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The Chinese movie “Detective Dee” and the Ban-Ki-moon advisory panel report

by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

The most ubiquitous and striking poster along the boulevards of Paris these Spring days is of a movie called ‘Detective Dee’, the full title of which is ‘Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame’. It was made in China, directed by Tsui Hark and starring Andy Lau, with fight sequences by Sammo Hung. I saw and loved it as it came out in Singapore last year. Between then and its appearance in Paris cinemas it has picked up critical acclaim and awards at Western film festivals.

The movie belongs to a genre which I am a convert to: wuxia, which denotes Chinese historical martial romances with central characters who are either scholar-officials/scholar-monk who are pushed to deal with or deploy violence or warriors who evolve into scholars/scholar-monks. The best known film of this genre was of course, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, but several others of high quality followed, including another personal favourite, ‘Hero’, starring Jet Li.

Detective Dee is solidly within the tradition. The hero actually existed: the legendary magistrate (or minister of state) and intellectual Di Ren Jie who lived during the Tang Dynasty. He could solve the most complicated cases with the use of what would be known centuries later as forensic psychology. In the 1930s he was reworked as the hero of the ‘Judge Dee’ series of detective novels set in ancient China, by the Dutch diplomat Robert Van Gulik, and later became the central character of films made in Hollywood and Hong Kong.

In the current movie he has spent eight years in prison on the orders of Empress Wu Ze Tian, (again a real historical figure) whose late husband, the Emperor, he faithfully served as an advisor. Judge Dee had been exiled and jailed after the Emperor’s death for dissenting against his spouse’s succession to the throne as China’s first Empress and questioning her unethical methods. As the lavish coronation of the Empress nears, the arrangements and procedures are interrupted by a series of mysterious, violent deaths, which involve the spontaneous combustion of a number of officials.

In a wise move, the Empress orders the release from prison of Detective Dee and his re-instatement as an Imperial Judge. He accepts not only because it gets him out of custody, but because he is drawn to the challenge, and also because his attitude to the Machiavellian yet charming Empress in distress is ambivalently dualistic, as is hers to him.

Detective Dee uncovers a plot which is being hatched to topple the gigantic Bodhisattva statue bearing the face of the soon-to-be Empress that is being cast in bronze for the coronation, onto the royal stage. The plot and the series of strange deaths is the work of his former right hand man and friend, who cannot understand why Detective Dee, having advised against the coronation eight years before and been jailed by the Empress, would want to derail the plan to destroy her and her project of rule.

In the pivotally defining line of the movie Detective Dee admonishes his former colleague, saying: "It is not only the Empress that would be destroyed". This is why he sides, not with his former co-thinker who is taking to the next level of intensity the views they once shared, but with his former persecutor, the ruler whom he does not trust or fully agree with even while he assists her. When Detective Dee says "but it is not just her that would be destroyed" he means that the act would go beyond harming the ruler to damaging the state itself.

His broadness of vision is able to see the Empress against the backdrop of the interests of China; to assess her objective role in the context of China’s need at the time; to weigh her rule against the alternative, which is a weaker China. What would be the impact on China? Would it strengthen China or help the domestic forces of division and dissolution, and aid the external forces that wish to break in? That is Judge Dee’s broader criterion. The hero’s loyalty to China outweighs his misgivings and opposition to the immediate experiment in rulership. His need to avoid the weakening of China outweighs his objections to the further entrenchment and exaltation of the ruler.

Having helped defeat the conspiracy, Detective Dee declines the offer of the Empress to remain at the palace as her Counsellor. With his task accomplished, his duty by his country done, his body infected by the same potentially deadly poison used for the killings by internal combustion, he walks away from the salvaged power centre of the kingdom, inner equilibrium and integrity intact, to self-exile in a watery netherworld of light and shadow.

What in the world does a magistrate who lived in China around 690 AD have to do with Sri Lanka’s collective response to the adversarial report of the UN SG’s Advisory Panel (going by its executive summary which appeared in the media)? Quite a bit, actually.

For those who think that the external trends and forces which gather threateningly on the far horizon will target and weaken only the incumbent administration, the best reminder comes from the Chinese magistrate-detective of 690 AD: it is not only the administration that is being threatened; it is our collective victory over decades of secessionist terrorism, and the Sri Lankan state itself, that stand in danger of being de-legitimised, undermined and dismantled. If the effort succeeds, we would as a nation, all of us, be defeated and diminished in some essential or existential sense.

