Occidentalism

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OCCIDENTALISM.

The term Occidentalism refers primarily to the many ways in which non-Western intellectuals, artists, and the general public perceive and present the West. Though it seems to be an inversion of Orientalism, it has acquired some unique aspects defying a simple definition. In fact, the practices and discourses of Occidentalism vary a great deal, from time to time and region to region. If we can arbitrarily divide certain parts of the world into West and East, then the people of the East, like their counterparts in the West, had approached an understanding and knowledge of the West long before such terms as Occidentalism and Orientalism were coined. However, it was largely due to the seminal influence of Edward Said's Orientalism that the discussion and use of the term Occidentalism gradually, from the 1990s on, gained currency in academic circles. Also, the two discourses not only juxtapose but also overlap with one another, in that the non-Western people do not perceive the West solely on their own cultural terms; rather, given the presence of Western discursive hegemony, they present the West either as a contrast, or an exemplar, reminding one of the principal practices of Orientalism among the Westerners. Different from the Orientalist discourse, which is mostly made by and for the Westerners, however, the Occidentalist discourse is made by non-Westerners for both Westerners and themselves. In the early twentieth century, for example, when a group of Japanese Buddhists attended the World's Parliament of Religion, they exercised, to borrow James Ketelaar's terminology, a "strategic Occidentalism" in promoting Buddhism both at home and to the world. They appropriated elements from Christianity, and Western culture in general, and constructed an image of the West as the contrasting Other. In so doing, they threw into relief the value of Buddhism as a more integral part in Japanese culture. They also emphasized the potentials of Buddhism for complementing Christianity and redressing its shortcomings.

East-West Dialogue and the Other

While the discussion of Occidentalism is often in juxtaposition with that of Orientalism, it can also amount to a criticism of the latter. Edward Said's critique of Orientalist writings and studies raised important questions about the Western hegemonic power in shaping the imagery of the "Orient." But like the Orientalists, as Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi charges, Said, in presenting his thesis on the Western discursive hegemony, underestimates and overlooks the intellectual power and contribution of the people in the Orient. In his study of the Persianate writings in history and travelogue by Iranians and Indians during the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, Tavakoli-Targhi notes that prior to the spread of European power, the Asians not only traveled to and wrote about Europe, contributing to Persianate Europology, but they also helped the early European Orientalists to acquire a knowledge of the Orient. In other words, in the exchanges between East and West, the East was not a passive, silent Other, as portrayed by the Orientalists (and also, ironically, as endorsed by Edward Said). Rather, argues Tavakoli-Targhi, the Persianate writers displayed equivalent intellectual capability to engage in cross-cultural communications with their Western counterparts. That the Orientals contributed to the gestation of Orientalism has also been noticed by Arif Dirlik in his study of South and East Asian history, although he casts this contribution in a more critical light.

Moreover, Occidentalism can be used, as Couze Venn has attempted, to describe the rise of Europe in modern times. In this usage, the term no longer refers to the construction of the image of the West only by the non-Western peoples. It now also includes attempts by Europeans to turn their historical experience into a universal, hegemonic model. "Occidentalism," states Venn, "thus directs attention to the becoming-modern of the world and the becoming-West of Europe such that Western modernity gradually became established as the privileged, if not hegemonic, form of sociality, tied to a universalizing and totalizing ambition" (p. 19). Engaging in this study of how Europe rose to become the West entails careful examination of the development of capitalism and spread of colonialism, not only during the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, but also, as Venn suggests, in today's world. The legacy of both are well reflected in such global forms of regulations and organizations as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the United Nations. All of them have accompanied the Western hegemony in academic discourses. While different from Edward Said's theory of Orientalism, Couze Venn's study of Occidentalism defined as such suggests a similar interest in revealing the repressive side of modernity. In this regard, Occidentalism extends, as does Said's work, the project of postcolonial critique of the modern world.

If the definition of Occidentalism is complex, this is because the interaction and dialogue between East and West have been a diverse experience, shaped by different forces under different circumstances. Even if we confine our discussion to the non-Western construction of the Western imagery, it still defies the simple understanding of it as a form of internalized Orientalism, in which the West is perceived as the exemplary Other, or of it as a defensive reaction against the West, in which the West is seen as a devilish Other. In addition to the various attempts to portray the West, Occidentalism has another dimension, or "double reflection" in Meltem Ahiska's analysis, that the non-Western also seeks to imagine how its image is perceived by the West. This is because the Occidentalist discourses often emerged as a result of the Western expansion to the world, which made it urgent and necessary not only for the non-Western to form its national and cultural identity, but also to do so by emulating and extending the Western model. It demands that the non-West seek identification of the West on the one hand in forming its modernity and, on the other hand, draw a line of demarcation between Self and Other in order to bolster its own contradistinctive identity.

