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ORIENTALISM . Once associated with the exotic "Eastern" themes and styles of Eugene Delacroix's, James McNeill Whistler's, and John Singer Sargent's paintings; Victor Hugo's Les Orientales ; and Gustave Flaubert's Salammbô (though related representations also can be found in subjects ranging from world fairs to such Hollywood films as The Thief of Baghdad and Lawrence of Arabia ), the term Orientalism has come to denote a broader complex of discursive assumptions and institutional (especially academic) practices that regulate the understanding, appreciation, and domination of the West'smore precisely, Europe'ssupposed "Other." In the study of religion, both from confessional dogmatic and secular comparatist perspectives, Orientalism evokes the tendency to mystify, caricature, homogenize, and petrify Asian and North African cultural systems, whether via idealization or via demonization, viewing them as contrasting to and often opposing such "Western" concepts as privatized and rationalized belief or the separation of church and state. Indeed, the modern definition and application of the concept "religion" as a universal category seems a first large step in the direction of Orientalism, as scholars such as Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Talal Asad have argued.

The work of Edward W. Said (19352003), especially his path-breaking Orientalism (2003), first published in 1978, initiated this shift in the meaning of the term. His Orientalism offers trenchant criticism of "Orientalist" scholarship and calls for a theoretical and interdisciplinary rearrangement of knowledge in relation to questions of power and empire that would seek not a new field of research but more integrated and self-reflective approaches in the scholarly study of the global South and East. Subsequent postcolonial, subaltern, and, more broadly, cultural studies, all of which attempt to shed light on increasingly manifold forms of multicultural identities, have greatly benefited from his work. Said himself, however, retained an allegiance to his early literary training in close reading and philology (a training evident in his scrupulous and detailed analyses), and he was at times, as in Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2004), somewhat dismissive of "contemporary critics who prefer what is implicit to what the text actually says" (p. 88).

Said's definition of the term Orientalism has multiple facets. In his book Orientalism he seeks to present and interpret it "as a historical phenomenon, a way of thought, a contemporary problem, and a material reality" (p. 44). In part, this complexity results from his historical insight into the "Orient" as "that semi-mythical construct which since Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in the late eighteenth century has been made and re-made countless times by power acting through an expedient form of knowledge" (p. xiii); in part, it hinges on his conviction that the "sometimes sympathetic but always dominating scrutiny" (p. 57) directed toward things "oriental" entails, not just an economy and an anthropology, but an entire epistemology and ontology, whose axioms and protracted effects must be uncovered by a patient "genealogy."

Although European characterizations of the Orient date back to the Athenian plays of Aeschylus (The Persians ) and Euripides (The Bacchae ), and the exploration and exploitation of its central tropes can already be traced in Herodotus and Alexander the Great, Said dates the fateful, as it were official, beginnings of the hegemonic regulation and objectification of this geographical referent and its accompanying imagry much later. Greece and Rome had conceptions of the "primitive," as Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas document in their classic Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (1935 [1997]), but only in the Christian Middle Ages did Orientalism find its first expression as "a field of learned study." In Orientalism Said writes: "In the Christian West, Orientalism is considered to have commenced its formal existence with the decision of the Church Council of Vienna in 1312 to establish a series of chairs in 'Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac at Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Avignon, and Salamanca'" (pp. 4950, quoting Southern, Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages ). These chairs were not exactly disinterested, given that the suggestion came from Raymond Lull, who recommended the study of Arabic out of zeal to use it as a tool in converting Muslims and refuting Arabic philosophy. But such instrumentalization was always counterbalanced by an ambiguous fascination, so that "between the Middle Ages and the eighteenth century such major authors as Ariosto, Milton, Marlowe, Tasso, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and the authors of the Chanson de Roland and the Poema del Cid drew on the Orient's riches for their productions, in ways that sharpened the outlines of imagery, ideas, and figures populating it" (p. 63). Said cites "the Sphinx, Cleopatra, Eden, Troy, Sodom and Gomorrah, Astarte, Isis and Osiris, Sheba, Babylon, the Genii, the Magi" (p. 63), but other examples of the lure of the "exotic" are legion.

In the central pages of Orientalism Said traces the academic establishment of the field from the late eighteenth century onward, focusing especially on the insinuation of power into even the most recondite fields and its imbrication in their constitution. Key representatives in this development are Johann David Michaelis and Friedrich Schlegel in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany, Ernest Renan and Louis Massignon in nineteenth- and twentieth-century France, and C. Snouck Hurgronje in the twentieth-century Netherlands. In their very different approaches to the biblical text, the "wisdom of India," the figure of Jesus, and the mystical elements in Islam, these scholars all seemed to agree on "the linguistic importance of the Orient to Europe," as well as on the "unchanging, uniform, and radically peculiar" nature of the Orient as an "object" whose golden age was steadily projected into a bygone past and whose present was therefore historically tied to a "latent inferiority" (pp. 98, 209).

Preoccupation with the Orient led to the founding of many learned and trading societies, just as perceived interest in safeguarding a seemingly undivided Christian West motivated the establishment of explicitly missionary organizations such as the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (founded in 1698), the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (1701), the Baptist Missionary Society (1792), the Church Missionary Society (1799), the British and Foreign Bible Society (1804), and many others. The institutional embedding of "Orientalism" was thus alsoif not first and foremostreligiously or theologically-politically inflected. The genealogy of "Orientalism" Said proposes needs to unravel this connection.

Said's analysis is based upon a certain conception of humanism and humanistic studies, however, and therefore on the opposition between "secular criticism" and "religious criticism," a distinction introduced in Orientalism and elaborated in his later The Word, the Text, and the Critic (1983) and Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2003). In the preface to the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of Orientalism, he asserts that there is "a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of coexistence and humanistic enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate for the purposes of control and external dominion" (p. xix), a claim juxtaposed to his ambition to "use humanistic critique to open up the fields of struggle" (p. xxii). Can his appeal to "worldly secular discourse" and to the "secular world" as "the world of history as made by human beings" (p. xxix) admit a nuanced assessment of the role of religion in his narrative? An attempt to answer this question yields two conflicting elements.

On the one hand, Said's analysis undoes certain preconceptions in the study of Islam, especially concerning Islam's relation to modern notions of private faith, religious experience, violence, and democracy. Stressing the many communities of interpretation and the need to differentiate between historical periods, geographical locations, and individual thinkers, he insists on the importance of avoiding generalizations and stereotypes, including where "religion" is at issue.

On the other hand, Said's project remains based on an unapologetic "'residual' humanism" (p. 339), which sees in religion, even in its broadest and richest definition, stripped of its narrow Protestant and Enlightenment association with a privately held faith, a limited and far from perennial constituent in the psychic and social dimensions of power and knowledge. As Said notes in The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), religion, in this view, is "an agent of closure, shutting off human investigation, criticism, and effort in deference to the authority of the more-than-human, the supernatural, the other-worldly" (p. 290). One can understand Said's reluctance to give in to the "contemporary Manichean theologizing of the 'Other'" (p. 291), but here, in fact, may lie the greatest weakness of his overall project: the suggestion in Culture and Imperialism (1993) that all "'returns' to culture and tradition" go hand in hand with intellectual and moral codes that undercut "such relatively liberal philosophies as multiculturalism" and in decolonized countries lead largely to "varieties of religious and nationalist fundamentalism" (p. xiii). Although he seems aware of the historical, geopolitical, and imaginative role of "public religion" (the expression is from José Casanova in Public Religions in the Modern World [1994]) in the transition from secular nationalism to different formations of political Islam, well beyond his general observations in Orientalism that "what appears in the West to be the emergence, return to, or resurgence of Islam is in fact a struggle in Islamic societies over the definition of Islam," and that no "one person, authority, or institution has total control over that definition" (p. 332), Said apparently does not count "religion"or the theologico-politicalas a potentially emancipatory or empowering, let alone democratizing and humanizing force per se. The remarkable "return to religion" reinforced and refracted by the complicated economic and cultural processes of globalization and driven by the newest technological media therefore poses an anomaly that his overall historical and cultural analysis has difficulty in assessing. In Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2003) he speaks of religion mostly in terms of "religious enthusiasm," which he considers "perhaps the most dangerous of threats to the humanistic enterprise, since it is patently antisecular and antidemocratic in nature, and, in its monotheistic forms as a kind of politics, is by definition about as intolerantly inhumane and downright unarguable as can be" (p. 51). In Said's account, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Hindu fundamentalism are not fundamentally different in this respect.

This being said, the premises and arguments of Said's project nonetheless provide a model for analyzing processes of religious conflict and dialogue, missionary expansion and ecumenical cooperation, proselytizing and conversion, apologetics and the self-explication of faith seeking understanding in confrontation with different epochs, locations, and cultures.

In Orientalism Said leaves no doubt that the critique of Orientalism should not be confused with "anti-Westernism" (pp. 330, 334). He distances himself from the claim, imputed to Orientalism, that the historical phenomenon of Orientalism is "a synecdoche, or miniature symbol, of the entire West, and indeed ought to be taken to represent the West as whole" (pp. 330331). On the contrary, Said emphasizes repeatedly that he "has no 'real' Orient to argue for," which is a way of saying that "neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability," each being "made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other," and also that "words such as 'Orient' and 'Occident' correspond to no stable reality that exists as a natural fact," meaning that "all such geographical designations are an odd combination of the empirical and the imaginative" (p. 331). Ultimately, Orientalism and its related studies thus seek to effect a process of unlearning (a term from Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 17801950 [New York, 1958]) in whichat least the dominant mode of interpretingthe "Orient" and the "Occident" will be eliminated altogether (p. 28). Yet Said leaves no doubt that in this and similar relationships of opposition, polarity, and mirroring, "the development and maintenance of every culture require the existence of another, different and competing alter ego. The construction of identity involves the construction of opposites and 'others' whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and re-interpretation of their differences from 'us'" (p. 332).

Indeed, Said writes, "even the primitive community we belong to natally is not immune from the interpretive contest," and the constructed "others" upon which the construction of identity depends may be "outsiders and refugees, or apostates and infidels" (p. 332). All others are not created equal, however. Orientalism and Hellenism are crucially different, for example: "The former is an attempt to describe a whole region of the world as an accompaniment to that region's colonial conquest, the latter is not at all about the direct colonial conquest of Greece in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; in addition, Orientalism expresses antipathy to Islam, Hellenism sympathy for classical Greece" (p. 342).

Said points out in Culture and Imperialism, however, that the relationship between European expansion and the non-West was never merely unilateral: "there was always some form of active resistance [armed or cultural], and in the overwhelming majority of cases, the resistance finally won out" (p. xii). Such a conclusion defies the modern understanding of identities and requires, in the historiography of Orientalism and empire, an approach that is no longer "linear and subsuming," but "contrapuntal and often nomadic," not least because "all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogenous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic" (p. xxv).

Said's work has been taken to task by critics, notably Bernard Lewis in his Islam and the West, as lacking in nuance and attacking scholarship that can claim more disinterest than Said allows. Others have pointed out that some Orientalists were themselves active opponents of colonialism and imperialism (and not just in the name of an idealized "Orient"), and that non-Western nationalists were, in turn, inspired by Western "Orientalist" writings or adopted the caricatures of themselves as "Other." Still other critics have decried Said's political engagement, since 1967, in the Palestinian cause for national self-determination (as he himself notes in Orientalism, "with full attention paid to the reality of the Jewish people and what they suffered by way of persecution and genocide" [p. xxiii]).

