Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Reception of Victor Segalen in China: Between Literature and Ideology

Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Reception of Victor Segalen in China: Between Literature and Ideology

Article excerpt

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Nowadays, the French doctor, archaeologist, novelist, and poet Victor Segalen (1878-1919) is an unavoidable towering figure in modern Sinology and comparative literature studies. (1) He is considered above all to be the founder of an intercultural poetics between East and West. But despite the number of studies devoted to him in recent years, very few Western researchers have taken any interest in the reception of his work in China. By focusing on the latest research by Chinese specialists on the author of Stèles, this article will be a critical attempt to show that Segalen owes his undeniable success in China not only to the intrinsic worth of his literary output, but also to ideological considerations that combine to make him the "best" representative of learned "Sinophilia." The emergence of Victor Segalen in China as a leading French author has occurred in the context of increasing globalisation, which has seen the proliferation of cultural exchanges between China and the West over the last 20 years. A clear indication of this was the creation in 2007 of a Victor Segalen Foundation, with Valéry Giscard d'Estaing as its honorary chairman and with a goal of developing "a dialogue between Chinese and French cultures." (2) Segalen's official recognition is shared on the Chinese side; not only have the majority of his works been translated into Chinese over the last 25 years, but he appears to be on the way to institutionalisation in China as a figure of Franco-Chinese friendship. To give a more concrete indication, an international conference entitled "Cross-writings France/China: Following in the Footsteps of Victor Segalen" was held at Fudan University in April 2007, sponsored jointly by the French Embassy's Cultural Services and the bank BNP Paribas.(3)More recently there was an exhibition of Stèlesat the National Library of China in September 2012, followed by talks and film shows.(4)The breadth of coverage and the intense interest in these events suggest that Segalen is now the beneficiary of official recognition from the French and the Chinese sides alike.

Segalen's reception in China developed in roughly two stages. Contrary to what he has become today, i.e. half author/Sinologist and half theoretician of the "Diverse," Segalen was initially presented to the Chinese public under the name Se Jialan ...as a positivist archaeologist like Paul Peillot. In fact his Chinese translators quickly took an interest in his Premier exposé des résultats archéologiques obtenus dans la Chine occidentale par la Mission Gilbert de Voisins, Jean Lartigue et Victor Segalen (First Report on the Archaeological Findings in Western China by the Gilbert de Voisins, Jean Lartigue and Victor Segalen Expedition).(5)This collection of archaeological reports, intended for specialist readers, was translated by the celebrated historian Feng Chengjun. It was first published in December 1930 by the Shangwu yinshuguan publishing house, that is to say 16 years after the end of the expedition, and it was reissued in 1932, and yet again more recently in 2004 and 2011. This translation appeared under the title of Zhongguo xibu kaoguji(Account of the Archaeological Expedition to Western China), but its distribution in the Republican period seems to have been rather limited on account of the socio-political disturbances in China at the time. These even left their mark on the 1932 edition, where an editorial note appended to the inner cover deplores a Japanese bombardment that damaged its printing works in Shanghai. (6)

After a lengthy interval of several decades, Chinese intellectuals seem to have taken a renewed interest in Segalen in the 1990s. This period has seen the appearance of a series of translations and commentaries about him. It must be pointed out that by this time Segalen had acquired a new Chinese patronymic, Xie Gelan ???, which means literally "pavilion and orchids of the Xie family. …

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