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Orientalism is the study of Near and Far Eastern societies and cultures by Westerners. It can also refer to the imitation or depiction of aspects of Eastern cultures in the West by writers, designers and artists. In the former meaning the term is becoming obsolete, increasingly being used only to refer to the study of the East during the historical period of European imperialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Because of this, the term "Orientalism" has come to acquire negative connotations in some quarters, implying old-fashioned and prejudiced interpretations of Eastern cultures and peoples. This viewpoint was most famously articulated by Edward Said in his book Orientalism (1978).

Meaning of the term

Like the term "Orient" itself "Orientalism" derives from a Latin word 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 (from Paris to Istanbul), 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.

When used with a racial meaning, "oriental" is usually a synonym for "Mongoloid East Asian", excluding Indians, Arabians and other more westerly peoples. This can cause some confusion about the historical scope of Oriental studies.

History of Orientalism

It is difficult to be precise about the origin of the distinction between the "West" and the "East". However the rise of both Christianity and Islam produced a sharp opposition between European Christendom and the Muslim cultures to the East and in North Africa. During the Middle Ages Islamic peoples were demonised as "alien" enemies of the Christian world. European knowledge of cultures further to the East was very sketchy indeed. Nevertheless, there was a vague awareness that complex civilisations existed in India and China, from which luxury goods such as woven textiles and ceramics were imported. As European explorations and colonisations expanded a distinction emerged between non-literate peoples, for example in Africa and the Americas, and the literate and intellectually complex cultures of the East.

In the eighteenth century Enlightenment thinkers sometimes characterised aspects of Eastern cultures as superior to the Christian West. For example Voltaire promoted research into Zoroastrianism in the belief that it would support a rational Deism superior to Christianity. Others praised the religious tolerance of Islamic countries in contrast with the Christian West, or the status of scholarship in Mandarin China. With the translation of the Avesta by Abraham Anquetil-Duperron and the discovery of the Indo-European languages by William Jones complex connections between the early history of Eastern and Western cultures emerged. However, these developments occurred in the context of rivalry between France and Britain for control of India, and were associated with attempts to understand colonised cultures in order more effectively to control them. Liberal economists such as James Mill denigrated Eastern countries on the grounds that their civilizations were static and corrupt. Even Karl Marx characterised the "Asiatic mode of production" as unchanging. Christian evangelists sought to denigrate Eastern religious traditions as superstitions (see Juggernaut).

Despite this, the first serious studies of Buddhism and Hinduism were undertaken by scholars such as Eugene Burnouf and Max Müller. By the mid-nineteenth century "Oriental studies" was becoming an established academic discipline. However, while scholarly study expanded, so did racist attitudes and popular stereotypes of "inscrutable" and "wily" orientals. Often scholarly ideas were intertwined with such prejudicial racial or religious assumptions. Eastern art and literature were still seen as "exotic" and as inferior to Classical Graeco-Roman ideals. Their political and economic systems were generally thought to be feudal "oriental despotisms" and their alleged cultural inertia was considered to be resistant to progress. Many critical theorists regard this form of Orientalism as part of a larger, ideological colonialism justified by the concept of the "white man's burden".

Orientalism in the arts

Imitations of Oriental styles

Similar ambivalence is evident in art and literature. From the Renaissance to the eighteenth century Western designers attempted to imitate the technical sophistication of Chinese ceramics with only partial success. "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. Early hints of Chinoiserie appear, in the 17th century, in the nations with active East India Companies, Holland and England. 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 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 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.

Cover of the French magazine le Japon artistique showing one Hokusai's views on Mount Fuji.After 1860, Japonerie, sparked by the arrival of Japanese woodblock prints, became an important influence in the western arts. The paintings of James MacNeill Whistler and his "Peacock Room" are some of the finest works of the genre; other examples include the Gamble House and other buildings by California architects Greene and Greene.

Depictions of the Orient in art and literature

"Le Bain turc," (Turkish Bath) by J.A.D. Ingres, 1862Depictions of Islamic Moors can be found in Medieval and Renaissance art, but it was not until the nineteenth century that "Orientalism" in the arts became an established theme. In these works the myth of the Orient as exotic and corrupt is most fully articulated. Such works typically concentrated on Near-Eastern Islamic cultures. Artists such as Eugene Delacroix and Jean-Léon Gérôme painted many depictions of Islamic culture, often including lounging odalisques, and stressing lassitude and visual spectacle. When Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, director of the French Académie de peinture painted a highly-colored vision of a turkish bath (illustration, right), he made his eroticized Orient publicly acceptable by his diffuse generalizing of the female forms, who might all have been of the same model. If his painting had simply been retitled "In a Paris Brothel," it would have been far less acceptable. Sensuality was seen as acceptable in the exotic Orient. This Orientalizing imagery persisted in art into the early twentieth century, as evidenced in Matisse's orientalist nudes. In these works the "Orient" often functions as a mirror to Western culture itself, or as a way of expressing its hidden or illicit aspects. In Gustave Flaubert's novel Salammbô ancient Carthage in North Africa is used as a foil to ancient Rome. Its culture is portrayed as morally corrupting and suffused with dangerously alluring eroticism. This novel proved hugely influential on later portrayals of ancient Semitic cultures.