Yet Said views the psychological, ideological, and social complex of "Orientalism" as the counterpart and "secret sharer of Western anti-Semitism" (p. 27). As in the writings of the early Frankfurt School, notably "Elements of Anti-Semitism" in Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno's classic Dialectic of Enlightenment, the analysis of "Orientalism" details a historically and culturally determined structure and comportment of prejudice ultimately based upon a mechanism of projection. Depictions of Islam that start from analogy to Christian premisesnamely, that "Mohammed was to Islam as Christ was to Christianity" (p. 60)then proceed to erroneous and pejorative characterizations of Islam as "Mohammedanism" and of Muammed as an "impostor" are just one example of how the imaginary geography of Orientalism transposes a never-ending list of qualifications onto a supposedly amorphous "Other" whose contours and meaning, let alone intentions and self-interpretations, seem all but irrelevant: "the Orient acquired representatives and representations, each one more concrete, more internally congruent with some Western exigency, than the ones that preceded it. It is as if, having once settled on the Orient as a locale suitable for incarnating the infinite in a finite shape, Europe could not stop the practice; the Orient and the Oriental, Arab, Islamic, Indian, Chinese, or whatever, become repetitious pseudo-incarnations of some great original (Christ, Europe, the West), they were supposed to have been imitating" (p. 62).

Although in their accounts of primitive myth, magic, and shamanism the neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt School's first generation continued the Orientalist blind spots Said identifies in Marx's own 1848 The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and 1853 articles on British rule in India (as did, after them, Jürgen Habermas in adopting Max Weber's acceptance of European exceptionalism vis-à-vis China into Theory of Communicative Action ), one of Horkheimer and Adorno's insights is important here. They knew well that where imitation fails (and it necessarily does), discriminatory judgment and ultimately persecution must result.

By contrast, Said offers a non-Marxist critique of power and knowledge based on the heterodox ideas of Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, notably his concept of "hegemony," and on the concept of "discursive formation" from Michel Foucault's The Archeology of Knowledge and Discipline and Punish. Although, as discursive formation, Orientalism could be seen as a "system for citing works and authors," Said in Orientalism corrects Foucault in order to recognize "the determining imprint of individual writers upon the otherwise collective body of texts" (p. 23), the way they count for something in the constitution of its power.

Since the publication of Orientalism, scholars have pursued its line of thought in many different geographical and imaginative contexts. Said's own Culture and Imperialism broadens his earlier perspective by including critical studies on "a more general pattern of relationships between the modern metropolitan West and its overseas territories" (p. xi), such as Africa, the Caribbean, and Australia, whereas other scholars have focused on the construction of identity in the Western approach to the "religions of the East," whether on the Indian subcontinent or in Southeast Asia, China, and Japan. Thus, the volume Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia (1993), edited by Carol E. Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer, explores the ways in which colonial administrators constructed knowledge about the society and culture of India and the processes through which that knowledge has shaped past and current perceptions of Indian reality. These and other contributions to "modern cultural theory" would seem to confirm Said's view, expressed in his 1994 afterword to Orientalism, that "cultures are hybrid and heterogenous and that cultures and civilizations are so interrelated and interdependent as to beggar any unitary or simply delineated description of their individuality" (p. 347).

More recently, the discussion around Orientalism has been shadowed by a parallel consideration of "Occidentalism," as if to challenge Said's claim that "no one is likely to imagine a field symmetrical to [Orientalism] called Occidentalism" (p. 50). In Occidentalism (2004) Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit describe Occidentalism as the "Orientalist view upside down" (p. 10) and hence as the "dehumanizing picture of the West painted by its enemies," directed at the scientific and secular worldview, global capitalism, sexual liberties, pop culture, and a "cluster of prejudices" whose "historical roots," they argue, lie in Europe and its Enlightenment (p. 5). This "hateful caricature" of Western modernity in terms of a mechanical or "machine civilization" is contrasted by Occidentalists to a (lost) ideal of organic and totalizing spirituality (pp. 6, 7).

In contrast to the hardening of opposites in Occidentalism, the true legacy of the Orientalism discussion will surely lie not only in a far more complex understanding of cultural interrelation but in unsettling the categories of Orient and Occident themselves. French phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas has likewise come, via a different, philosophical route, to the conclusion that the categories of the West and the non-West should be demythologized, indeed, deontologized. He repeatedly claims that Western metaphysics, which he associates with Greece and especially Athens, has fallen prey to a disorientation (désorientation), a certain forgetfulness or faithlessness with respect to what one might term its Oriental Other (or at least one of them): the monotheistic tradition of the Bible and Jerusalem.

Setting Levinas alongside Said highlights a weakness in the former, namely, that an all too abstract conception of the Orient tends to elide precisely the Arab populations Said, in his writings and his life, worked tirelessly to advocate. Yet in Levinas's view Greek thought has rightly destroyed the idolatrous and primitivist yearning for participation in diffuse, irrational totalities (of nature, people, collective sentiment). Moreover, Levinas's recognition of an intrinsic instability in both the truths of philosophical reason and the revelation of religious tradition can give us a new perspective on the significance of Orientalism. In critical opposition to both Lévy-Bruhl's Primitive Mentality and Lévi-Strauss's The Savage Mind, Levinas insists that Europeanizationthe philosophical project of Western modernityand de-Europeanization, including decolonialization and the critique of imperialism, go hand-in-hand. The deconstruction of Europe's investment in knowing and dominating a constructed Other itself relies on eminently European notions of rational discourse, scriptural learning, and hermeneutic sensibility. But to say that all passes through "the West," Levinas knows, is not the same as to claim that everything originatesor endsthere.

Said's Orientalism, informed by its author's commitment to European humanism and his training in the field of comparative literature, with roots in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Germany and especially philology, is an excellent example of the de-Europeanization for which Levinas calls. Moreover, Europe's Orient, as Said points out in Orientalism, is a reminder that constructions and projections of the Other may not be so distant from the self after all: historically, "the Orient is not only adjacent to Europe," not only its "cultural contestant," but also "the source of its civilizations and languages" (p. 1)and, we might add, of what historically have been its dominant religions.


The texts by Said discussed are: Orientalism (New York, 1978; all page references are to the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of 2003); The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, Mass., 1984); Culture and Imperialism (New York, 1993); and Humanism and Democratic Criticism (New York, 2004). A large body of literature has been produced in response to or inspired by Orientalism. See especially: Nicholas B. Dirks, ed., Colonialism and Culture (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1992); Carol E. Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer, eds., Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia (Philadelphia, 1993); Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe (Princeton, N.J., 2000); and a volume published on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Orientalism, Inge E. Boer, ed., After Orientalism: Critical Entanglements, Productive Looks (Amsterdam, 2004). On the question of religion, see: Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (New York, 1962); Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (London, 1993); Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India, and the "Mystic East" (London, 1999); William D. Hart, Edward Said and the Religious Effects of Culture (Cambridge, U.K., 2000); and José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago, 1994). For eighteenth- and nineteenth-century examples of Orientalist biblical scholarship, see: Jonathan M. Hess, "Johann David Michaelis and the Colonial Imaginary: Orientalism and the Emergence of Racial Antisemitism in Eighteenth-Century Germany," Jewish Social Studies 6, no. 2 (2000): 56101; and Halvor Moxness, "Renan's Vie de Jesus as Representation of the Orient," in Jews, Antiquity, and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination, edited by Hayim Lapin and Dale B. Martin, pp. 85108 (Bethesda, Md., 2003). On the representation of Islam, see R. W. Southern, Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass., 1962) and Edmund Burke III, "Orientalism and World History: Representing Middle Eastern Nationalism and Islamism in the Twentieth Century," Theory and Society 27, no. 4 (August 1998): 589607. On what could be called Orientalism's predecessor concept, primitivism, see Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, with supplementary essays by W. F. Albright and P.-E. Dumont (Baltimore, 1935; reprint 1997). On the relationship between Marxism and Orientalism, see Karl August Wittfogel's Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (New York, 1981), which attempted to do for non-Western societies, notably China, what Marx and Engels had done for Europe. Marx had used this terminology in 1853 in his articles on British rule in India. See also Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 17801950 (London, 1958). On Orientalism's parallel concept, "Occidentalism," see Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies (New York, 2004) and Xiaomei Chen, Occidentalism: A Theory of Counter-Discourse in Post-Mao China (New York, 1995). On Kant and the religious construction of identity and ethnicity, see Hent de Vries, Religion and Violence: Philosophical Perspectives from Kant to Derrida (Baltimore, 2002). Emmanuel Levinas's most representative writings on the question of Europe and the West are Difficile liberté: Essais sur le judaïsme (Paris, 1976), translated as Difficult Freedom (Baltimore, 1990), and Totalité et infini: Essai sur l'extériorité (the Hague, 1961), translated as Totality and Infinity (Pittsburgh, 1969). On the question of globalization and the technological media, see Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber, eds., Religion and Media (Stanford, Calif., 2001).

Hent de Vries (2005)


views updated May 23 2018


Orientalism is a concept whose meaning has evolved from its first uses in British and French cultures in the age of European imperialism, when it referred specifically to political governance and visual art. Now, in its contemporary postcolonial valence, Orientalism is understood as the powerful discourse embodying Western attitudes toward Asia. Orientalism first defined a particular attitude to British imperial policy in India in the late eighteenth century, which valued the languages, laws, and culture of the subjugated colony. This response fostered academic disciplines founded on intellectual inquiry into all aspects of Islamic and Hindu India and, later, other Near and Far Eastern colonies occupied by the British. In France, early in the nineteenth century, Orientalism, in a more limited way, described a particular genre of painting and the popular vogue for Middle Eastern and North African subject matter in art.

In these contexts, Orientalism had positive, or neutral, meanings. But since the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism in 1978, along with the work of Said's contemporaries Anouar Abdel-Malek, A. L. Tibawi, and Bryan Turner, the limits of the term have expanded, with more negative connotations, to encompass cultural production in all forms. Most important, Orientalism has been refigured in terms of the discourses that have produced a controlling Western master narrative to comprehend the East—which is seen as mysterious, inscrutable, threatening, despotic, childlike, erotic, savage, mystical, perverse, and uncivilized. Said's epochal work has itself spawned much debate about the degree to which Asia has been imagined, represented, and governed in purely Orientalist terms, with many scholars revising Said's theory of Orientalism to allow for a more complex and nuanced rendition of the West's relations to the East. While Said initially posited Orientalism as the expression of a monolithic European domination over the colonized Other, further explorations of the concept have revealed that the full scope of the West's cultural engagement with Asia has been marked by both mutual influence and resistance, respect and opprobrium, fascination and fear, attraction and repulsion. Indeed, revisionist scholarship has uncovered the degree to which the East was able to undermine and challenge cultural appropriation by the West as well as irrevocably alter the cultural landscape of the West.


