In the Chinese Mirror — Victor Segalen and the Quest for the Chinese Face

Little over a century ago a Frenchman was standing in a wheatfield in central China, overseeing his workers as they excavated what he thought would be his Holy Grail, a sculptural portrait from the Han Dynasty. The Frenchman was the poet Victor Segalen, then a medical doctor with a special interest in Chinese history and a literary ambition the depth of which was then far from being recognized.

To discover this archaeological site, Segalen had investigated the ancient regional chronicles that describe the types and locations of historical remains, steles, tombs and sculptures. He had found mention of the “stone men” of the Han era in documents that had been revised during the Ming Dynasty, from which he assumed that in those times it had still been possible to find the figures. He had already made an important discovery on this expedition, yet it was his desire to find a Han portrait, to come face-to-face with an image of a man from that early era, that drove him on.

As the workers uncovered the six-foot long grey stone lying horizontally in the earth, “worn out like an old block on which a hundred generations have placed their feet,” as he wrote in his The Great Statuary of Ancient China, he observed its long tunic and that it was missing feet. A number of the peasants who assisted his men to lift the stone and rotate it, then turn it upright had begun to laugh. He assumed that was because the task of resurrecting something from the long lost past seemed absurd to them. Later he would write, with palpable excitement: “For a few oppressive instants — caused by our haste, the excitement of making this find — I cherished the hope that I was about to contemplate a Han man face-to-face!”

He had already made an important discovery on this expedition, yet it was his desire to find a Han portrait, to come face-to-face with an image of a man from that early era, that drove him on.

Then there was that realization he had experienced too many times before. The figure was faceless. It had been beheaded. Even in his document of the discoveries, The Great Statuary of China, one of the earliest accounts of its time and a book which was, along with his poems, my guide on my journey following the route of his expeditions, a book obviously indebted to his mentor Edouard Chavannes, his frustration is dramatic and of a kind seldom admitted to in archaeologists’ professional writings.

More profound than the disappointment of a persistent archaeologist who has failed to find a desired artefact, Segalen was disheartened, like a poet whom the muse has failed to visit. Any reader of that book, unlike readers of his literary works in which he imagines the history of China in various periods and through a range of voices, can’t help but feel his disenchantment. The archaeologist and poet seems to have sought in the ancient Chinese past a face that might mirror his own, a portrait of a Han man, a warrior-poet of the earliest grand phase of Chinese civilization, but instead he had found only a headless statue, an impersonal absence.

René Leys
BY Victor Segalen
PHOTO: Bibliothèque nationale
de France

The question as to why Victor Segalen was fascinated, one could say obsessed, by this desire to find a Han portrait at which he might stare as if into the mirror-image of himself, is at the heart of his entire body of work, writings that include archaeological accounts, a play on the life of the Buddha, notes towards an essay on the idea of the exotic that was published posthumously, and novels — one set in Tahiti and another, his best known book, René Leys, in Peking — and, of course, the poetry, an exceptional oeuvre, all steeped in Chinese history, so much so that only in recent years, with the West’s much more serious engagement with both contemporary and historical China, has its full import started to be appreciated.

It is not enough to see Segalen’s life, with its inner motif in his quest for the human face, as an intellectual project. Segalen’s expeditions were material insights into the history of China — that is one of the joys of archaeology, a kind of stationary, vertical time-travel — but spiritually he was searching for something deeper, a truth that philosophers have come to contemplate as that relation between one’s Self and all that is Other, whether a foreign world, God or the Cosmos. Unlike many of the intellectuals of his day and later, especially Ezra Pound, the American with whom he has some interesting parallels, whose translations — or mistranslations — of Chinese poetry have had more influence on modern English-language literature than any other single body of work, aside, perhaps from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, Segalen dedicated himself to knowing the great Unknowable China by learning Mandarin and by travelling and living there. Pound’s exposition of the nature of Chinese writing, dependant to the initial work of the scholar Ernst Fellenosa, lack Segalen’s obsessive engagement with China as an Other World. This may explain why Segalen’s works are less influential on later writers than Pound’s which was, at least in terms of literary technique, revolutionary.

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