China and Occidentalism

In the discussion on Occidentalism, scholars in the China field, including native Chinese scholars living in China and overseas, are quite active. This is perhaps because compared to its neighbors in Asia, China boasts a long historical and cultural entity and, since the mid-nineteenth century when its conflict with the West commenced, has remained quite resilient in resisting the Western influence and maintaining its cultural heritage. This marks a stark contrast to Meiji Japan in which a wholesale Westernization was set in motion almost as soon as the country was opened by and to the West. In China's cultural terrain until today, the ChinaWest dichotomy appears quite salient, which suggests that the Chinese by and large have maintained, despite the ups and downs of their history, a clear self-awareness while constructing their relation with and perception of the West. In the New Culture movement of the early twentieth century, which was often perceived as a radical rupture of the Chinese cultural tradition, this self-awareness remained quite visible. In seeking a national identity, which was a main goal of the movement, the participants not only drew inspiration from the West, but also considered the Soviet experience. Moreover, despite its iconoclastic appearance, the movement did not entirely discard tradition. Instead, it gave rise to the National Studies project, in which the enthusiasm for modern science was translated into an endeavor at identifying similar, indigenous elements in the past.

This keen and persistent self-awareness bore upon the ways in which the modern Chinese imagined and construed the West. In her Occidentalism: A Theory of Counter-Discourse in Post-Mao China, Xiaomei Chen has identified two tracks of Occidentalist discourses in modern China. One is called Maoist, or official Occidentalism, in which the West is portrayed as the demon. The other is anti-official Occidentalism, advanced by various groups of the intelligentsia, in which the West becomes a useful metaphor for their critique of domestic oppression. Though the origin of Maoist Occidentalism can be traced back to the second half of the nineteenth century, marked by China's defeats in confronting the Western intrusion, it culminated in the 1940s and the 1950s as the Communists rose to power and founded the People's Republic of China (PRC). By depicting the West as the imperialist aggressor, it incited nationalist sentiment among the Chinese and instigated their animosity toward the West. In so doing, it enabled the PRC government, in Chen's words, to use this essentialized West "as a means for supporting a nationalism that effects the internal suppression of its own people. In this process, the Western Other is construed by a Chinese imagination, not for the purpose of dominating the West, but in order to discipline, and ultimately to dominate, the Chinese self at home" (p. 5). While Chen's work mainly describes this type of Occidentalism in 1980s China, judging from China's situation today, its practice seems to have not only persisted but also intensified as the country often sees surges of ultranationalistic behavior in its (young) populace. This ultranationalistic, anti-West sentiment is not entirely spontaneous, but has a good deal to do with the PRC government's decades-long nationalist propaganda, which often taps into the historical pride of the people.

Like its counterpart, anti-official Occidentalism also has a history that predated the founding of the PRC. It originated in the New Culture movement of the 1920s, if not earlier, in which the Western idea of democracy was invoked as a means to shore up the fledgling Republic in the face of warlordism and factionalism. In the post-Mao years when the PRC intellectuals reflected critically upon the tragic legacy of the Cultural Revolution (19661976), they sought to revisit and revive certain themes of the New Culture movement. This revivalist endeavor gave rise to "a powerful anti-official discourse using the Western Other as a metaphor for a political liberation against ideological oppression within a totalitarian society" (Chen, p. 8). Central to this anti-official Occidentalist discourse was the production of Heshang (River elegy), a TV documentary mini-series that aired nationally in China in 1988. It became a cause célèbre in the history of the PRC's TV industry, for while it attracted hundreds and thousands of viewers across social strata, it was also criticized by professional historians and later banned by the government. The criticisms centered on Heshang 's presentation of Chinese cultural tradition vis-à-vis modern Western culture, or Orient versus Occident, because the producers and writers, elevating the iconoclasm of the New Culture movement to a new level, vilified the Chinese cultural heritage and denied its relevance to modern life. Meanwhile, it glorified Western civilization, praising its openness, adventurousness, and youthfulness, to which the advance of capitalism and technology of the modern world were attributed. This ChinaWest dichotomy was rendered vividly in Heshang 's cinematic presentation, in which the Yellow River and yellow earth, symbols of Chinese civilization, conveyed a deeply sorrowful feeling of death and stagnation, whereas the West was symbolized by the azure blue ocean, emanating energy and liveliness. These contrasting images appealed to the Chinese audience who, in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, were still haunted by the terrible memories of the country's recent past and frustrated by the setbacks in the century-long search for wealth and power. While seemingly a cultural critique, marking a climax of the "Culture Fever" (wenhua re ) movement prevalent at the time, Heshang 's Occidentalism was, argues Xiaomei Chen, a counter-discourse to official Occidentalism, because it indirectly and effectively translated this public frustration into a veiled criticism of the palpable failure of the Communist government.