The influence of Orientalism has been much less apparent in the United States than in Europe because America has, despite the actuality of history, denied being an imperial power. America has habitually clung to a myth of itself as unsullied by the desire for overseas empire, and yet it is easy to trace a fascination with the East in American culture, given the nation's occasional forays into Asia in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century and the very presence of immigrants from Asia on American soil. If nothing else, Orientalist impulses in America manifested themselves as surface decoration in a vast range of cultural production, both elite and popular. Orientalizing urges to ornament ran the gamut, in 1903 alone, from Henry James's (1843–1916) fanciful description of The Golden Bowl's (1904) Fanny Assingham as "a daughter . . . of the East, a creature formed by hammocks and divans" (p. 34) to the illuminated minarets of Coney Island's Luna Park. And a full engagement with Asia by such eminent figures as the artists Mary Cassatt and James McNeill Whistler, the poets Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell, the travel writer Lafcadio Hearn, the playwright David Belasco, the novelistStephen Crane, the satirist Mark Twain, and the film directors D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille comprises a significant body of work that reflects America's awareness of the Orient as an inspirational, alluring, and terrifying space upon which to project American national desires and anxieties—as well as America's sense of itself as a uniquely forward- and outward-looking culture of assimilation (however uneasy) and modernity (however socially retrograde).

There was no single originating moment in American Orientalism, because Asian motifs and themes in the visual and applied arts were omnipresent in the European culture imported to America well before the mid-nineteenth century (such as Spode's Willow Ware). But a signal event in American fascination with the Orient came in 1854, when an American naval officer, Matthew C. Perry, forced Japan to open trade with the West. Gradually Japan, after the Meiji restoration (1868), was willing to engage with the West, and by 1882 the Japanese had replaced the Chinese as the largest Asian group to immigrate to America. So by the end of the nineteenth century the American mainland had become a contact zone between Asians and other Americans, however much Asians were despised and disenfranchised (as they were in the 1879 California state constitution, which denied suffrage to all "natives of China, idiots, and insane persons").


Indeed, the very worst tendencies of American nativism and racism frequently emerged in American cultural production that attempted to engage with the Orient. Bret Harte's (1836–1902) hugely popular 1870 poem "The Heathen Chinee" articulated the full range of attitudes to which Asians were subjected: bemused condescension for their charming childlike ways, hatred for their manipulative duplicity, and a mixture of fascination and terror at their exotic Otherness. Even the lofty patrician Henry Adams (1838–1918), in his account of an 1886 visit to Japan, considered it a "child's country . . . a nursery" (p. 17). Later, in a letter to John Hay, Adams found Japan to be "primitive," and he described the people in overtly simian terms. More well-meaning works still infantilized the Asian. A prime example would be David Belasco and John Luther Long's cross-racial stage romance Madame Butterfly (1900), which emphasized the long-suffering, masochistic passivity and childlike nature of the female protagonist, however much it cast her American lover Pinkerton in an unsympathetic light.

Racist fears of a "Yellow Peril" were reinforced during the American occupation of the Philippines after 1898 and American involvement in suppressing the Chinese Boxer uprising (1900). Stephen Crane's potboiler Active Service (1898), set in the Greco-Turkish War, posits the Turks as a dark, amorphous horde threatening the protagonists Rufus and Nora, sparring war correspondents seeking adventure and fame. The couple's love-hate relationship becomes the novel's focus, and Nora is defined in Orientalist terms as an alluring figure of Otherness because she represents the destabilizing threat of the American New Woman. Orientalizing characters became a stock method writers used to make their characters seem "different," dangerously seductive, decadent. Kate Chopin, for example, did this in The Awakening (1899), in the scene at Edna's party when Mrs. Highcamp's garland of roses transforms Victor into "a vision of Oriental beauty" (p. 110). So, too, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905), in which the arriviste Jew Simon Rosedale's physical appearance is associated with conventionally represented Asian characteristics, especially his "small sidelong eyes" (p. 249). Mrs. Hatch, one of Lily Bart's way stations along her sordid road down and down the social hierarchy, is criticized for her "Oriental indolence and disorder" (p. 267). These negative connotations of the East were inextricably linked to America's occasional interventions in Asia during the nineteenth century. But such one-dimensional manifestations of Orientalism, however ethnocentric and demeaning to the Other, were merely one aspect of a more complex cultural dynamic of attraction and repulsion that ultimately served to further familiarize Americans with the presence of Asia in the economic, political, and—most importantly for cultural production—imaginary realms. The Orient, in the American mind, was less the product of mimetic or realistic representation than a diametrically opposed Other against which a sense of essential American identity, however illusory, could take form.


As a sort of manifesto for Orientalism, Walt Whitman's (1819–1892) poem "Passage to India" (1870) celebrated the closeness of the West and East made increasingly real by advances in technology. Just as the American continent was connected by the joining of the Union and Central Pacific railroads, so was Asia becoming easier to reach and traverse thanks to the completion of the Suez Canal. Whitman's poem conceives geographical connectedness between the two hemispheres; more than that, it is a self-reflexive meditation on the power of the Orient to incite a kind of ecstatic artistic inspiration, for the poet catalogs the epic histories of the entire Eastern Hemisphere as a means of lauding the idea of visionary mastery in all forms. The poet is especially inspired by Marco Polo, Batouta the Moor, and other adventurers and explorers, linking himself to their quests: "Doubts to be solv'd, the map incognita, blanks to be fill'd" (p. 536). American Orientalism could be said to act on that same questing desire to fulfill curiosity and exert agency in the world: "The foot of man unstay'd, the hands never at rest. Thyself, O soul, that will not brook a challenge" (p. 536), he apostrophizes.

Whitman's Orientalism enunciated itself in typically huge, expansive gestures. By contrast, Herman Melville's (1819–1891) Clarel (1876) takes its title character on a contemporary journey to the Holy Land, and at the end of it Clarel finds the experience a meaningless and solitary one. Amid a collective of "strangers and exiles" (p. 497), he finds his encounter with the Orient dispiriting; unlike Whitman, with his effusive delight in global unification through technology, Clarel notes the irony of humankind's ability to "wire the world" via cables "far under the sea" while unable to hear any "message from beneath the stone" of biblical history (pp. 497–498).


So, as Melville's long narrative poem articulates, the reality of cultural producers' appropriation of Asia was, of course, frequently less magnificent in execution and borne of far less-idealistic grandiosity than Whitman's. Indeed, much American Orientalism had the intended and unintended effect of embracing and embodying kitsch. The intentional appropriation and parody of Orientalist stereotypes and aesthetic conventions was merely one way of acknowledging the complexities inherent in viewing the East. Kate Chopin's (1851–1904) short story, "The Egyptian Cigarette" seems at first to represent the Orient in a degrading manner, as a space for the West's exotic fantasies to run amok. Chopin's narrator expresses a hallucinatory vision of the Arab world that is, on the surface, stereotypically hyperbolic in its exoticism and Technicolor eroticism. Yet in the story's very excess, Chopin makes gentle fun of popular urges to represent the East in purely fantastic terms, most apparently in cigarette advertising.

Some of that same parodic or satiric spirit is omnipresent in Mark Twain's (1835–1910) writings about Asia. Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (1897), for example, mocks the very processes of Orientalizing Asia. The chapter "In Ceylon" complains that Cairo was insufficiently Oriental, that it was "a tempered Orient—an Orient with an indefinite something wanting" (p. 339). Ceylon, according to the narrative voice, "was Oriental in the last measure of completeness—utterly Oriental" (p. 339). Ceylon perfectly meets the traveler's preconceptions of what the Orient should be, a riot of lush tropical foliage and colorful, exotic dress. Twain piles on the descriptive narrative to an excessive degree. Further in the chapter, however, "this dream of fairyland and paradise" is rudely interrupted by "grating dissonance" (p. 343) as a small group of young girls dressed in missionary school uniform enters the scene. Twain's complex satiric voice layers a yearning for cultural purity with an implicit recognition that such a longing exoticizes the Other to its disadvantage.

Kate Chopin's short story "An Egyptian Cigarette" was written in April 1897 and published in Vogue in April 1900. In the story, "Madam," the otherwise unnamed narrator, retires to a friend's "smoking-den" to savor a cigarette he brought back from Cairo. Here Chopin describes the first sensations of inhaling the mysterious pale-yellow cigarette and the beginning of the fevered, masochistic reverie it induces.

I took one long inspiration of the Egyptian cigarette. The gray-green smoke arose in a small puffy column that spread and broadened, that seemed to fill the room. I could see the maple leaves dimly, as if they were veiled in a shimmer of moonlight. A subtle, disturbing current passed through my whole body and went to my head like the fumes of disturbing wine. I took another deep inhalation of the cigarette.

"Ah! the sand has blistered my cheek! I have lain here all day with my face in the sand. Tonight, when the everlasting stars are burning, I shall drag myself back to the river."

He will never come back.

Thus far have I followed him; with flying feet; with stumbling feet; with hands and knees, crawling; and outstretched arms, and here have I fallen in the sand.

The sand has blistered my cheek; it has blistered all my body, and the sun is crushing me with hot torture. There is shade beyond the cluster of palms.

Kate Chopin, A Vocation and a Voice: Stories (New York: Penguin, 1991), pp. 68–69.

More often than not, however, "fake" Orientalism was the product of aesthetic failings born of serious, rather than satiric, intent. This kind of Orientalism was consecrated in public spectacle, like the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. The masses wandered through a mock Turkish village, visited the Moorish Palace, watched belly dancers in the Egyptian theater, and lost their nickels and dimes at midway carnival attractions on the "Streets of Cairo." Celebrating the rise of American power in the world, the exposition enabled more than two million people to capture glimpses of an exotic world seemingly open to enlightened conquest.

In the cinema, audiences of 1916 were awestruck at the Babylonian sequences in D. W. Griffith's (1875–1948) "colossal spectacle" Intolerance. Kitsch is often defined as artistic ambition that exceeds conventions of "good taste," and the massive plaster sets and thousands of extras in "Middle Eastern" dress produced a monumentally kitschy rendition of Babylon. The vast processional pageantry of Intolerance was offset by the titillating spectacle of scantily clad women in the "Love Temple," writhing seductively in the rituals of the "sacred fires of life." Still, Griffith insisted that the vulgar splendor of his "vision" was authentic. One of the many dogmatic intertitles earnestly assured cinema-goers: "Note: Replica of Babylon's encircling walls, broad enough for the passing of chariots."

Similarly kitschy was the persona of one of the greatest early film divas, Theda Bara, who enacted such characters as Cleopatra in Cleopatra (1917), Salome in Salome (1918), and the priestess in The Soul of Buddha (1918). Her trademark kohl-rimmed eyes and "vamp" personality were hugely popular, and many fans suspended their disbelief about the Cincinnati-born star who was, as studio publicity maintained, born "in the shadow of the pyramids" and whose name was an anagram of "Arab Death." Such versions of the East, however seriously intentioned, are so inauthentic as to constitute camp, a strain in American Orientalism that mirrored much of the visual excess of such academic realist painters as Jean-Léon Gérome and Henri Regnault. French Orientalism's visual iconography provided much of the inspiration for more popular spectacle in American culture that pushed renditions of the East even further into fanciful excess.


