Gulik displayed an interest in Asian language and culture as a boy. The Chinese inscriptions on his father’s collection of porcelain intrigued him, and he started studying Chinese in the Chinatown section of Batavia, Java, where his father was serving in the Dutch army. Back in the Netherlands for his college education, van Gulik took up law and languages at the University of Leiden, adding Japanese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Russian to his list of languages. His thesis, Hayagriva: The Mantrayanic Aspect of Horse-Cult in China and Japan, won for him a doctoral degree with honors from the University of Utrecht in 1935. His entry into the Netherlands Foreign Service led to postings in China, India, and Japan. In Chung-king, China, in 1943 he met and married Shui Shih-Fang, with whom he had three sons and a daughter.
Van Gulik’s career as a diplomat flourished, bringing him many awards and honors. Despite the constant moves—which took him to Washington, D.C., the Middle East, Malaysia, Japan, and Korea—van Gulik continued his scholarly activities, researching, translating, editing, and writing. He was a skilled calligrapher—a rare talent for a Westerner—and had some of the other preoccupations of a traditional Chinese gentleman, collecting rare books, scroll paintings, musical instruments, and art objects. Of the breed of scholars who found meaning in small, esoteric subjects, he wrote, for example, two monographs on the ancient Chinese lute, which he himself played, and translated a famous text on ink stones. A talented linguist, historian, and connoisseur, van Gulik published scholarly articles on a variety of topics about traditional Chinese life, ranging from Chinese classical antiquity (c. 1200 b.c.e.-200 c.e.) to the end of the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911 c.e.). It was through his mysteries about Judge Dee that van Gulik popularized the specialized knowledge of Chinese life he had gained. Having finally obtained the post of ambassador from the Netherlands to Japan in 1965, he died two years later of cancer in his homeland, on September 24, 1967.