Cover image of Victor Segalen, Journey to the Land of the Real (courtesy of Atlas Press, photo by Jean Lartigue, © the Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Victor Segalen was a doctor with the French army who was stationed in Qing and Republican Beijing, following a period of imperialist expansion by France and other nations. Unlike his looting compatriots, he developed a deep fascination with China and the concept he called, as early as 1912, “otherness.” This fascination led him to write a collection of prose poems imitating the form and rhetoric of Chinese steles, as well as a novel set in Beijing, in which a protagonist resembling Segalen investigates intrigue at the Forbidden City. It also led to a number of archaeological expeditions and monographs: Segalen was an amateur enthusiast who pioneered the field, even helping to locate the site of the Qin emperor’s tomb and the Terracotta Warriors. He achieved all of this in the scant six years he lived in Beijing, during which he divided his attentions between his imaginative work and what he calls the “Real” — the brute facts of the world as it is.

Journey to the Land of the Real is a journal of sorts that Segalen wrote while on his Tibet expedition in 1912. In it we get a glimpse of the utter foreignness that Segalen experienced in China over a century ago, when the tone of foreign communiques had only recently turned away from religious zealotry, and China had just a year earlier transferred centuries of autarchic minority rule to the corrupt, democratic Republic of China. The foreignness of Tibet in particular — then a separate country just released from near-suzerain status — provided Segalen with occasion to quest after the experience of radical difference, which is at the core of his inquiry; he sought to contrast imperial ambition, the leveling of cultures in the name of accessibility, and the projection of the self onto the other — all of which he opposed — with an image of alien difference.

Segalen’s project is fundamentally philosophical, in his belief that a foreign Real only exists outside of, and in distinction to, an individual “Imagination.” Whereas the Imagination constitutes personal hopes and perceptions projected onto the outside world, the Real can be seen as a corrective — especially at a moment in history when a Western imperialist Imagination was often imposed by force and  corresponded neither with China as a real place nor the imaginations of individual Chinese. Segalen writes,

[I]s the Imagination weakened or reinforced when it comes face to face with the Real? Does the Real not have its own appeal and joy? … Both the law of the exotic and its formulation — a kind of aesthetics of difference — must free themselves from the real, stark clash between climates and races. Following suit, through the everyday fact of being on the road the conflict between these two worlds will appear quite clear cut: between what one thinks and what one collides with, between what one dreams and what one does, between what one desires and what one obtains […]

Segalen approaches China’s various cultures through archaeological research based in scientific and historical facts, yet he is aware that his self-image is constituted largely by his imagination. As a response, he exposes himself to the Real as experiment — to see what happens when his expectations collide with the apparent reality of the people he encounters. Sometimes nothing happens, as when he arrives at a Himalayan foothill village populated by descendants of Wu Sangui, the Ming dynasty general who allied with the Qing dynasty in order to defeat the interregnum Shun dynasty. Residents of the village continue on as if no time had passed. They believe the Ming still reign, and are curious about their current emperor. Segalen reflects,

Obviously I cannot answer. The Great Ming dynasty and its city no longer exist, were wiped out long ago — three hundred years before. I cannot upset them so dreadfully. I cannot tell them the Nomads of the north now reign in Peking, an affront they would not believe possible.

Here, Segalen records the dreamlike experience of finding a rupture in what he sees as the Real: the villagers’ misapprehensions about their ruler mark the intrusion of the Imagination and he cannot bring himself to intervene in what he deems as the villagers’ contradiction of Imagination and Real. Instead, he suspends a “clash of climates and differences” by acknowledging necessary fictions.

Victor Segalen (courtesy of Atlas Press, photo by Jean Lartigue, © the Bibliothèque nationale de France)

In a similar scenario, Segalen encounters what he describes as the image of his younger self among the villagers when his expedition party stops in a mountain village. He feels great tenderness and tries to speak to his “younger self,” but his younger self neither recognizes nor responds to him. Whether this encounter is purely a figment of Segalen’s imagination, or there was an actual villager bearing a striking resemblance to him, it is significant that he describes it as “when the Other came to [him].” What comes to Segalen is a subject that cannot be divided neatly into an “other” and a “self” — or, put another way, the exterior “real” and the interior “imaginary.” This is what he calls the “exotic”:

But it must be understood that Difference, which is what we are talking about here, is fundamental. The exoticism is not the kind suggested by a word that has been so frequently prostituted. Exoticism is everything that is Other. To take one’s pleasure from it is to learn to savour Difference.

Segalen’s exotic Other diverges from what we today commonly identify with the term “Orientalism.” Rather than preserving a people as a specimen of cultural otherness or entertaining the myth of a true, unitary self, he prefers a position that is radically alien to to Western ideals of Cartesian selfhood. For Segalen, the “I” that constitutes the self can be either preserved or dislocated. By preserving it we (specifically Westerners) uphold a fiction of unquestioned identity and, by extension, cultural supremacy. His tone is not celebratory, but grimly realistic: as long as one pits one person or culture against another, imperialism and exploitation will result. To break this cycle, one must pit oneself against oneself.

Segalen asks us to “savour Difference,” but he is actually talking about self-fashioning. He believes that if we put ourselves in alien situations, we can experience an “exotic” state. By this, he does not mean a colonialist mythology of an unreflective “native potency” that can be recovered. He means that we can undermine our assumptions about ourselves. He writes about himself as he would like us to write about ourselves. Segalen examines how the whole — the concept of self, most importantly, but also those of nation, culture and ethnicity — are constructions. He observes from all sides, thus no side dominates. If no side dominates, it is because they are fictions.

Journey to the Land of the Real by Victor Segalen (2017) is published by Atlas Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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Matt Turner

Matt Turner's writings can be found in Seedings, Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel, and Bookforum. He has translated or co-translated Lu Xun, Chan Chi Tak, Yan Jun and Hu Jiujiu, and is prose editor...