By contrast, a more serious effort at representing the Orient, and more dutifully borrowing Asian aesthetic practices in art and literature, developed alongside more demotic renditions of the East as a place of sensual pleasure and erotic fantasy. There was a distinctive strain of American Orientalism, emerging from more elite artistic and literary circles, that was marked by understatement and even "delicacy," which attempted to render the Orient in terms of tranquility, mystery, and remoteness from the debased Western values inhering in industrialism and urban life. This dichotomy is enacted in Griffith's 1919 film Broken Blossoms, which dignified the "Yellow Man," Cheng Huan (played by the Caucasian actor Richard Barthelmess) as a fragile, sensitive rescuer of an abused street urchin in the filthy hovels and opium dens of London's Limehouse. A male variation on Madame Butterfly, Cheng Huan renames the urchin White Blossom and, in a magical moment, places "a ray from the lyric moon" in her hair as she sleeps peacefully in his bed. He stands in direct opposition to the girl's drunken, violent, and abusive father and is therefore seen as a self-sacrificing and asexual aesthete who inhabits a world of pretty objets d'art. Thus Asia embodied, for American artists and poets, the aesthetic appeal of gentle understatement and handcrafted refinement in opposition to the coarseness of mass-produced consumer goods churned out of factories by alienated pieceworkers.

Chief among American visual artists in the period who relied on Asian forms and themes were James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) and Mary Cassatt (1844–1926). Whistler popularized Japanese artistic motifs and methods in his domestic interiors (such as the splendid Peacock Room of 1876–1877) and misty oil paintings. In such works as Nocturne: Blue and Silver—Chelsea (1871) Whistler superimposed on portrayals of industrial London an escapist, mysterious, and idyllic "mood" derived from Japanese landscapes. Whistler was also instrumental in popularizing the use of Asian objets d'art and dress in his society portraiture, influencing later generations of portraitists such as William McGregor Paxton. Paxton's The New Necklace (1910) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, depicts a young American woman languorously seated at her writing desk (upon which is set a geisha doll), set against a silk screen, wearing a pink silk tunic, the very picture of resplendent Orientalist consumption. Even more directly influenced by Japanese aesthetics and techniques was Mary Cassatt, whose drypoint and aquatint works of the early 1890s depicting women and children in domestic interiors were among the high points of her career. Entranced by the Japanese woodblock prints she collected, Cassatt emulated their compositions and soft, pale chromatics. Spare, elegant, formal: these characteristics of Asian art and literature energized modernism in all its forms, perhaps most significantly for literature in a movement known as imagism.

Before Ezra Pound (1885–1972) and Amy Lowell (1874–1925), among others, transmuted Asian aesthetics into poetry to "make it new," as Pound enjoined others to do, the journalist Lafcadio Hearn popularized the charm of Japan and Japanese art forms in America in a dozen books, beginning in 1894 with Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan. His essays respectfully enlightened American readers on the frequent superiority of Japanese culture and, in particular, praised the visual beauty of the ideograph over the West's "dull, inanimate symbols of vocal sounds." Similarly, Ernest Fenollosa, after twelve years of teaching in Japan, returned to America to popularize Asian literature and art, inspiring Ezra Pound to adopt Asian poetic models and theories of the ideograph in his own poetry of the mid-1910s. Ostensibly, Cathay (1915) consists of Pound's reworkings of Fenollosa's notes, but the effect of the work is strikingly modern and original: simple, elegant, refined poetry stripped of all Victorian moralizing and bombast. "In a Station of the Metro" is only the best-known and most anthologized of Pound's prolific, Asian-inspired works of the period; these, in turn, inspired a short-lived vogue in the late 1910s for accessible, concentrated, image-oriented poetry modeled on the Chinese and Japanese. Amy Lowell's Pictures of the Floating World (1919) and John Gould Fletcher's Japanese Prints (1918) were two of the most prominent imagist efforts, however individually personalized and even Americanized, at responding to Asian verse forms and thematics. The titles of some of Lowell's poems in her collection suggest the Orientalist effect she wanted to achieve: "Passing the Bamboo Fence," "Temple Ceremony," "The Camellia Tree of Matsue," and "Ombre Chinoise."

If imagism was the most refined and respectful manifestation of Orientalism in American modernism, more populist modernism in the cinema displayed the racism inherent in the concept of the "Yellow Peril." Cecil B. DeMille's (1881–1959) 1915 film The Cheat endures as an astonishingly modern examination of the limits of female agency within upper-class marriage in a consumer society, and its formal aspects, such as cinematography and narrative pace, were miles ahead of Griffith's ponderous Victorian pageantry. Yet DeMille was as unenlightened as Griffith. The Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, playing the role of a wicked "Burmese ivory king," is portrayed as a monster of possessiveness, infiltrating and contaminating the world of the "Long Island smart set," corrupting the female protagonist, and ultimately burning his mark on her body with an ivory brand. This shocking act is obviously a displacement for an otherwise unrepresentable sexual assault. The Cheat was merely the most technically sophisticated rendition of much cultural production that used the conventions of Orientalism to express a terror of miscegenation and cross-racial sexual relations—and the ensuing collapse of a social order predicated on a racial hierarchy.

Tracing the ways America has engaged with its own imaginary representation of Asia suggests that America has looked eastward for cultural inspiration out of alienation from the West and has established its own identity as a Western nation in opposition to the East. Perhaps even more significantly, America could better express itself as a "modern" nation by looking away from Europe and toward the Orient, a new, fresh source of inspiration in the arts and literature. This complex cultural dynamic of attraction and repulsion has been a feature of the American cultural landscape at all levels, from elite culture to the carnival sideshow and nickelodeon, making American culture all the more rich for its appropriations, however much they might be lacking in true respect and integrity.

see alsoAestheticism; Art and Architecture; Chinese; Imagism


Primary Works

Adams, Henry. The Letters of Henry Adams. Vol. 3, 1886–1892. Edited by J. C. Levenson et al. 6 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982–1988.

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. 1899. Edited by Nancy A. Walker. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Hearn, Lafcadio. Writings from Japan: An Anthology. Edited by Francis King. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.

James, Henry. The Golden Bowl. 1904. New York Edition, vol. 23. New York: Scribners, 1937.

Lowell, Amy. Complete Poetical Works. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955.

Melville, Herman. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. 1876. Northwestern-Newberry edition, vol. 12. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991.

Twain, Mark. Following the Equator. 1897. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. 1905. Edited by Martha Banta. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Whitman, Walt. "Passage to India." 1870. In Poetry and Prose. Library of America. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1996.

Secondary Works

Bernstein, Matthew, and Gaylyn Studlar, eds. Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Edwards, Holly. Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America 1870–1930. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Lewis, Reina. Gendering Orientalism: Race, Femininity, and Respresentation. London: Routledge, 1996.

MacKenzie, John M. Orientalism: History, Theory, and the Arts. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Qian, Zhaoming. Orientalism and Modernism: The Legacy of China in Pound and Williams. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

David A. Boxwell


views updated Jun 11 2018


Although there has never been a political area called the Orient, the words "Orient" and "Orientalism" have become common usage because the Orient has been a long-standing Western invention: it is an imaginative geography but one with enormous consequences. Orientalism in the mid-nineteenth century was a nexus of political, ideological, racial, cultural, and aesthetic investments in the various parts of the world that denoted the "Orient" in the U.S. cultural imagination: Asia and the Near East, including Egypt and the Holy Lands. It is best approached in Edward Said's sense of Orientalism as being both a means of Euro-American self-definition and a method for having authority over the Orient, although in the nineteenth-century United States it also served to mark the nation as important in relation to European colonizing powers, a new empire ready to lead the world.

Although the particularities of this use of the Orient varied with the kind of discourse—political writing, travel writing, novels—the idea of these Orients as being storehouses of knowledge, embodying the past and needing regeneration in the present, remained remarkably consistent. As revealed in a special Knickerbocker article of June 1853 devoted to describing the scenes evoked by the word "Orientalism," in the American mind it meant a combination of luxury, indolence, and unreality:

We frame to ourselves a deep azure sky, and a languid alluring atmosphere; associate luxurious ease with the coffee-rooms and flower-gardens of the Seraglio at Constantinople; . . . We see grave and revered turbans sitting cross-legged on Persian carpets in baths and harems, . . . we then bespread over all a sort of Arabian night-spell. (Pp. 479–480)

The stimulus for U.S. interest in Egypt was the military forays of the French and the British. The French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion's deciphering of the hieroglyphs in 1822 created intense scholarly and political excitement which affected popular culture as well. P. T. Barnum acquired two mummies in 1826, and in 1832 Colonel Mendes Cohen of Baltimore returned from Egypt with 680 artifacts to establish the first private Egyptian collection in the United States.

By the early nineteenth century the United States, like Europe, would also be affected by what Raymond Schwab has called "the Oriental Renaissance" generated by the arrival of Sanskrit texts in Europe in the late eighteenth century. Interest in Asia is evident in the fact that in 1817, Thomas Moore's long poem Lalla Rookh, set in India, sold more copies than any other book published that year in the United States. For American readers, Oriental literatures were not simply exotic, trivial entertainment but literatures that warranted commentary and critique. Between June and November 1840, for instance, the Southern Literary Messenger published three papers on Arabian literature.


In addition to the popularity of Orientalist works, the Orient was also brought closer because of increasing commercial interests both in the Near East and in Asia. Oriental trade was important, both in itself and as a sign of national power. By the 1830s trade with the Barbary States of North Africa became well established, and in 1832 alone, forty-six U.S. ships had landed at Smyrna and fourteen in Constantinople. More than trade with the Near East, trade with Asia was vigorously sought after. The leader in this trade, it was presumed, would lead the world. For many other thinkers, Asian trade exemplified the idea of civilization coming full circle. It was popularly held that empires had started in the Far East, moved to Europe, and were heading to the New World. Jefferson had been fascinated with the idea of "the North American road to India" since 1787, an idea taken up again in the early nineteenth century by Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who cast his arguments about trade in terms of the human race and civilization moving west and the return of republican ideals to Asia.

With the introduction of steam packets in the 1830s, tourists from the United States started to choose Oriental destinations, the most popular of which were Egypt and the Holy Lands. U.S. appetite for Oriental travel is evidenced by the fact that by the winter of 1838–1839, Egypt had more travelers from the United States than of any other nationality but the British. The American Oriental Society in its first number lists thirty-four travel works about Asia, the Near East, and Middle East, all published between 1823 and 1843.

Most popular travel writers focused on the picturesqueness and exoticism of the "backward" Eastern races. Nathaniel Parker Willis's Pencillings by the Way, an account of a cruise on the eastern Mediterranean in 1833, no doubt fascinated readers with its raptures over Mediterranean sunsets, twilights, and veiled women. Similarly John Lloyd Stephens, author of Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia, Petraea, and the Holy Land (1837) and Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Poland (1838) had royalties reaching an unheard-of $25,000. Travel writing continued to enjoy popularity in the mid-nineteenth century with George William Curtis's Nile Notes of a Howadji (1851) and The Howadji in Syria (1852), the first an account of a journey along the Nile and the second a description of travels across Cairo, the Arabian deserts, Jerusalem, and finally, Damascus.