As a society, as conscious citizens, our attitude and response must transcend the issues of domestic governance. It should not be partisan or ideological. It is gratifying that some younger personalities of the democratic opposition have shown signs of thinking along broader patriotic lines. In political theory, ‘high politics’ classically pertains to state and national sovereignty. In exceptional times and extreme situations, ‘high politics’ must be the higher criterion, and on issues of high politics, we must stand together.


Hello well educated doctor.

Sorry, but it's too late to save your master and the war criminal.

Every dog has it's day!

Posted by: Arul Sittampalam | April 18, 2011 09:59 PM

I am from the Song Dynasty just woken up from my tomb by the rumblings of someone quoting ""Dee "" out of context. The learned Dr.D.J is misleading the masses of SL and the IC through his political theories which many would not agree from my part of the world. One such person I met the other day on the full moon day of April was a Tamil not from South Asia but from South East Asia. I affectionately call him Raja.

DJ talks about ""high politics "" and ""sovereignty "", "" Patriotism"" but DJ conveniently leave out simple historical facts like since 1948 both major Sinhalese parties are either together or took turns to marginalise the Tamils in SL. Sadly the Tamils did not have worldly wise leaders to lead them and all their leaders looked up only to India by underestimating the Sinhala Style democratic leaders of SL who are master disguisers or leaders without backbones.

Now that DJ's Masters have won the war with external help, they are consolidating their Dynasty rule but they find International Justice System established after world war 2 is on their way. Now they are praising the former Tang Dynasty to get favours. But it wont work in the evolving world because the world is moving towards accountability, transparency and proper justice.

Since I'm from Song Dynasty which superceded Tang Dynasty, Tang era legal system will never be in compatible with the evolving world.
We will be anxiously watching SL from above on the 1 st of May whehter the CJ there is prepared to send to gallows those who repeat Cyril Mathew acts. For our sadness all those who were responsible eascaped gallows because of the justice system that prevails.

Just a poser to DJ... are you preparing another firewall with the help of the Great wall of China designers ? I doubt because the world at large or the world order is far more important than the regime you are trying to protect.

Posted by: Justice Bao | April 19, 2011 02:34 AM

Sounds like Dr DJ himself. Self exile in gay Paree.

Posted by: SriLankan | April 19, 2011 04:13 AM

I am not sure if at the altar of "high politics" Sri Lankans who are aware of right and wrong would like to be like a Detective Dee and absolve their conscious and perceive themselves of keeping their intergrity and equilibrum intact by supporting the Machivillean Empress in order to defeat a conspiracy against the entire country, as they see it.

Would be good in my view if the average minded Sri Lankan, takes a leaf from the courage and simplicity of DBS Jeyaraj or Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu without being too influenced by movies and Fidel Castro. When something is right just say its right, when something is wrong just say its wrong, whatever happens to you, irrespective of what race, religion or ideology you belong to.
and subscribe to. Make it simple! Go with what is right no need to think that the rest of the world may persecute you so better to tow the line with the Empress.

The book of Isaiah in the old testament in the Bible explains this well. Chapter 5, verse 20. " Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter."

Posted by: Dilkusha | April 19, 2011 05:58 AM

Dear Dayan

Why dont you cut to the C**p and just say what your masters tell you to say. History will not remember people like you as advocates of human rights. You only defended ( Shamelesly) your overseas postings.

With your proximity to the Rajapaksha PLC you would very well know the true extent of violations perpetrated by both SL gvnt and LTTE.

To deny it in the name of Patriotism will condemn our land to many more cycles of violence and injustice, no matter hoe many concreted bidha statues with white concrete shrines your armed forces build for srtay dogs to urinate along the highways.

May you ignorance will protect your skin for as long as possible. But every ass wil come up for beating someday.


Posted by: selvan | April 19, 2011 06:17 AM

Dear, dear Dayan,

A couple of months or so ago you presented a seemingly highly academic discourse on Just war - delineating its cardinal components just cause and just means (actually their Latin equivalents).

You went on to assert SL war was conducted by just means. Could you tell us your position on that now - do you still stand by that the war was conducted by "just means"?

