A review of
by Victor Segalen
When Victor Segalen first printed Stèles in Beijing in 1912, the Republic of China had just been formed, ending two millennia of dynastic rule. When he expanded and republished the book in Paris in 1914, the Western powers were on the verge of successive world wars that would effectively end their colonial system of governance. Five years later, Segalen was dead at the age of forty-one, from either suicide or a severe foot injury suffered while taking a walk in the woods.
So when Segalen refers to “the crumbling unsteadiness of the Empire,” it’s not entirely clear to which sovereignty he’s referring, a situation made even more confusing by the fact that he was a European living in China who wrote sections of Stèles in the voice of an imaginary emperor. If this is history as an allegory for the psyche, then Segalen—unlike many writers, adventurers, and hippies before and since—didn’t go to the East to find himself. Rather, he was committed to “the intoxicating eddies of the great river Diversity,” along with a desire to saturate himself in Chinese culture.
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