The most prolific of Oriental travel writers was Bayard Taylor (1825–1878). Taylor recorded his twoand-a-half years of travel in three volumes: A Journey to Central Africa (1854), The Lands of the Saracen (1856), and A Visit to India, China, and Japan in the Year 1853 (1855). In addition Taylor wrote Japan in Our Day (1872) and Travels in Arabia (1872). Although Taylor had a flair for the dramatic, and his appearance on the lyceum circuit clad in Arab clothes and scimitar is reported to have made women swoon, many of his works deal with historical material rather than exotic Orient. Much of Taylor's A Visit to India, China, and Japan, for instance, corrects misconceptions about "ignorant" natives created by previous Orientalist writers, recounts the complex diplomatic maneuvers of the American commodore Matthew Perry in his gunboat diplomacy mission to facilitate the first Western trade treaty with Japan, and satirizes the imperial presumptions of his countrymen.

Missionary activity overseas began with the formation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in 1810; shortly thereafter the board began work in the Near East and Asia. The formation of the ABCFM was quickly followed by clergy journeying to the region. By 1818 the board was running eleven schools in India alone, instructing an estimated six hundred students. The board reported, "In these schools, we seem to see a thousand Hindoo hands at work . . . in undermining the fabric of Hindoo idolatry" (ABCFM, p. 211). The ABCFM similarly saw the Near East as an area for cultural conversion. Many countries had strict laws forbidding attempts at converting Muslims, but missionaries regarded the Oriental churches as equally fit objects of concern, particularly because of the interracial contact there. The ABCFM established missions in Beirut through a system of schools and was instructing six hundred children by 1827. Missionary and imperial enterprises were also often related. For instance, in 1835 Eli Smith, a missionary in Syria, requested official action from the United States, adding that Syrians should be taught "that we are a powerful nation. And there is no other way to teach them this but to make them feel it" (Field, p. 210).

The establishment of missionary activity in Oriental countries also facilitated the formation of the American Oriental Society in 1843. This was clearly a scholastic society, but missionary and scholarly activities were connected. In the first address to the society, the president made repeated mention of the exemplary work of American missionaries abroad and compared them with their European counterparts. Yet the ambitious scholarly programs of the society also expanded the cultural horizons of the United States. Essays ranged from discussions of Eastern religions to economies and medicine. In May 1844, for instance, Edward E. Salisbury gave a talk at the annual meeting of the society titled "Memoir on the History of Buddhism."


Despite imperial politics, literary representations of the Orient varied according to the region in question. The predominant genre of Near East Orientalist literature was satire, the object of which was both archaeological and missionary imperialism. The adventurer in the Orient was admirable and ludicrous, sincere but misguided in his role as discoverer. The same terms applied to missionary women. Writers thus produced missionary-colonial novels in which American men boldly ventured forth as archaeologists; American women were most often the conveyers of the gospel, converting Near Eastern women and steadying men in their purpose. Unlike Near Eastern women who were frivolous, indolent and oppressed, missionary women were independent and intelligent.

But while writers relied on the formulaic missionary-conversion plot, they also caricatured the ideological presumptions of American or Western heroes embodying imperial nationhood. Popular works in the genre were Henry Brent's "The Mysterious Pyramid" (1850), Maturin Murray Ballou's The Turkish Slave (1850), and John De Forest's Irene the Missionary (1879). It is significant that the immensely popular women's writer and author of The Lamplighter, Maria Susanna Cummins, also wrote a missionary novel, El Fureidîs, in 1860. William Ware wrote Zenobia (1837), the story of a Palmyrean queen who challenges the power of the Roman Empire, emphasizing the difference between Eastern and Western leaders as that between heart and head. Significantly, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance features a character named Zenobia. Near East Orientalist writing finds its most self-conscious expression and critique of archaeological imperialism in the tales of Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) and Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835–1921) and in Herman Melville's (1819–1891) Clarel.

Poe, Spofford, and Melville are the most important writers of Near East Orientalism. The comic and parodic critique of Orientalist power gives way here to a demonstration of the tragic consequences of mastery and control. The works critique the idea of the Near East as new frontier, and instead of confirming an imperial order, they close with chaos. Poe constantly parodied the culture's colonial use of the Orient, most notably in "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade." A more farcical subversion of Western cultural imperialism occurs in "Some Words with a Mummy," where a mummy comes to life and delivers a harangue on the inferiority of contemporary American civilization. "A Tale of Ragged Mountains" critiques British colonialism in India. In "Ligeia," signifiers of the Orient and U.S. southern womanhood intersect to generate an epistemological crisis about nationalism and empire. Ligeia and Rowena are more than abstractions of womanhood. Ligeia clearly represents Near East "Oriental" knowledge, control over which was a defining feature of U.S. nationhood in the early and mid-nineteenth century.

Like Poe, Spofford in "Desert Sands" (1863) dramatizes the dangers of imperialistic appropriation of the Orient. The story recounts the frantic efforts of the artist narrator, Sydney, to produce his masterpiece painting by capturing Arab lands on his canvas; it ends with the masterpiece completed but the artist struck blind. Writing contemporaneously with Spofford, Melville further complicates the idea of the Near East as the new frontier by dramatizing the resistance of the Near East to the hermeneutic mappings of the American hero. In 1856 Melville published a humorous piece called "I and My Chimney" in which he satirized the vogue for Egyptology popularized by travel writing. In autumn 1856 Melville traveled to Europe and then on to Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Italy and Palestine, all of which he documented in his journals. In his long prose poem Clarel, Melville fictionalized the doubts and hesitancies of the American hero seeking religious regeneration through a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. Through Clarel, a young theological student, Melville eroticizes the relationship between the United States and the Near East and demonstrates how the racial-cultural difference of the Near East cannot be simplified by creating mind/body dichotomies. Instead Melville's poem questions the ideological oppositions between the United States and the Near East through the circulation of homoerotic desire.


Like the Near East, Asia was fodder for the literary imagination. For example, sixteen-year-old Lucretia Maria Davidson wrote Amir Khan and Other Poems, posthumously published in 1829. In 1821, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) wrote a long poem called "Indian Superstition" for the Harvard College Exhibition. This fascination with the Far East culminated in the 1850s and 1860s in the works of writers such as Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Bret Harte.

The cultural representation of Asia was highly contradictory. Asia was revered as the land of scriptures and literatures, the birthplace of civilization; yet in order to be accommodated within the vision of empire in which civilization was seen as moving west, culminating in the New World, it had to be seen as either degraded present or transhistorical past. The acquisition of goods from India could be seen as the rightful fulfillment of Columbus's original dream or as a redemptive journey of the newest empire to the old. In either case, the present-day reality of colonial India had to be excluded, a feature evident in Thoreau's, Emerson's, and Whitman's highly contradictory sacralization of India as absolute spiritual past.

The politics of Asian Orientalism thus contributed to features that are commonly associated with transcendentalism—mysticism, spirituality, and a transcending of this world. Such a discourse was not divorced from history; it was in fact historically informed, being a product of the periods of colonization and slavery, even though it was ahistorically framed in its insistence on getting beyond history. In James Russell Lowell's (1819–1891) "Dara" (1850), Persia is an old, uninspiring empire, described in images of rot and sexual impotence. It is a "decaying empire," "wilted by harem-heats." Lowell's poem "An Oriental Apologue" (1849) similarly dramatizes the theme of the old, irrational Orient in need of youth and change. On the other hand, Thoreau in Walden (1854) recalls having spent many blissful moments immersed in the Bhagavad Gita and imagines Walden Pond, the metaphoric source of his knowledge, to have been fed by the Ganges.

Of all the transcendentalists, Emerson read Orientalist texts most extensively and used the Orient to stand for an absolute spiritual past against which a unified New World nationhood, as the latest seat of the westward Anglo-Saxon movement of civilization, could be formulated. This idea of Asia as unified "spiritual" territory was a political necessity for Emerson because it allowed him to deflect the idea of a fragmented nationhood. Emerson called his wife, Lydia, "Asia," and many of Emerson's essays rest upon binary distinctions between male and female, West and East, activity and passivity, dynamism and fate. In 1847 Emerson wrote, "Orientalism is Fatalism, resignation: Occidentalism is Freedom & Will," and "We occidentals are educated to wish to be first" (Journals, p. 90). Such ideas were crystallized in "Brahma," the most overtly Oriental of Emerson's poems, yet one in which the unity of India also stands for the unity of the nation.

Like Emerson, Walt Whitman (1819–1892) was fascinated with the Oriental cultures the country was increasingly coming in contact with. Asia and, in particular, India appealed to Whitman's imagination both as a symbol of the farthest reaches of empire and as maternal space through which the New World could be seen as youthful and dynamic; in turn, Whitman's loving persona could imperialistically embrace the world. We must not be duped into thinking that it was simply a "mystical" Asia that the transcendentalists repeatedly used—even though, as Malcolm Cowley argued, Whitman's poems were a cross between the New York Herald and the Bhagavad Gita—because the sites of Whitman's poems of the Orient were often concrete historical-material situations such as the parade on Broadway and the installation of the Atlantic cables. Whitman was in fact an omnivorous reader and an obsessive recorder of details about Asia. In a lengthy journal entry on China in June 1857, for instance, Whitman noted details about Chinese forms of worship, Chinese tea, the physiognomy of the people, the manner of executions, and the status of the United States in China.

Whitman uses a poetic persona representing the nation as a strong, earthy male with a desire to embrace all. The Asian Orient in relation to this persona appears most regularly as mother, thus reinforcing the idea of Asia as past. In "A Broadway Pageant," the march on Broadway is figured as a march of the westward movement of civilization in which Japan is past and the United States is "Libertad." The Orient, as India, is associated with maternal images. It is the birthplace of civilization, the early nurturer or "nest" of languages, and like a good mother it bequeaths culture to the world. Whitman's poetry consciously creates the spiritual Orient based on the exclusion of contemporary colonialism, a process most evident in "Passage to India," which romanticizes colonialism yet, in recording the trajectory of foreign conquerors in India, forgets to mention the British. Transcendentalists attempted to valorize India as past while excluding its brutal colonization and, consequently, the humanity of its people. Thus Orientalism in the mid-nineteenth century was an intensely political domain, a signifier of U.S. imperial power and a screen onto which writers projected racial anxieties about the nation.

See alsoAmericans Abroad; Chinese; Ethnology; Exploration and Discovery; Foreigners; Manifest Destiny; Satire, Burlesque, and Parody; Tourism; Transcendentalism; Travel Writing


Primary Works

ABCFM. First Annual Reports of the American Board ofCommissioners for Foreign Missions. Crocker and Brewster, 1834.

Cummins, Maria Susanna. El Fureidîs. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1860.

Davidson, Lucretia Maria. Amir Khan and Other Poems. Edited by Samuel F. B. Morse. New York: G. and C. and H. Carvill, 1829.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Works of Ralph WaldoEmerson. 12 vols. Edited by Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903–1904.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and MiscellaneousNotebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 10, 1847–1848. Edited by William H. Gilman et al. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1973.

Lowell, James Russell. "Dara." Graham's (July 1850).

Lowell, James Russell. "An Oriental Apologue" National Anti-Slavery Standard (12 April 1849).

Melville, Herman. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimmage in theHoly Lands. Edited by Walter E. Bezanson. New York: Hendricks House, 1960.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. Edited by Stuart Levine and Susan Levine. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976.

Spofford, Harriet Prescott. The Amber Gods and OtherStories. 1863. Reprint, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1969.

Taylor, Bayard. A Visit to India, China, and Japan in the Year 1853. 1855. Reprint, New York: Putnam, 1862.