Posted by: Sarath Fernando | April 19, 2011 08:10 AM

The nationalist wolf in sheep's clothing Dayan Jayatilleke has mentioned this example of "China" because Sri Lanka is hiding behind China right now, for the sake of diplomatic cover. Both Sri Lanka and China are failed states with dismal human rights records. There are no lessons to be learned from China, other than that it should NOT be emulated. Those Sri Lankan elites in glass houses that dictate terms from behind the high walls of their Colombo 7 mansions should also be just as carefully avoided.

Posted by: HS De Silva | April 19, 2011 09:07 AM

Nice fiction and 690 AD is not 2011 AD. Wake up. it is Asian 'Srebrenica'.

read this link if not read already.

Seems that you spend time watching some movies and hope you are aware of some soap operas. be it East or West, new characters are introduced once every few episodes so that the episodes can be dragged.

Like here in SL, the soap started with VP and JR and Rajiv family came and then Karunanidhi family and then Nambiar and Ban ki Moon's f family as well as Robert Blake's family.

At the end, we saw the real time and bloodiest soap opera of our life time and the ending is not over.

Ban, Nambiar and many more heads to roll in the coming days. As Gordon Weiss stated, the shear strength of this report is too hot to handle and too cruel to ignore

Posted by: War pundit | April 19, 2011 09:56 AM

I agree with your conclusion...We must stand together.
The only disagreement is we want those who are responsible for horrible genocide brought to justice but you want to gloss over the atrocities of your pay masters.
The simple fact that a movie comes to your mind to discuss about a genocide speaks volumes about your attitude about thousands of Tamil civilians who got slaughtered and thousands more who live under the tyranny of the genocidal sinhala army.

Posted by: Truth | April 19, 2011 04:11 PM

The state of Sri Lanka or its sections alleged to have committed war crimes against its own citizens and thereby violated international law. Sri Lanka is a member of the United Nations therefore answerable to these allegations. Calls for 'standing together' with criminals in order to cover up crimes against a section of our own people is the lowest of 'low politics'.

Posted by: cyril | April 19, 2011 06:21 PM

"What in the world does a magistrate who lived in China around 690 AD have to do with Sri Lanka’s collective response to the adversarial report of the UN SG’s Advisory Panel (going by its executive summary which appeared in the media)? Quite a bit, actually."

The narratives of the film reflect the Author's life and time with the Powers of Sri Lanka. His rise and fall through Sri Lanka's corridors of power. This is the reason " I saw and loved it as it came out in Singapore last year." Now that, he has been brought back to defend the corrupt and criminal Powers of Sri Lanka in Paris the author is defining his future course of action. Allow me to insert Sri Lanka and the Author's name in place of "China and Judge Dee" a clearer picture will emerge.

“His broadness of vision is able to see the President against the backdrop of the interests of Sri Lanka; to assess his objective role in the context of Sri Lanka's need at the time; to weigh his rule against the alternative, which is a weaker Sri Lanka. What would be the impact on Sri Lanka? Would it strengthen Sri Lanka or help the domestic forces of division and dissolution, and aid the external forces that wish to break in? That is Dayan Jayatilleke's broader criterion. The hero’s loyalty to Sri Lanka outweighs his misgivings and opposition to the immediate experiment in rulership. His need to avoid the weakening of Sri Lanka outweighs his objections to the further entrenchment and exaltation of the ruler.

How flawed and warped the above thinking is. Since the war ended I have been working with fellow Sri Lankan's to help them economically based on equality, justice and respect. My experience has been the corridors of power are criminal and corrupt. The system and infra structure is set up to defend such Powers. The Author is part of that system. The bare fact is Sri Lanka (the ordinary people) is a divided, maimed, scared and wounded nation. Economically the people have been made destitute. Should, in the name of sovereignty and meddling in internal affairs a country should be allowed to be ruled by Corrupt Criminals and War Criminals? Should Srebrenica have been ignored so that Milosevic could have continued to rule the country? Could Rwanda have been avoided? Would East Timor have been born? Most importantly if these criminals are allowed to continue in the name of sovereignty, Will Sri Lanka in ten or fifteen years time descends into being the Libya of today? Will the theatre of showdown be the south of the country again? What will Judge Dee (Oh Dayan Jayathillleke) say then?
Judge Dee had a noble cause and intention. Justice for the dead and the voiceless is noble. The greater good of the country lies in justice out of which peace will be born. Not out evil, corrupt and criminal power. People who drunk with this can never deliver this illusive peace. Sri Lanka deserves better. One Day She Will Glow Again As the Pearl Island of The Indian Ocean.