The divergent ways in constructing the Western imagery in contemporary China underscore that it is important for us to consider the context in which various forms of Occidentalist discourse have occurred. The attention paid to this context question can also help highlight the essential difference in the constructions of Orientalism and Occidentalism. Different from Edward Said's critique of Orientalism, in which he presents the East-West dichotomy in an invariable manner in order to stress the Western dominance of power, the presentation of the Occidentalist discourse has shown that such relationships can be quite flexible, depending on the specific sociocultural context. This is because when the Orientals perceive the West, their perception is shaped not only by the international and global climate of the modern world, but also by the domestic context in which such perception is called for. This consideration, too, should be applied to the Orientals' construction of the Self, because such an image is also often constructed and presented under and for the Western gaze. This practice of presenting Self for the Western Other has been given various terms, such as "Orientals' Orientalism," "self-imposed Orientalism," and "cooperative Orientalism." But to the extent that it is predicated on a projection by non-Westerners onto the West on which they set out to present their own cultures, it also amounts to a form of Occidentalism. The Japanese Buddhists' endeavor at promoting their persuasion to the Western world is a good example of this.

A more current example is shown in the success of the "fifth-generation" Chinese movie directors, led by Zhang Yimou, in winning numerous awards for their productions at movie festivals in the West from the 1990s on. What made their success particularly salient as a form of Occidentalism is that while Zhang and others produced works about China and Chinese culture, their productions were often not shown within China. This was sometimes the result of government bans, but a more important reason seemed to be that these movies were originally tailored to the taste of the Western audience. While the moviemakers visualize and represent China, what they actually accomplish is rather an imaginary West based on their own projections. Judging from their successes at Western movie festivals, their understanding of the West and, moreover, their imagination of how China would likely be perceived by the West, are quite correspondent with the reality. However, their presentations of China, ironically, were often not approved by their compatriots back home.

If this exercise of Occidentalism acts on an anticipation of how the Western Other is to gaze at the Self, there seems another way in which the Western Other is shown more accessible and cooperative for the Self. After China opened its doors to the world in the early 1980s, there appeared a series of novels (some of them also made into TV shows) depicting the experiences of Chinese students and immigrants living in the West, such as Zhou Li's Manhadun de Zhongguo nuren (1993; A Chinese woman in Manhattan), Yu Heizi's Bolin de tiaozao (1993; Fleas in Berlin), and Cao Guilin's Beijingren zai niuyue (1994; A native of Beijing in New York). A recurrent theme in these novels is that in order for a Chinese to succeed in the West, he or she must first know how to approach a thorough understanding of Western lifestyle and culture and adjust his or her life accordingly. But the Other never dominates the Self completely. Rather, it works with the Self in effecting the latter's ultimate success, an end that most of the protagonists managed to achieve. In this presentation, the East and West/Self and Other divide central to Said's critique of Orientalism becomes increasingly blurred. It thus calls for considerations of various contexts in which such conceptions are imagined and construed. This call for historical specificity perhaps marks the most notable contribution that the discourses of Occidentalism have made to our understanding of the world.

See also Orientalism ; Other, The, European Views of .

bibliography

Ahiska, Meltem. "Occidentalism: The Historical Fantasy of the Modern." The South Atlantic Quarterly 102, nos. 2/3 (2003): 351379.

Chen, Xiaomei. Occidentalism: A Theory of Counter-Discourse in Post-Mao China. 2nd ed. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

Dirlik, Arif. "Chinese History and the Question of Orientalism." History and Theory 35, no. 4 (1996): 96118.

Ketelaar, James. "Strategic Occidentalism: Meiji Buddhists at the World's Parliament of Religions." Buddhist-Christian Studies 11 (1991): 3756.

Snodgrass, Judith. Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Columbian Exposition. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Tavakoli-Targhi, Mohamad. Refashioning Iran: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and Historiography. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave, 2001.

Venn, Couze. Occidentalism: Modernity and Subjectivity. London and Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2000.

Q. Edward Wang

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