Ware, William. Zenobia; or, The Fall of Palmyra. New York: C. S. Francis, 1837.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855. Edited by Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. New York: Norton, 1973.

Secondary Works

Field, James A. America and the Mediterranean World;1776–1882. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Finkelstein, Dorothee Metlitsky. Melville's Orienda. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1961.

Finnie, David H. Pioneers East: The Early AmericanExperience in the Middle East. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Irwin, John T. American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of theEgyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980.

Isaani, Mukhtar Ali. The Oriental Tale in America through1865: A Study in American Fiction. Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1962.

Luedtke, Luther S. Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Romance of the Orient. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Random House, Vintage, 1978.

Schueller, Malini. U.S. Orientalisms: Race, Nation, andGender in Literature, 1790–1890. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Schwab, Raymond. The Oriental Renaissance: Europe'sRediscovery of India and the East, 1680–1880. Translated by Gene Patterson-Black and Victor Reinking. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Sha'ban, Fuad. Islam and Arabs in Early American Thought:The Roots of Orientalism in America. Durham, N.C.: Acorn Press, 1991.

Van Alstyne, R. W. The Rising American Empire. Chicago: Quadrangle Press, 1960.

Malini Johar Schueller


views updated May 09 2018


The Orient has been a source of inspiration for fashion designers since the seventeenth century, when goods of India, China, and Turkey were first widely seen in Western Europe. While the use of the term "Orientalism" has changed over time, it generally refers to the appropriation by western designers of exotic stylistic conventions from diverse cultures spanning the Asian continent.

Though luxury goods have been filtering into Europe from countries like China since ancient times, it was not until the great age of exploration that a wider array of merchandise from cultures throughout Asia found their way to the west. For example, the importation of Chinese ceramics exploded in the seventeenth century. Not only did these wares remain popular for centuries, they also inspired the creation of stellar ceramic companies like Sevres in France and Meissen in Germany. Even plants, like the legendary flower from Turkey that led to the "tulipmania" craze in Holland and the brewed leaf that became the status drink of the well-to-do and evolved into the ritualized "high tea," fueled the love of all things from Asia.

It was in the realm of fashion that the impact of "Orientalism" could also be profoundly felt. Platform shoes from central Asia led to the creation of the Venetian chopine in the sixteenth century. Textiles from all over Asia, primarily China, India, and Turkey, inspired the creation of fashions like the robe á la turquerie in the eighteenth century. This was a more extraordinary phenomenon since the fear of Turkish Islamic invaders was a constant and imminent threat. Coupled with the threat of an invasion was a diametrically opposed view: the romantic notion of a far-distant land, such as Cathay (or China), filled with genteel philosophers and lovers of art. This idealized impression of China would continue until the rise of the industrial revolution and European colonialism in the early nineteenth century. The gritty reality of ever-increasing business transactions between East and West, as well as the ever-encroaching military dominance by European powers in Asia was firmly cemented by the middle 1800s.

As Queen Victoria ascended the throne of England 1837, then the most powerful empire in the world, she oversaw an eclectic art style that would come to dominate the remainder of the nineteenth century. The Victorian era brought together many historical European styles of the past, Gothic and Rococo for example, which were sometimes surprisingly combined with elements from cultures like Japan. The end result of one amalgamation, Gothic and Japanese, led to the creation of the Aesthetic Movement. Fashion gowns reflected this blend: smocked robes like medieval chemises were embroidered with asymmetrically placed floral motifs of chrysanthemums, two distinctly Japanese design elements.

The influence of Orientalism on fashion could be seen in many other ways, both frivolous and profound. For example, the fad for harem pants from Turkey appeared in the form of fancy dress costume at balls, just as the Zouave costume of North Africa found its way into the wardrobes of some Southern soldiers fighting in the American Civil War and the closets of European ladies. On the other hand, items of dress from Asia would become essential for women through the mid-nineteenth century. Kashmiri shawls, originally woven in India then exported to the west in the late eighteenth century, became a ubiquitous part of the neoclassical costume. The shawl was often paired with a white columnar dress made of diaphanous, finely woven Indian cotton. Its popularity inspired many weaving companies in Europe to create their version of this essential nineteenth-century wrap, later known as the paisley shawl.

The Orientalism trend reached an apex in the early twentieth century, and the sources for this mania for "all things oriental" ranged from nostalgia for the legends of Persia and Arabia, as popularized by "A Thousand and One Nights," to the Paris debut of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1909. This burst of Orient-inspired creativity in the realm of fashion also had lesser-known sources, including the avant-garde art movement Fauvism and Japanese kimonos made expressly for the western market.

French couturiers, such as Paul Poiret and Jeanne Paquin, were inspired by the Ballet Russes' performances of "Cléopatre," "Schéhérazade," and "Le Dieu Bleu." This Russian dance company took Paris by storm with their revolutionary choreography, music, and costume and set designs by the Russian artist Leon Bakst (1866–1924). In addition to these fantastic costume

shapes and opulent decorative elements, couturiers incorporated the vibrant color palette of Fauve artists such as Henri Matisse. Not only did designers create garments with Orientalist influences, so did the modistes: turbans topped with aigrette or ostrich plumes and secured with jeweled ornaments were paired with either neoclassic columnar gowns or fantastical lampshade tunics.

Clothing created more in the realm of craft by artists such as Mariano Fortuny and Monica Monaci Gallenga also fused historical European and Asian styles into cohesive aesthetic statements. Using silk velvet as a base, both Fortuny and Gallenga precisely incorporated textile patterns from East Asia and the Islamic world for their creations. The importance of craft also fueled the European and American fad for batik cloth. Both the technique for making resist-dyed fabrics like batik and the motifs perfected in cultures like Indonesia were created by artisans on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in the 1920s.

Marie Callot Gerber (1895–1937), the venerable head of the leading couture house Callot Soeurs, was another innovator who readily embraced Orientalism. She was inspired by the kimono and created some of the earliest versions of harem pants. From 1910 to the out-break of World War I, acclaimed beauty and woman of style, Rita de Acosta Lydig, worked with Gerber to create versions of Oriental costumes that were composed of vests made from seventeenth-century needle lace that topped trousers or one-pieced garments that were full and loose over the lower part of the torso before tapering over the calves. Often called the tango dress, after the dance craze imported from Argentina, this style was popularized by couturiers like Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon, 1863–1935) and by fashion illustrators. The house of Callot would go on to lead the 1920s trend for embellishing the columnar dresses of the era with rich embroideries that readily copied Persian and Chinese design elements.

Also influential were exhibitions and expositions geared specifically to exhibit products of France's colonies. One of the first was a major exhibition of Moroccan art installed at the Pavillion de Marsan in March, 1917. The exhibition also forecasted far larger things to come: the Exposition Coloniales, held in Marseilles in 1922 and in Paris nine years later. These shows not only generated public interest in non-Western cultures, but also projected France's commitment to imperialism. According to art historian Kenneth Silver in his publication Esprit de Corps, the exposition of 1922 expressed a "less than covert sense of racism." The French were still recovering from the devastating effects of World War I as late as 1925, and there is little doubt that these exhibitions and expositions allowed them to publicly display not only their high position in the modern world, but also their dominance over a vast array of Third World cultures.

Many of the centuries most noted couturiers in France were readily absorbing the influences of the Colonial Expositions of 1922 and 1931. It was the first time that many had direct access to art from such remote countries. This exposure to ethnic dress gave them a far more profound understanding of non-Western dress, primarily objects from Asia. This understanding would enable a few enlightened couturiers to create both new fashion silhouettes as well as imbue their designs with a fundamentally different construction that emphasized the textile rather than complex tailoring.

Marcel Rochas, for example, was directly inspired by dance costumes from the Balinese court, as seen in his broad-shouldered garments of the season immediately following the 1931 Exposition. His "robe Bali," a black silk dress with a broad and square collar trimmed in white pique, is interesting in that it follows the silhouette of a non-Western garment but uses typical European colors and fabrics. Madame Alix Grès also created her version of a Balinese costume in 1937. Jacques Heim designed a sarong-style bathing suit inspired by the Tahitian exhibits in the 1931 Exposition. These sarong suits, in a radical departure from contemporary bathing-suit construction, were made not of knitted wool but with draped woven cotton. Harper's Bazaar made mention of these sarongs and his pareos from later collections. By the mid-1930s, Hollywood costumer Edith Head designed a version of the sarong for actress Dorothy Lamour in a series of comedic films starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. As noted earlier, all these designers' ethnic-inspired work of this period was not based on non-Western construction techniques, but rather their inspirations came from overall cultural impressions.

The output of "ethnic" garments by fashion designers was to drop off significantly during the 1940s and 1950s as the influence of exotic cultures on fashion had already begun to diminish around 1934. Inspired by the play "The Barrets of Wimpole Street" and the Hollywood film version, couturiers like Madeleine Vionnet, to cite but one of many examples, began to create modern versions of nineteenth-century Western dress. This trend dominated fashion from the late 1930s through the 1950s. The revival of historical styles offered an escape from the pressures of the Great Depression of the 1930s and helped assert the growing sense of nationalism in Europe at that time. Also a factor in the United States was strong anti-Japanese sentiment during and after World War II.

Fashion periodicals of the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s seem to indicate only a minimal interest in foreign dress for most designers, as compared with earlier decades. However, a strong revival of ethnic influences arose during the mid-1960s, as the fashion world responded to the purposeful rejection of standard, mass-produced fashion by young people. The young people known as "hippies" ushered in a style noted for its free-form mix of fashion elements from around the world, particularly the Middle East, India, and Native American cultures. Coupled with this renewed interest in non-Western cultures was the emergence of Asian designers. For the first time, Japanese creators like Hanae Mori not only made fashion, they began to influence the work of western designers.

After World War II, other Asian garments began to find their way into the fashion mainstream. One example is the quintessential twentieth-century Chinese dress—the qipao or cheongsam. This figure-revealing garment worn by a range of urban Chinese women since the mid-1920s has become known in the Western world as the "Suzie Wong" dress, deriving its nickname from the infamous, fictional prostitute in Richard Mason's novel, The World of Suzie Wong, published in 1959. Born in the tumultuous years of early Republic China, the qipao (meaning "banner gown" in Mandarin) or cheongsam (meaning "long dress" in Cantonese) is a true fashion hybrid that fused the elements of traditional Qing Dynasty court dress, Han Chinese costume, and the modern European silhouette. Despite its respectable status in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, the qipao came to represent in the Occidental mind a two-pronged, stereotypical view of Asian women—subservient, obedient, traditional, on the one hand, and exotic, sexual, even menacing, on the other. Films such as Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (1955) and The World of Suzie Wong (1960) are tales filled with textual excess whose narratives featuring Asian-Caucasian sexual liaisons use the qipao to uphold and sometimes subvert culturally accepted notions of race.

Perhaps it is those provocative elements of the qipao that have made contemporary reinterpretations of it so prevalent in the early twenty-first century. European or American designers, along with Chinese transplants like the New York–based Hong Kong native Vivienne Tam, have been creating their popular versions of Chinese-inspired fashions since the late 1990s. Examples range from the lavishly embroidered Neo-Chinoiserie gowns by John Galliano for Dior, Miuccia Prada's minimalist remake of the Mao jacket, and the body-revealing corseted mini qipaos by Roberto Cavalli. It is clear that the continued fascination with Orientalism continues into the twenty-first century.