Posted by: Worker | April 19, 2011 06:58 PM

It's funny how your "personal favorite," the film hero, espouses totalitarianism. Are you hinting at your new-found love for Rajapakse? On the other hand, belittling a damning war crimes report by referencing a film is not a comedic matter. Everyone knows the LTTE were no angels but do you expect people to believe the lie that the GOSL didn't knowingly commit war crimes? It's not collateral damage when you specifically instruct civilians to gather at one area and precede to shell that same area. It's not an accident, its a war crime.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 19, 2011 09:33 PM

This is a call for 'standing together' with alleged criminals who alleged to have committed crimes against a section of our own people.
Any calls issuing from a position of 'high politics' should be to institute an independent investigation into alleged crimes.

Posted by: cyril | April 20, 2011 01:15 AM

War Crimes? UN panel report? C'mon, please read the report below, which is NOT from the state media. UCAN describes itself as the leading Independent catholic News Source in Asia. Also pay particular attention to Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith's statement, htherto uncontradicted, in a non-state paper. My views are the same as his and Fr Sarath's and stem, I believe from much the same perspective.

"Religious leaders oppose UN reportPanel on war crimes in Sri Lanka 'accuses government of shelling civilians' reporter, Colombo
Sri Lanka
April 20, 2011
Government minister Wimal Weerawansa held a hunger strike in front of the UN office seeking the withdrawal of the panel.Religious leaders from different faiths are protesting a UN report that alleges the Sri Lankan government committed war crimes in the final stage of the conflict against Tamil rebels two years ago.

“While terrorists were attacking religious places and civilians, the UN did not talk about human rights violations,” said Father Sarath Hettiarachchi, co-chairman of Inter-religious Alliance for National Unity (IANU) today at the protest site in Colombo.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon last June appointed a panel to advise him on alleged human rights abuses during the final stages of the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels. The panel gathered evidence for 10 months and submitted its report to him last week week, a copy of which was handed over to the Sri Lankan government.

After concluding a 30 year-war, the UN is trying to interfere with the internal matters of Sri Lanka, said Father Hettiarachchi.

“Sri Lanka did not involve in any kind of war crimes. Government forces were fighting with terrorists for the good of all. It was a humanitarian operation,” said Venerable Kumburugamuwe Wajira Thera, a Buddhist monk and chairman of the alliance.

The Sri Lankan government has denied wrongdoing and opposed the setting up of the UN investigation. Sri Lanka’s president has called for mass protests against a UN report.

The UN report also alleged that the Tamil rebels held civilians as a buffer and killed others who attempted to flee areas it controlled.

A local newspaper in Sri Lanka published a summary of the report alleging that Sri Lankan soldiers and Tamil Tiger rebels committed serious violations, including some which could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The report accuses the Sri Lankan government forces of indiscriminate shelling causing civilian deaths and of hindering humanitarian assistance provided by ships of the International Red Cross.

Media said Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith described the report as a conspiracy. The country was being harassed by those who couldn’t stomach Sri Lanka’s victory over terrorism, the paper reported the cardinal as saying.

According to the UN, between 80,000 and 100,000 people were killed in the country’s 26-year civil war. The Sri Lankan government has set up a local investigation committee to investigate various aspects of the conflict."

Posted by: Dr Dayan Jayatilleka | April 20, 2011 05:19 PM

Wednesday April 20th 2011 The Island

Moon panel report a conspiracy against SL - Cardinal

By Norman Palihawadana

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith says a controversial report by a three-member UN Panel on accountability issues in Sri Lanka is part of a conspiracy against the country.

Responding to a query by The Island, Cardinal Ranjith said that the country was being harassed by those who couldn’t stomach Sri Lanka’s victory over terrorism. Sri Lanka should be wary of those hostile elements trying to destabilize post-war recovery, the leader of the Catholic community said.

The Cardinal said now that the war was over, the country should be given an opportunity to progress."

Posted by: Dr Dayan Jayatilleka | April 20, 2011 05:23 PM

Many of the letter writers here are missing the ‘wood for the tree’. The author has quite succinctly demonstrated by an allegory that the attack on Sri Lanka by the United Nations is an attack on the body politic of Sri Lanka and all its citizens and ultimately the ability of Sri Lanka to defend itself.

