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Encyclopedia > Orientalist

Orientalism is the study of Near and Far Eastern societies and cultures, by Westerners. Initially it carried no negative freight. Like the term "Orient" itself it employs a Latin term Oriens referring simply to the rising of the sun, to imply "the East" in the most general sense. Unless one is travelling on the Orient Express, the "Orient" is a vague destination. "Orient" and "Oriental" have been used in English to refer to both Near and Far Eastern countries. Similar terms are the French-derived "Levant" and "Anatolia," from the Greek anatole, two further locutions for the direction in which the sun rises.

Respected institutions like the Oriental Institute of Chicago carry the term without reproach. Although this term had become archaic and rare by the late twentieth century, Edward Said critiqued the genre in his groundbreaking work Orientalism (1978), emphasizing the relationship between power and knowledge in scholarly and popular thinking, in particular regarding Europeans and how they saw the Arab world. "Oriental" (meaning 'eastern') is simply the opposite of "occidental" ('western'), but became a politically loaded and often derogatory term, contrasting "oriental despotism" and alleged cultural inertia with Western notions of progress. Though "Occident" has no similar patronizing connotations, it is being sympathetically dropped from usage, as contemporary English speakers struggle to achieve history's first culturally-neutral language.

Taking a comparative and historical literary review of European scholars and writers looking at, thinking about, talking about, and writing about the peoples of the Middle East, Said sought to lay bare the relations of power between the colonizer and the colonized in those texts. While his work owes much (as Said himself made clear) to Michel Foucault's cultural critiques, Said's writings have had far-reaching implications beyond area studies in Middle East, to India, China, and post-colonial studies generally.

Many scholars now use Said's work to undermine long-held, often taken-for-granted European ideological biases regarding non-Europeans in scholarly thought. Some post-colonial scholars would even say that the West's idea of itself was constructed largely by saying what others were not. If "Europe" evolved out of "Christendom" as the "not-Byzantium," early modern Europe in the late 16th century (see Battle of Lepanto) certainly defined itself as the "not-Turkey."

Throughout history, western culture built up an exotic stereotype of "the Orient"— seductive women (i.e. the femme fatale) and dangerous men living in a static society with a glorious but long-gone past. Many critical theorists regard Orientalism as part of a larger, ideological colonialism justified by the concept of the "white man's burden".

"Le Bain turc," J.A.D. Ingres, 1862

When Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, director of the French Académie de peinture painted a highly-colored vision of a harem (illustration, right), a place that no Westerner save Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had ever actually penetrated, he made his eroticized Orient publicly acceptable by his diffuse generalizing of the female forms, who might all have been of the same model. Nevertheless, if his painting had simply been retitled "In a Paris Brothel," the resultant scandal would have ended his career. By such double vision, the exotic Orient made sensuality acceptable. In less academic hands than Ingres', such Orientalizing degenerated into increasingly realistic and detailed soft-core "odalisque" pornography before the end of the 19th century.

Similarly, through the 20th century, the only breasts photographed in National Geographic were brown-skinned, in exotic cultures without automoblies.

Although the critique of Orientalism originated as an exposition of Western views of the Orient, it has also been used to critique 20th century Chinese views of both its own history and of minority cultures within China. For example, Lionel Jensen argues that modern Chinese narratives of Confucianism and of Chinese history in general have incorporated many orientalist assumptions.


"Orientalism" in reference to art and culture

The word Orientalism can also refer to Western appropriations of oriental themes and imagery in art, architecture, literature, and other manifestations of popular or high culture. This has taken many forms.

"Chinoiserie" is the catch-all term for the fashion for Chinese themes in decoration in Western Europe, beginning in the late 17th century and peaking in waves, especially Rococo Chinoiserie, ca 1740 - 1770. Earliest hints of Chinoiserie appear, in the early 17th century, in the nations with active East India Companies, Holland and England, then by mid-17th century, Portugal. Tin-glazed pottery made at Delft and other Dutch towns adopted genuine blue-and-white Ming decoration from the early 17th century, and early ceramic wares at Meissen and other centers of true porcelain naturally imitated Chinese shapes for dishes, vases and tea wares. But in the true Chinoiserie décor fairyland, mandarins lived in fanciful mountainous landscapes with cobweb bridges, carried flower parasols, lolled in flimsy bamboo pavilions haunted by dragons and phoenixes, while monkeys swung from scrolling borders. Pleasure pavilions in "Chinese taste" appeared in the formal parterres of late Baroque and Rococo German palaces, and in tile panels at Aranjuez near Madrid. Thomas Chippendale's mahogany tea tables and china cabinets, especially, were embellished with fretwork glazing and railings, ca 1753 - 70, but sober homages to early Xing scholars' furnishings were also naturalized, as the tang evolved into a mid- Georgian side table and squared slat-back armchairs suited English gentlemen as well as Chinese scholars. Not every adaptation of Chinese design principles falls within mainstream "chinoiserie." Chinoiserie media included "japanned" ware imitations of lacquer and painted tin (tôle) ware that imitated japanning, early painted wallpapers in sheets, and ceramic figurines and table ornaments. Small pagodas appeared on chimneypieces and full-sized ones in gardens. Kew has a magnificent garden pagoda designed by Sir William Chambers. Though the rise of a more serious approach in Neoclassicism from the 1770s onward tended to squelch such Oriental folly, at the height of Regency "Grecian" furnishings, the Prince Regent came down with a case of Brighton Pavilion, and Chamberlain's Worcester china manufactory imitated gaudy "Imari" wares. Later exoticisms added imaginary Turkish themes, where a diwan became a sofa. (See Sezincote, Gloucestershire.)

