From New World Encyclopedia
The Women of Algiers by Eugene Delacroix

Orientalism is the study of Near and Far Eastern societies and cultures, languages, and peoples by Western scholars. It can also refer to the imitation or depiction of aspects of Eastern cultures in the West by writers, designers, and artists. The former has come to acquire negative connotations in some quarters and is interpreted to refer to the study of the East by Westerners influenced by the attitudes of the era of European imperialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When used in this sense, it implies old-fashioned and prejudiced outsider interpretations of Eastern cultures and peoples, allowing frequent misunderstanding of their cultural, ethical, and religious beliefs. However, with the rise of a global economy and communications, greater understanding and exchange are taking place between both Eastern and Western cultures, leading to the promotion of a one world family and contributing to a lasting peace in the world.

Meaning of the term

Orientalism derives from a Latin word oriens meaning "east" (literally "rising sun"). This is the opposite of the term Occident. In terms of the Old World, Europe was considered to be "The West" or Occidental, and the furthest known Eastern extremity was "The East" or "The Orient."

Over time, the common understanding of "the Orient" has continually shifted East as Western explorers traveled deeper into Asia. From as early as the Roman Empire until at least the Middle Ages, what is now considered "the Middle East" was then considered "the Orient." In Biblical times, the Three Wise Men "from the Orient" were probably Magi from the Persian Empire or Arabia which are east relative to Israel. Westerners' location of "The Orient" continually shifted eastwards, until the Pacific Ocean was reached, the region which is now known as "the Far East."

However, there still remain some contexts where "the Orient" or "Oriental" refer to older definitions. For example, "Oriental spices" typically come from regions extending from the Middle East through the Indian sub-continent to Indo-China. Also, travel on the Orient Express (from Paris to Istanbul), is eastward bound (towards the sunrise), but does not reach what is currently understood to be "the Orient."

Furthermore, the English word "Oriental" is usually a synonym for the peoples, cultures, and goods from the parts of East Asia traditionally occupied by East Asians and Southeast Asians, categorized by the racial label "Mongoloid." This would exclude Indians, Arabs, and other more westerly peoples. In some parts of America it is considered derogatory to use "Orientals" to refer to East Asians. For example, in Washington state it is illegal to use the word "oriental" in legislation and government documents.[1]

History of Orientalism

It is difficult to be precise about the origin of the distinction between the "West" and the "East," which did not appear as a polarity before the oriens/occidens divided administration of the Roman Empire under Diocletian. However, sharp opposition arose between the rising European Christendom and Muslim cultures to the East and in North Africa. During the Middle Ages Islamic peoples were the "alien" enemies of the Christian world. European knowledge of cultures further to the East was very sketchy, although there was a vague awareness that complex civilizations existed in India and China, from which luxury goods such as woven silk textiles and ceramics were imported. As European explorations and colonizations expanded, a distinction emerged between non-literate peoples, for example in Africa and the Americas, and the literate cultures of the East.

In the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, thinkers sometimes characterized 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 relative 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 Hyacinthe 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 it is sometimes claimed that knowledge was associated with attempts to understand colonized cultures in order to control them more effectively. Liberal economists such as James Mill denigrated Eastern countries on the grounds that their civilizations were static and corrupt. Karl Marx characterized the "Asiatic mode of production" as unchanging due to the narrowness of the village communities and the productive role of the state, hence he stated that the system of British colonialism unconsciously prepared future revolutions in India by destroying this mode of production.

The first serious European studies of Buddhism and Hinduism were undertaken by scholars such as Eugene Burnouf and Max Müller. In this period serious study of Islam also emerged. By the mid-nineteenth century Oriental Studies was 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.[2] 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." The colonial project, then, is not imagined as a process of domination for political and economic gain; it is figured as a selfless endeavor carried out to rescue the Orientals from their own backwardness and self-mismanagement.

Orientalism and the arts

Imitations of Oriental styles

Edward Blore's Alupka Palace (1828–46) was one of the earliest intimations of the Victorian taste for Moorish Revival architecture.

Orientalism has also come to mean the use or reference of typical eastern motifs and styles in art, architecture, and design.

Early use of motifs lifted from the Indian subcontinent have sometimes been called "Hindoo style," one of the earliest examples being the façade of Guildhall, London (1788–1789). The style gained momentum in the west with the publication of the various views of India by William Hodges and William Daniell and Thomas Daniell from about 1795. One of the finest examples of "Hindoo" architecture is Sezincote House (c. 1805) in Gloucestershire. Other notable buildings using the Hindoo style of Orientalism are Casa Loma in Toronto, Sanssouci in Potsdam, and Wilhelma in Stuttgart.

Chinesischer Turm in the Englischer Garten of Munich. Initial structure built 1789–1790

Chinoiserie is the catch-all term for decorations involving Chinese themes in Western Europe, beginning in the late seventeenth century and peaking in waves, especially Rococo Chinoiserie, ca 1740–1770. From the Renaissance to the eighteenth century Western designers attempted to imitate the technical sophistication of Chinese ceramics with only partial success. Early hints of Chinoiserie appear, in the seventeenth century, in the nations with active East India companies such as England, Denmark, Holland, and France. Tin-glazed pottery made at Delft and other Dutch towns adopted genuine blue-and-white Ming decoration from the early seventeenth century, and early ceramic wares at Meissen and other centers of true porcelain imitated Chinese shapes for dishes, vases, and teawares.