Edward Said and "Orientalism"

Despite this often mixed tradition, the word "Orientalism" carried no negative freight. Respected institutions like the Oriental Institute of Chicago carried the term without reproach. "Oriental" was simply understood as the opposite of "occidental" ('western'). The word began to develop negative connotations following the publication of the groundbreaking work Orientalism by the Palestinian scholar Edward Said. Following the ideas of Michel Foucault, Said emphasized the relationship between power and knowledge in scholarly and popular thinking, in particular regarding European views of the Islamic Arab world. Said argued that Orient and Occident worked as oppositional terms, so that the "Orient" was constructed as a negative inversion of Western culture.

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. Said's writings have had far-reaching implications beyond area studies in Middle East, to studies of imperialist Western attitudes to India, China and elsewhere. It was one of the foundational texts of postcolonial studies. Said later developed and modified his ideas in his book Culture and Imperialism (1993).

Many scholars now use Said's work to overturn long-held, often taken-for-granted Western ideological biases regarding non-Westerners 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."

Criticisms of Said

Critics of Said's theory, such as the historian Bernard Lewis, argue that Said's account ignores the many genuine contributions to the study of Eastern cultures made by Westerners during the Enlightenment and Victorian eras. While many distortions and fantasies certainly existed, the notion of "the Orient" as a negative mirror image of the West cannot be wholly true because attitudes to distinct cultures diverged significantly. In any case it is a logical necessity that other cultures will be identified as "different", since otherwise their distinctive characteristics would be invisible, and that the most striking differences will hold up the mirror to the observing culture.

From "Oriental Studies" to "Asian Studies"

In most North American universities, 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. This change of labelling may be correlated to the fact that sensitivity to the term "Oriental" has been heightened in a more politically correct atmosphere; although it began earlier: Sir Bernard Lewis's department was renamed a decade before Said wrote, a detail which Said ignores. By some, the term "Oriental" has come to be thought offensive to non-Westerners. Area studies that incorporate not only philological pursuits but identity politics may also account for the hestitation to use the term "Oriental".

Supporters of "Oriental Studies" counter that the term "Asian" is just as encompassing as "Oriental" and originally had the same meaning, probably being derived from an Akkadian word for "East". Replacing one word with another is to confuse historically objectional opinions about the East with the concept of "the East" itself. The terms Oriental/Eastern and Occidental/Western are both inclusive concepts that usefully identify large-scale cultural differences. Such general concepts do not preclude or deny more specific ones.

A mirror image: Eastern views of the West

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!
Likewise, derogatory or stereotyped portrayals of Westerners appear in many works of Indian, Chinese and Japanese artists.

Ravi Varma's Woman Playing the VeenaIn contrast, some Eastern artists adopted and adapted Western styles. The Indian painter Ravi Varma painted several works that are virtually indistinguishable from some Western Orientalist images. In the late 20th century many Western cultural themes and images began appearing in Asian art and culture, especially in Japan. English 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.

Recently, the term Occidentalism has been coined to refer to negative views of the Western world sometimes found in Eastern societies today.

Examples of Orientalism in the arts

Montesquieu Persian Letters (Lettres persanes)
Jean-Philippe Rameau Les Indes Galantes
Samuel Taylor Coleridge "Kublai Khan"
William Thomas Beckford's Vathek;
Percy Bysshe Shelley's' "Ozymandias"
Edgar Allan Poe's Tamerlane, Al Aaraaf, and Israfel
Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1821 poem "Indian Superstition"
Richard Francis Burton's The Arabian Nights;
the Malay passages in Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater;
Georges Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles
Balakirev's Tamara, Borodin's Polovtsian Dances in opera Prince Igor, César Cui's opera The Mandarin's Son, Mussorgsky's Dance of the Persian Slaves (Khovanshchina), Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheheradze -- the Mighty Handful aka the Five Russian composers
Oscar Wilde's Salomé;
Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado;
Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly & Turandot;
Anatole France Thaïs
Victor Segalen's Rene Leys
Andre Malraux's La Condition humaine
Marguerite Yourcenar's Nouvelles Orientales
Marguerite Duras' L'Amant
Many early 21st century Western cartoons have been stylisticly influenced by Japanese anime, which is itself becoming very popular in the West. Middle Eastern, Chinese, and Japanese themes are here usually put in the service of exotic fantasy.
The strong popular association of the martial arts, such as karate, jujitsu and kendo, with Asian cultures