04 January 2017

The Long View: Victor Segalen

This quiet field is more than it appears, as so many photographs turn out to be when you dig into the particulars.  . Sixty years after a Frenchman, Victor Segalen, took this photograph of a farm field in northern China, some local farmers digging a well made an astonishing discovery.  What they unearthed among the meandering watercourses were larger than life-size figures, thousands of soldiers carved from terracotta, that had gone undetected for two thousand years, the funeral army of China's first Emperor, accompanying him to the afterlife.   The Terracotta Warriors, as they are now known, have become one of the wonders of the world, a comparable feat of the human imagination to the  Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

Segalen would surely have been delighted by the excavation of the terracotta warriors, and the afterlife they brought to his photograph.  Even so, the significance of the site did not escape Segalen.  He led a band of archeologists that visited the site in 1914 to make drawings and measurements of tumulus, mounds of earth and stones, that are often placed over graves.  These burial mounds have  counterparts around the world,   known as cairns, menhirs, etc.

An obsession was born when Segalen arrived in Peking in 1909;  he  immediately adopted it as "my capital,' only returning to France at the outbreak of war in 1914.  For Segalen,  as for the ancient Chinese, the Middle Kingdom became the center of the world,  "the country that epitomizes harmonious difference, the diversity of the world in a nutshell."

Rene Leys,  Segalen's novel published in 1911, is a kind of spiritual adventure story, in which a young foreigner becomes obsessed with the mysterious Forbidden City and and the Imperial Palace at the heart of Peking.  Day after day the novel's protagonist circles the perimeter, looking and listening for signs of intrigue, clues to the destabilizing politics that followed in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion of 1905. Another foreigner, Rene Leys, becomes his guide, weaving threads of historical events and magical tales together, leaving the reader to wonder what kind of book they have in their hands, a detective story or an allegory.  The book, like the Forbidden City and the field in Lintong guard their secrets well.

The afterlife of Victor Segalen (1870-1919) has been longer than his time on earth.   Segalen, born in  Finistiere (end of the land), at the western-most point of the Atlantic coast, grew up to become a naval doctor, but no single profession could contain him.   He wrote novels, poetry, and literary criticism, and on his travels around the globe he made topographical maps, took photographs, and made  archaeological excavations.  For all these accomplishments, Segalen's name is inscribed on the wall of the Pantheon in Paris.  

An extensive biography of Victor Segalen (in French)
About the novel Rene Leys (in English)

Image: Victor Segalen - Lintong, Shaanxi Province, China, 16 February 1914, Musee Guimet, Paris.

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