The tomb of General Huo Qubing

24 x 30 cm
Flexible monochrome negative
Photographie d'une épulture


Photo (C) MNAAG, Paris, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image musée Guimet

Alert title Currently not exhibited

In 1914 Victor Segalen discovered in China a carved group, that he dated to before Christ, representing a “barbarian” downed by a mighty horse, the figure of Huo Qubing, a young cavalry general.

Victor Segalen, a Navy physician and writer, lived in China for the first time in 1909, as a trainee after winning the pupil-interpreter competition. On this occasion, accompanied by a friend, he undertook a six-months journey through the country. It was in this context that he wrote Briques et Tuiles and prepared other literary works such as Équipée (Journey to the Land of the Real), Le Fils du Ciel, and above all Stèles, his most famous book.

He returned to China in 1914 to guide an official archaeological mission, with his companion of 1909 Auguste Gilbert de Voisin and the Navy officer Jean Lartigue. In the context of this grande diagonale, from Peking to Kunming through Xi’an and Chengdu, in March 1914 Segalen discovered a carved group representing a horse bringing down a Xiongnu barbarian, a non-Chinese population at the time confused with the Huns. Located at the foot of the grave of the general Huo Qubing, who died at the age of 24 in 117 BC, Segalen described it to his master Édouard Chavannes in these words: “[…] it is not a horse that is sculpted but contrary to all expectation an outstandingly successful group: a horse, bare, trampling a man whose huge and hairy head we glimpse between the horse’s front feet; whose knees are curved under the beast’s belly, whose toes grip both sides of the tail. The left hand has not dropped the bow, that draws a well-known double curve, the Mongol bow, the right hand holds a short pike driven into the beast’s belly. […] the man  presents all the characters that Chinese artists attribute to the Huns: big head, large moustache, squat body…” With this discovery the oldest dating attributions on Chinese sculpture – the beginning of the Christian era – are  altered by two hundred years.

Nonetheless, in making this photo, Segalen went way beyond a mere archaeological documentation, adopting an artistic approach. Thus he projected in the verticals and the diagonals of his framing all the tensions owed to the paralysis of a downed adversary. As for the monochromatic treatment of light, he froze the scene and transposed the earth tumulus into a stone pyramid.

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