Sri Lanka has the inalienable right to protect itself from one of the most ruthless terrorist organisation in the world that was nurtured, armed and given succour by India. No other country in the world today has successfully defeated terrorism of this sort. Sri Lanka conducted this war legitimately and advanced every possible avenue in protecting the civilians trapped in the crossfire of the combatants.

May I remind the others who have castigated Dr. Dayan that it was the LTTE that utilised civilians as a human shield to protect its leadership and many a Sri Lankan soldier gave their lives to ensure the safe passage of these civilians. In the dying days of the war the Sri Lankan Army’s objective was to completely eliminate the LTTE and its leadership so that the schism of separatism will never ever rear its head in the island nation again.

The Sri Lankan army did its level best to retrieve the trapped civilians, but in the end the LTTE’s hold on these civilians was such that some of these civilians paid the ultimate price. For the United Nations the LTTE is not there anymore to apportion blame and hence all the brutality of war and its aftermath is heaped upon the legitimate elected Government of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka will fight this allegation tooth and nail and with the help of Russia and China who are permanent members of the United Nations Security council will kick it into the long grass forever.

Posted by: Merlin Van Tweest | April 20, 2011 06:22 PM

As a statement attributed to Russian ambassador, this is not a UN report in the first instance. There is no mandate for this report. It also has significantly overstepped it's purpoted terms of reference. It's only purpose is a hidden (so the authors think) agenda of regime change in Sri Lanka which cannot be done by democratic means due to the huge popularity the regime enjoys.

The financiers and mentors of terrorist violence that destroyed thousands of innocent lives in Sri Lanka have nothing to fear from this bogus panel or it's report. They can still enjoy the luxurious hospitality of their Western hosts and continue with their agenda of destroying Sri Lanka, because they have the backing of the Blakes & the Camerons.

However, the persecution of Sri Lankan government & it's leaders faces a formidable obstacle in the form of resolute determination of the Sri Lankan masses not to allow the destruction of the freedom they achieved by sacrificing thousands of their kith and kin. The people know it is the present government that stopped the war and stopped the associated carnage & preserved the country's cherished territorial integrity & sovereignity that the ancestors faught so hard and preserved for the present generation to pass over to the future.

The responsibility of human suffering in this instance squarely falls on to the terrorists & their backers who declared war on the country and were still preparing for the "final war" when the government decided enough is enough & no more talks with blind terrorism.

So it will be a match between anti Sri Lankan hatred against Sri Lankan will to survive!

Posted by: Hela | April 21, 2011 03:26 AM

hello doctor

how do you doctor?

please why don't you put your high education to good use?

why do you encourage wrong doing by a majority on minority?

have you forgotten the western democracy values?

incase if you have here are few:

fair play,freedom of speech, free press,independent judiciary,supporting the under dog,

accountability of authorities,no white vans,no ministers with the past of thuggery,

no impunity, fair play!

we need people like you to promote these values not the opposite doctor!

hope you will respond to my cries!

Posted by: chelliah | April 21, 2011 06:10 AM

dayan jayathilake stories and movies apart srilankan army and its government has been accused of war crimes similar to milosevic serbs,qaddafis libyans,hutus of rwanda and indonesians of east timor.srilanka and its society has to decide whether it needs to support a war criminal and get ostracised by world community.srilanka is a small nation and has got an insignificant population if you take world population into account no world power will be bothered if it antagonises this country hence srilankans need to hand over the war criminals or else it has to face sanctions.ball is in the sinhalese court chauvinism or ostracism?

Posted by: jagan sriram | April 22, 2011 08:57 AM

DJ and Kohona used to prattle about "Global South" and "Asian Values." The Ban panel's leader is an Indonesian and only one of the three members is a Westerner. Sri Lankans' habitual claim of "western conspiracy" will not work.

That Cardinal Ranjith said what he did, means only that Sri Lanka's majority population (its religious leaders included) has a vastly different notion of morality from much of the rest of the world.
Perhaps Sinhalese society has such a warped sense of morality that for them it is perfectly fine to boast about saving the lives of a few hundred children from conscription or terrorist attack, by murdering 40,000 innocents, thousands of them children. That being the case, all the talk about reconciliation will amount to nothing. How can anyone cohabit with people who live in such a depraved moral universe?

Posted by: Expatriate | April 22, 2011 11:14 PM

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