See alsoJapanisme; Qipao .


Ames, Frank. Kashmir Shawl and Its Indo-French Influence. Woodbridge, U.K.: Antique Collectors Club, 1988.

Barbera, Annie. Interview by author, Musee de la Mode et du Costume, Palais Galliera: Paris. January 1992.

Battersby, Martin. Art Deco Fashion: French Designers 1908–1925. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974.

Beer, Alice Baldwin. Trade Goods: A Study of Indian Chintz. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1970.

Burnham, Dorothy. Cut My Cote. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1974.

de Osma, Guillermo. Mariano Fortuny: His Life and Work. New York: Rizzoli, 1980.

Druesedow, Jean. Interview by author, Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 18 December 1991.

Garnier, Guillaume, et al. Paris Couture Années Trente. Paris: Musée de la Mode et du Costume, 1987.

Jon, Paulette. Interview by author. Paris: January 1992.

Kirke, Betty. Madeleine Vionnet. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998.

Koda, Harold. Interview by author, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. January 1991.

Levi-Strauss, Monique. The Cashmere Shawl. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.

Martin, Richard, and Harold Koda. Orientalism. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994.

Poix, Marie-Helene. Interview by author, Musee des Arts de la Mode: Paris. January 1992.

Steele, Valerie, and John S. Major. China Chic: East Meets West. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Tiel, Vicki. Interview by author: Paris. January 1992.

White, Palmer. Poiret. New York: Studio Vista, 1973.

Wichmann, Siegfried. Japonisme: The Japanese Influence on Western Art in the 19th and 20th Centuries. New York: Harmony Books, 1981.

Patricia Mears


views updated May 29 2018



Orientalism refers principally to the academic study during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries of the peoples, languages, and cultures of North Africa, the Middle East, and, to a lesser degree, South Asia. In art history, the term refers to a school of European painters of the nineteenth century who took the peoples of these regions as their primary subjects. Since the publication of Edward Saids (19352003) widely influential study titled simply Orientalism (1978), the term has become pejorative, suggesting a critical orientation or mode of representation that privileges the Western over the Eastern or idealizes the East in a manner that reflects European desires and political and economic interests.

What is called, after Said, orientalist discourse, developed during the era of most active European colonialism, from the early 1800s to World War I (19141918). Among the first important works accurately called orientalist were those produced by figures associated with colonialist endeavors in North Africa and the Middle East, including the massive, twenty-four-volume Description de lÉgypte, produced by approximately 160 scholars who accompanied Napoléon Bonaparte (17691821) on his ultimately failed expedition to conquer Egypt in 1798. The Description, completed in 1829, is typically orientalist in, on the one hand, the idealization of Egyptian people and places in its many beautifully rendered images, and, on the other, its overall concern with defining and classifying all the cultural and physical aspects of Egypt toward the ultimate objective of controlling its people and natural resources.

The nineteenth century can rightly be called the orientalist era in the arts, as works across the spectrum of literature and painting drew on the myth of the Orient that was being produced by the functionaries of colonialism and the scholars of philology. While French painters such as Eugène Delacroix (17981863) and Jean-Léon Gérôme (18241904) are widely regarded as the preeminent orientalists in the visual arts, the movement was widespread and included Frederick Arthur Bridgman (American, 18471928), Frederick Goodall (British, 18221904), Louis-Joseph Anthonissen (Belgian, 18491913), Ludwig Deutsch (German, 18551935), and Leopold Carl Müller (Austrian, 18341892). Orientalist literary artists include Rudyard Kipling (18651936), Edgar Allan Poe (18091849), Joseph Conrad (18571924), and Arthur Rimbaud (18541891), to list only a very few.

Muslim women were a particular focus of orientalist artists. The slave market, harem, and bath received seemingly endless treatments. Gérômes images characteristically give the impression of the voyeur who has lifted or pulled back the veil to reveal the hidden mystery of the Orient. Womens bodies are erotically on display, often, in fact, under examination by some Arab buyer or slave trader. The precise response of a European audience to such images is difficult to ascertain, but generally the erotic construction of an Arab other appealed to a patriarchal sense of superiority and interest in control.

The matters of the European sense of superiority and interest in control can also be seen in orientalist scholarship. Non-Western societies were described as backward and barbaric, fundamentally incapable of social, political, or technological modernization. An important point is that the works of orientalist scholars were often not intentionally or explicitly motivated toward the interests of Western power. The assumptions of superiority and control were embedded in the scholarship, often despite the fact that an individual scholar might regard his or her subject very sympathetically. However, it is certainly true that whatever the disposition of the orientalist scholar, his or her work was a critical part of the general body of knowledge that facilitated and justified the control and exploitation of colonized peoples.

The publication in 1978 of Saids study unleashed a fierce and continuing debate. The debate is wide ranging and contains multiple positions, though it can be roughly divided between two groups. Some believe Saids work has overly politicized the academic study of non-Western peoples and unfairly characterized the work of devoted scholars. Others, particularly the generation of scholars who pursued their graduate work in the later 1980s and 1990s, hold that Saids work is a particularly valuable contribution to the broad examination of the ideological assumptions and effects of intellectual works that purport to be disinterested.

Whatever the multiple positions in this rich debate, the influence of Saids volume has been tremendous. Orientalism has been translated into at least thirty-six languages, including Hebrew and Vietnamese, gone through multiple editions, and is certainly one of the most cited works in the humanities and social sciences since 1978. The critique of orientalist work is at the center of entire new disciplines, such as postcolonial studies, which is concerned with the struggle of non-Western peoples to meaningfully represent themselves and their social, political, and cultural concerns to both Western and non-Western audiences and institutions.

SEE ALSO Colonialism; Gaze, Colonial; Imperialism; Other, The; Postcolonialism; Racism; Representation in Postcolonial Analysis; Said, Edward


Irwin, Robert. 2006. Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents. Woodstock, NY: Overlook.

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Vintage.

Turner, Bryan S. 1994. Orientalism, Postmodernism, and Globalism. New York: Routledge.

Stephen A. Germic


views updated May 11 2018






Orientalism refers to a system of beliefs and practices through which Europeans and Americans have viewed and represented the Middle East and Asia, often in unfavorable and subordinate terms. According to Edward Said, the author of the influential and controversial book Orientalism, published in 1978, the discourse of Orientalism is predicated on an imagined divide between “the Occident” and “the Orient”—or “the West” versus “the Rest.” He theorized that the Orient had been constructed and appropriated as a projection of Western desire in an effort to mask the power abuses of imperialism and colonialism. He defined Orientalism as follows:

The corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient. (Said 1978, p. 2–3)

Early Orientalists constructed a monolithic notion of the Middle East and Asia as a single region characterized as timeless, sensuous, decadent, backwards, and feminized. These views of a despotic Orient were instrumental in rationalizing imperialism and colonialism, and they continue to influence contemporary political and cultural perspectives.

Said identified two basic forms of Orientalism— latent and manifest. Latent Orientalism refers to unquestioned beliefs characterizing the Orient as lazy, backwards, sensuous, passive, and inherently different. Manifest Orientalism refers to actions based on latent Orientalism, such as writing, teaching, cultural interchange, and policy enactment (Said 1978, p. 206.) Orientalism has been expressed in both positive and negative depictions, but, according to Said, unequal power relations are implicated either way. In different historical moments and contexts, Orientalism has taken a variety of forms, such as the racialization of Orientals, the exoticism and essentialism of Oriental people and cultural practices, eroticizing Oriental women while emasculating Oriental men, the gendering of civilizations, commodification and consumption, primitivism and demonization, and institutionalized racism. Orientalist cultural productions are inherently political because they originate in unequal power relations. In other words, the amassing of Western knowledge of the East is inextricable from Western power over the east.


Orientalism emerged from and evolved in relation to historical and political contexts, and it has transitioned between positive and negative perceptions depending on political circumstances. It is generally believed that the first Orientalists were nineteenth-century scholars who translated the writing of the Orient into European languages. Along with travel writers and artists, these scholars contributed greatly to the dissemination of Orientalist views to the public. However, Zachary Lockman, the director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies in New York, argues that Orientalism has a much longer history that can be extended back beyond the eleventh century. As a result of the Crusades, transcontinental trade, and increased travel, a concept of the West as a conglomerate, distinctive, and superior civilization developed. Orientalism was instituted as a field of scholarly inquiry in relation to the Ottoman Empire during the Renaissance.

With European exploration and the rise of European global hegemony beginning in the fifteenth century, Orientalism took a different turn. European empire was bolstered by notions of cultural evolution that characterized the Orient as degenerate and Europe as the beacon of civilization. The result of these interactions was that, by the eighteenth century, a large body of literature on the Orient had already been amassed. In the nineteenth century, Orientalism would be inextricably bound up with the mechanisms of empire.

Nineteenth-century Orientalists produced an astonishing array of texts and images, among them linguistic studies and translations, as well as histories and artistic images representing the Orient in ways that accorded with social and racial ideologies popular at the time. Alongside scholarly and artistic renderings of the East, the Orient was represented in home décor, fashion, popular literature, and music.


A number of scholars have debated the premises and limitations of Said’s Orientalism. Initially, Orientalist scholars defended their turf against what they perceived to be accusations that they were complicit in the subordination and manipulation of the people they studied. Some scholars criticized Said’s limited focus on French and English Orientalists, and they claimed his work was overly reliant on literary texts as a reflection of dominant cultural ideology. Said was accused of having participated in the same binary between Orient and Occident that he was critiquing, constructing the West as not only monolithic, but also as having the supreme power to misrepresent and dominate “the Rest.” Other critics have objected to a perceived implication that there is no objective truth about the non-Western world, and they have found Said’s views too cohesive to take into account the particularities of history and region. Some have also objected to his omission of non-Western writers, colonial resistances, and gender issues, arguing that without the inclusion of non-Western voices and accounts of resistances, all agency is relegated to the Western power structure that is being critiqued. As a result of these critiques, Said qualified and expanded his original views on more than one occasion, amending them to say that he did not believe that all representations are misrepresentations, and to encompass resistance and align himself with some anticolonial protests.


Since the publication of Orientalism, Said’s scholarship, which applied the theories of the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984) to representations of the Middle East, have been variously applied and expanded. Many scholars have applied his theory to views of Asia and Asians. Critiques of Orientalism have also taken on unique forms within the parameters of American multi-culturalism, perhaps because of their resonance with American discourses of race. In New York before Chinatown (1999), John Kuo Wei Tchen limits his study to American Orientalism toward the Chinese between 1776 and 1882. He identifies three types and phases of American Orientalism—patrician, popular, and political— which correlate to American early contact and trade with China and the immigration of Chinese to America. According to Tchen, patrician Orientalism was characterized by an admiration for the products and institutions of China; popular Orientalism involved the commodification and popularization of Chinese-ness (such as the career of Chang and Eng, the Siamese twins); and political Orientalism was characterized by a view of the Chinese as a racially inferior social and national pollutant (the “Yellow Peril”). Increasingly negative views of the Chinese paralleled perceptions of them as an increased presence and were exacerbated by the application of racial stereotypes that had been honed on blacks. In Orientals (1999), Robert Lee explores the role of representations of the Chinese in American popular culture genres, such as music and yellowface performances, in engendering stereotypes.