After 1860, Japoneries, sparked by the arrival of Japanese woodblock prints, created a parallel universe, which peaked in brilliant paintings by James MacNeill Whistler and his "Peacock Room" that transcended the genre. As late as 1920 ladies of the mandarin classes of London and Boston quite unselfconsciously wore kimono at breakfast, as a kind of imperial negligée. After World War I, Chinoiserie collapsed in a welter of Kewpie dolls and exotic ashtrays, and, after 1945, Hawaiian shirts.

Orientalism covered a vague and exotic domain that was mostly "East of Suez," where gritty realities did not intrude. But ancient Carthage (Tunisia) formed the background for Gustave Flaubert's Salammbô and North Africa, from the moment of the French occupation of Algiers in 1830, provided orientalizing odalisque themes, from high-minded Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Jean-Léon Gerome, to the arty erotica in harem settings of 1860 - 1890.

Compare elements of (in historical order):

Chinoiserie crashed with the realities of serious East-West confrontations of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim (which was about sub-Saharan Africa but nevertheless gives insight into the relationship between European and non-European cultures) leading to E. M. Forster's A Passage to India.

Interestingly, an Asian parallel to this cultural Orientalism began developing during the late 20th century, when many Western cultural themes and images began appearing in Asian art and culture, especially in Japan. Engrish words and phrases are prominent in Japanese advertising and popular culture, and many Japanese animes are written around characters, settings, themes, and mythological figures derived from various Western cultural traditions.

A mirror image

In an enlightening contrast, many of the essentially dismissive and patronizing concepts associated with Western "Orientalism" as expressed above are summed up— but in reverse orientation— in the epilogue to the "Chapter on the Western Regions" according to the Hou Hanshu. This is the official history of the Later (or ?Eastern?) Han Dynasty (25-221 CE). The book was compiled by Fan Ye, (died 445 CE), and it succinctly expresses the Han opinion of the Western Hu culture (in what is now western China):

The Western Hu are far away.
They live in an outer zone.
Their countries' products are beautiful and precious,
But their character is debauched and frivolous.
They do not follow the rites of China.
Han has the canonical books.
They do not obey the Way of the Gods.
How pitiful!
How obstinate!

The decline of scholarly "Oriental Studies" and transition to "Asian Studies" (in North America)

In most universities in North America, Oriental Studies has now been replaced by Asian Studies localized to specific regions, such as, Near Eastern Studies, South Asian studies, and Far East or East Asian Studies. This reflects the fact that the Orient is not a single, monolithic region but rather a broad area encompassing multiple civilizations. A growing number of professional scholars and students of East Asian Studies are Asian Americans, especially Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, and Korean Americans.

Perhaps the debate between philology and regional studies may not seem compatible but with time, categories such as Asian American will be more elastic and dynamic, also accounting for the remapped Asian identities that have rooted in Latin America. And so, the previous paragraph remains moot as misrepresentations abound and the inability to articulate the importance for Orientalism as a polemic and legitimate academic exercise remains. Area studies that incorporate not only philological pursuits but identity politics may account for the hestitation to use the term "Oriental".

See also

External links

  • ILCAA: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa (http://www.aa.tufs.ac.jp/) Tokyo
  • SOAS: The School of Oriental and African Studies (http://www.soas.ac.uk) at the University of London
  • Faculty of Oriental Studies (http://www.orinst.ox.ac.uk/) at the University of Oxford
  • Ancient Indian & Iran Trust, London UK (http://www.indiran.co.uk/)
  • IITS, Koln (http://www.uni-koeln.de/phil-fak/indologie/index.html)
  • NIAS (http://nias.ku.dk/) at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark
  • IIAS (http://iias.leidenuniv.nl/) Leiden, the Netherlands
  • Dept. of East European and Oriental Studies (http://www.hf.uio.no/east) at the University of Oslo
  • Eurasian Orientalist Server (http://www.orient.ru/)
  • Dept. of Oriental Languages (http://orient4.orient.su.se/index-e.html) at Stockholm University
  • Section de langues et civilisations orientales (http://www.unil.ch/orient) at the Universite de Lausanne
  • Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Paris (http://www.inalco.fr/pub/)
  • Langues et Civilisations de l'Asie Orientale (http://www.sigu7.jussieu.fr/LCAO/index.html) at Universite Paris 7-Denis Diderot
  • Institute of Oriental Studies (http://www.orient.uw.edu.pl/) at the University of Warsaw
  • Oriental Institute (http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/default.html) of the University of Chicago
  • American Center for Oriental Research (http://www.bu.edu/acor/)
  • American Oriental Society (http://www.umich.edu/~aos/)
  • Asiatica Association (http://www.asiatica.org/) Milano, Italy
  • Dictionary of the History of Ideas: (http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/cgi-local/DHI/dhi.cgi?id=dv1-48) China in Western Thought and Culture
  • John E. Hill, translation in his e-edition of Hou Hanshu (http://depts.washington.edu/uwch/silkroad/texts/hhshu/hou_han_shu.html#sec22)

  Results from FactBites:
The end of the Orientalist critique - Campus Watch (4648 words)
In sum, the Orientalist critique would cease to describe a system that, it maintains, the West uses to "manage" its relationship with a despised East, and stand revealed as being a system used by critics to "manage" their relationship with a despised West.
That is, Orientalist issues were worth addressing not only for their own sake, but because the East-West encounter has been increasingly problematic for the United States and the nations of the East, with explosive political, military, economic, and cultural dimensions for them all.
While the Orientalist trope of despotism reduces the Easterner to a slavish figure unconcerned with his freedom or rights, the Occidentalist trope of conspiracy reduces the Westerner to a witless puppet manipulated by unseen hands (while simultaneously absolving the Occidentalist of any responsibility in his own political failures).
  More results at FactBites »



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