After 1860, Japonaiserie, sparked by the arrival of Japanese woodblock prints, became an important influence in the western arts in particular on many modern French artists such as Claude Monet. The paintings of James McNeil 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

Depictions of Islamic "Moors" and "Turks" (imprecisely named Muslim groups of North Africa and West Asia) can be found in Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque 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 decadently 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, he made his eroticized Orient publicly acceptable by his diffuse generalizing of the female forms, who might all have been of the same model. Sensual depictions of the erotic Orient were acceptable; a Western scene dressed similarly would not be. 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.

The use of the orient as an exotic backdrop continued in the movies (including many of those starring Rudolph Valentino). Later the caricature of the wealthy Arab in robes became a more popular theme, especially during the oil crisis of the 1970s. In the 1990s the Arab terrorist became a common villain figure in Western movies.

Edward Said and "Orientalism"

Léon Cogniet's 1835 depiction of Bonaparte's Egyptian Expedition expresses Western perception of "The Exotic Orient."

Edward Said, American Palestinian scholar, is best known for describing and critiquing "Orientalism," which he perceived as a constellation of false assumptions underlying Western attitudes toward the East. In Orientalism (1978), Said described the "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture."[3] He argued that a long tradition of false and romanticized images of Asia and the Middle East in Western culture had served as an implicit justification for Europe's and America's colonial and imperial ambitions. Just as fiercely, he denounced the practice of Arab elites who internalized the American and British orientalists' ideas of Arabic culture.

Both supporters of Edward Said and his critics acknowledge the profound, transformative influence that his book Orientalism has had across the spectrum of the humanities; but whereas his critics regard his influence as limiting, his supporters praise his influence as liberating.

Criticisms of Said

Critics of Said's theory, such as the historian Bernard Lewis, argue that Said's account contains many factual, methodological, and conceptual errors. They claim that Said ignores many genuine contributions to the study of Eastern cultures made by Westerners during the Enlightenment and Victorian eras. Said's theory does not explain why the French and English pursued the study of Islam in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, long before they had any control or hope of control in the Middle East. He has been criticized for ignoring the contributions of the Italians and the Dutch, and also of the massive contribution of German scholars. Lewis claims that the scholarship of these nations was more important to European Orientalism than the French or British, but the countries in question either had no colonial projects in the Mid-East (Dutch and Germans), or no connection between their Orientalist research and their colonialism (Italians). Said's theory also does not explain why much of Orientalist study did nothing to advance the cause of imperialism.

Supporters of Said and his influence

Said’s supporters argue that such criticisms, even if correct, do not invalidate his basic thesis, which they say still holds true for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and in particular for general representations of the Orient in Western media, literature, and film.[4] His supporters point out that Said himself acknowledges limitations of his studies in that they fail to address German scholarship (Orientalism 18–19) and that, in the "Afterword" to the 1995 edition of Orientalism, he, in their view, convincingly refutes his critics (329–54).

Eastern views and adaptations of the West

Ravi Varma's Woman Playing the Veena

Recently, the term Occidentalism has been coined to refer to negative views of the Western world sometimes found in Eastern societies today. For instance, derogatory or stereotyped portrayals of Westerners appear in many works of Indian, Chinese, and Japanese artists. In a similar ideological vein to Occidentalism, Eurocentrism can refer to both negative views and excessively positive views of the Western World found in discussions about "Eastern culture." Some Eastern artists adopted and adapted to Western styles. The Indian painter Ravi Varma painted several works that are virtually indistinguishable from some Western orientalist images. In the late twentieth 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 anime are written around characters, settings, themes, and mythological figures derived from various Western cultural traditions.


  1. Engrossed Senate Bill 5954 Leg.wa.gov. Retrieved September 20, 2007.
  2. J. Go, "'Racism' and Colonialism: Meanings of Difference and Ruling Practice in America's Pacific Empire," in Qualitative Sociology, Vol. 27, No. 1, March 2004.
  3. Keith Windschuttle, "Edward Said's "Orientalism revisited," The New Criterion, January 17, 1999. Retrieved November 14, 2007.
  4. See Terry Eagleton, Rev. of For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies, by Robert Irwin (London: Penguin, 2003). ISBN 0-7139-9415-0

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Davies, Kristian. 2005. The Orientalists: Western Artists in Arabia, the Sahara, Persia and India. New York: Laynfaroh. ISBN 0-9759783-0-6
  • Crawley, William. 1996. "Sir William Jones: A Vision of Orientalism," Asian Affairs, Vol. 27, Issue 2 (Jun.), pp. 163–176.
  • Halliday, Fred. 1993. "'Orientalism' and Its Critics," British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 145–163.
  • Irwin, Robert. 2006. For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies. London: Penguin/Allen Lane. ISBN 0-7139-9415-0. As Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents. New York: Overlook Press, 2006. ISBN 1-58567-835-X
  • Jersild, Austin. 2002. Orientalism and Empire: North Caucasus Mountain Peoples and the Georgian Frontier, 1845–1917. Montreal: McGill–Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-2328-6. Paperback (2003) ISBN 0-7735-2329-4

External links

All links retrieved November 17, 2022.


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