Orientalism manifests in a variety of venues, so its critiques span disciplinary boundaries. For example, Mari Yoshihara examines a variety of ways in which white American women of the nineteenth century empowered themselves through Orientalism in the forms of household decoration, fashion, art, and cultural expertise, which allowed them to escape prescribed gender roles by appropriating the goods, labor, or knowledge of Orientals. Yayoi Everett and Frederick Lau analyze appropriations of Oriental sounds into Western art music, and Gina Marchetti examines Orientalism in film representations. Other studies cover a broad range of focuses (e.g., travel literature, popular culture, history, and the body) and employ a variety of methodologies; however, they share a common denominator in their implicit or explicit relationship to Said’s construction of Orientalism as a foundational concept. In some cases, new limitations have appeared as the result of new theoretical applications. For example, in many cases, Said’s theory has been applied exclusively to Asians and Asian Americans, and Sadik Jalal al ‘Azm has suggested that Orientalism provided avenues of privilege for those who can construct a history of oppression based on its premises (Lockman 2004, p. 201).

Although Said has been criticized for an avoidance of the overtly political in favor of politicizing the cultural, his views have been applied directly to politics by some thinkers. John Dower, in Embracing Defeat (1999), looks at Orientalist representations as instrumental to demonizing the Japanese during World War II, and Cristina Klein, in Cold War Orientalism (2003), analyzes how cultural productions during the cold war era were instrumental in creating a narrative of cultural integration. In Epic Encounters, Melani McAlister updates Orientalist views of the Arab world to illustrate how Orientalist representations have influenced views on U.S. relations with nations in the Persian Gulf region. Zachery Lock-man, meanwhile, traces the history and politics of Orientalism in relation in that region in Contending Visions of the Middle East (2004).

While Lockman points out that Said was not the first scholar to critique Orientalist practices, critical theory on Orientalism has become inextricably linked to his work. That the critiques of Orientalism have proliferated and expanded is evidence of the continued practice of Orientalism in new forms. Said’s work has served as a point of departure for a new generation of scholars, many of them non-Western and indigenous scholars speaking from a postcolonial perspective. These individuals have expanded the discourse by pointing out its limitations. Meanwhile, as the United States has expanded its military presence in the Middle East, discussions of Orientalism’s political ramifications have been reinvigorated.

SEE ALSO Institutional Racism; Racial Formations; Scientific Racism, History of.


Behdad, Ali. 1994. Belated Travelers: Orientalism in the Age of Colonial Dissolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bernstein, Matthew, and Gaylyn Studlar. 1997. Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Dower, John W. 1999. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. New York: W. W. Norton.

Everett, Yayoi, and Frederick Lau. 2004. Locating East Asia in Western Art Music. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Klein, Christina. 2003. Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961. Berkley: University of California Press.

Lee, Robert G. 1999. Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. Philadelphia. PA: Temple University Press.

Macfie, Alexander Lyon, ed. 2000. Orientalism: A Reader. New York: New York University Press

Marchetti, Gina. 2004. Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McAlister, Melani. 2005. Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945, updated ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Palumbo-Liu, David. 1999. Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier. Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press.

Lockman, Zachery. 2004. Contending Visions of the Middle East: the History and Politics of Orientalism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Rodinson, Maxime. 1987. Europe and the Mystique of Islam. Translated by Roger Veinus. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.

_____. 1985. “Orientalism Reconsidered.” Race & Class 27 (1985): 1–5.

_____. 1993. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf.

Tchen, John Kuo Wei. 1999. New York before Chinatown:Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776–1882. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Yoshihara, Mari. 2003. Embracing the East: White Women and American Orientalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heather A. Diamond


views updated May 14 2018


Orientalism as a field of scholarship that first emerged in the eighteenth century, when European scholars of the Enlightenment period consciously studied Asian languages and cultures to gain a richer understanding of the Middle Eastern literary and historical environment in which Judaism and, ultimately, Christianity, emerged. Some of the major French, English, and German scholars engaged in this endeavor were Armand-Pierre Caussin de Perceval (1795–1871), Ernest Renan (1823–1892), Edward W. Lane (1801–1876), Franz Bopp (1791–1867), Heinrich L. Fleischer (1801–1888), and Julian Wellhausen (1844–1918). Immediately following World War II, academic interest in Orientalism underwent a transformation, ultimately splitting out into specialized area studies across a variety of disciplines, including philology, literature, economics, political science, sociology, anthropology, gender studies, history, and religious studies. The field of Orientalism was no longer based in any one department or discipline, and this is credited to such illustrious scholars as Phillip Hitti, Gustave von Grunebaum, and Hamilton Gibb, who developed Orientalism curricula and divisions in major universities in the United States.

Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) was a powerful critique of the of the field, and its origins. In this volume, Said sought to illustrate how the study of Asian and Islamic cultures was connected to European imperialism and its goal of maintaining power and hegemony over non-Europeans. He argued that the Orient has historically served as a symbolic marker of European superiority and modern cultural identity. For Said, historical Orientalist literature was never interested in Islam as it is viewed and practiced by Muslims. Rather, it was an exercise in self-identity created by means of defining the "other." In other words, Said suggested that Orientalists treated others—in this case, Muslims and Asians—as objects defined not in terms of their own discourses, but solely in terms of standards and definitions imposed on them from outside. Among the influences underlying these definitions was, in Said's view, a long-standing Western concern with presenting Islam as opposed to Christianity.

In exploring the relationship of knowledge, power, and colonialism, Said is in agreement with Jean-Paul Sartre and Franz Fannon that from the time of pre-Crusader rallies, Christian writers were consumed with attacking Islam and the prophet Muhammad in order to earn legitimacy with fellow Christians. Polemical literature against Islam, like John of Damascus, concentrated on how the Prophet falsified revelation, had multiple marriages, had used violence in his lifetime, and experienced self-delusional spiritual visions. The polemical literature created a cycle of hate and promoted Islam as an evil religion with a demonically possessed prophet.

According to Said, Renaissance scholars like John Gagnier (d.1740) and Edward Pocock (c.1650) began translating Islamic sources into European languages not to enhance opportunities for crosscultural dialogue, but rather to assess the value of knowledge production in Islam. Notable scholars like Thomas Carlyle, Immanuel Kant, and Leibnitz viewed Islam as a rational and reasonable religion, but were more interested in pursuing the psychological makeup of the Muslims and learning how they went about constructing and sustaining a religious tradition. Said argued that Orientalists of the Renaissance were driven to understand Muslims only to prove that Islam was a false religion and stood in the way of truth. By targeting the deficiencies of the Prophet and of Islam, Orientalist literature was connected to evangelical purposes, used to create a sense of Christian superiority and to ultimately delegitimize the tradition of "the other": Islam.

For Said, the field of Orientalism is thus the net result of a historical vision of Islam rooted in the Christian European imagination. In the terms of this imagination, Islam could only be viewed as monolithic, scornful of human life, unchanging, uncreative, authoritarian, and intrinsically factitious.

Critics of Edward Said's work often come from the field of Middle Eastern and South Asian studies. They assert that he is unaware of contemporary methodologies and trends in scholarship. For instance, one of the major arguments against Said's Orientalism is that current scholars in the field are not involved with any imperialistic agenda; that they are not interested in proving the superiority of the Western culture over non-Western cultures or in enhancing the self-identity of Western culture. According to many of these critics, Said may have contributed to a historical analysis of Orientalist literature, but he is unaware of the astonishingly creative ways in which cultures and religious traditions are explored within current scholarship. They argue that he has erroneously juxtaposed a disturbing past of scholarship with the works of modern scholars, without considering the immense achievements that were accomplished in the field.

"Orientalism" is rarely used in the academy today, except for a few centers and journals that have retained the title. Instead, the field is identified by its component areas of study, such as Middle Eastern Studies, North African Studies, Iranian Studies, or South Asian Studies. In each area study, scholars employ a wide variety of interdisciplinary approaches and methodologies. For example, scholars who are trained in literature find it acceptable to incorporate gender studies, history, comparative studies, and other related forms of knowledge as part of their work. Most recently, theoretical approaches such as post-colonial theory or subaltern studies have played an important role in scholarly research.

See alsoColonialism.


Little, Douglas. American Orientalism: Tthe United States and the Middle East since 1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Waardenberg, Jean-Jacques. Islam dans le miroir de l'Occident. Paris: Mouton, 1963.

Qamar-ul Huda


views updated May 21 2018


the study and exploration of the orient by occidentals.

The word orientalism derives from the Latin oriens, which means "east." The idea of a cultural division between East and West, between the Orient and the Occident (from the Latin occidens, which means "west"), goes back to Greco-Roman times, where in texts as diverse as Herodotus's Histories or Varro's On the Latin Language distinctions were made between Asia and Europe, which corresponded to Orient and Occident. Throughout the Middle Ages, there was a growing perception of a distinction between a civilization that was the heir of the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman traditions (the West) and one that was the heir of the Indian and Chinese religious traditions (the East). The Islamic civilization of the Middle East fits uncomfortably into this polarity.

Even though the East and West, whatever cultural labels one may assign to them, were in contact through trade, exploration, and cultural and intellectual exchange and military activity from early Roman times, and even though they shared economic, cultural, intellectual, artistic, and religious influence, the idea of orientalism took root during the late Middle Ages, with the Portuguese voyages of discovery during the late fifteenth century, and developed through the nineteenth century. From that point on, Western explorers, scholars, writers, artists, and, ultimately, colonial administrators undertook to study, represent artistically, govern, and economically exploit the East. Traditional orientalism focused on the literary and scholarly results of that enterprise and included grammars, dictionaries, encyclopedias, texts, translations, travel accounts, novels, and paintings. The most important study of this process is that of Raymond Schwab. The artistic extension of orientalism is the school of orientalist painters, a group of nineteenth-century, mostly academic, painters, predominantly French, English, and German, who focused on real and imagined scenes of Middle Eastern exoticism in their work.

The field of orientalism changed radically with the 1978 publication of Orientalism, by Edward W. Said. Said, although focusing solely on the Islamic Middle East, exposed orientalism as a colonialist enterprise, "a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient" (p. 15). His work has exercised a vast influence over the field of cultural studies and has been applied by scholars in the other fields of traditional oriental-ist studies, including India, China, Japan and Southeast Asia.

see also nerval, gÉrard de; said, edward.


Benjamin, Roger, ed. Orientalism: Delacroix to Klee. Sydney, Australia: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1997.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York; London: Penguin, 1995.

Schwab, Raymond. The Oriental Renaissance: Europe's Rediscovery of India and the East, 16801880, translated by Gene Patterson-Black and Victor Reinking. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Williams, Patrick, ed. Edward Said, 4 volumes. Thousand Oaks, CA; London: Sage, 2001.

john m. lundquist


views updated May 21 2018

Orientalism. Architecture and design drawing on Islamic, Chinese, Japanese, Ottoman and the Eastern styles, such as Chinoiserie or the Hindoo style.


Conner (1979);
Crinson (1996);
Honour (1961);
Impey (1977)


views updated May 09 2018


This entry includes two subentries:

African and Black Orientalism