Born in the great Breton naval center of Brest, Victor Segalen pursued medical studies in Bordeaux and became a naval doctor whose missions took him to Tahiti (where he acquired the sculptures that had adorned the cabin of the justdeceased Gauguin) and, repeatedly, to China (1909-13, 1914-15, 1917-18). His medical thesis bore upon neurosis in contemporary literature and appeared in 1902, the same year in which his exploration of symbolist poetics resulted in the publication of his compact essay Les Synesthésies et l'école symboliste. These early years led to relations with Huysmans, Saint-Pol Roux, and Remy de Gourmont and contact with Debussy (via the latter's noticing one of his short stories, Dans un monde sonore, 1907), for whom Segalen wrote a dramatic libretto, Orphée roi, never set to music and not published until two years after Segalen's death.
The 1907 Les Immémoriaux, along with the 1912 Stèles and the 1916 Peintures, constitutes one of the few major writings appearing in his short lifetime. Like the posthumous Hommages à Gauguin and a 1904 piece also on Gauguin, Les Immémoriaux (published under the pseudonym Max Anély) stems from his Polynesian experience (1902-4). The Chinese experience was even more powerful and enduring, however, though psychologically somewhat differently centered. He traveled extensively throughout China and into Tibet and took part in archeological expeditions with Gilbert de Voisins and Jean Lartigue. He did wartime service as a doctor on the Belgian front and in Brest in 1915-16 before being sent back to China in 1917. His deep affinitary fascination for the “land” of China and Tibet, as well as their art, their spirituality, the debate he feels constantly at the center of his meditation on them between the real and the imaginary, existence and essence—all of this is reflected in posthumous works such as René Leys (1922), Odes (1926), Equipée (1929), L'Art funéraire à