[awr-ee-en-tl-iz-uhm, ohr-]

Orientalism refers to the imitation or depiction of aspects of Eastern cultures in the West by writers, designers and artists, and can also refer to a sympathetic stance towards the region by a writer or other person. An "Orientalist" may be a person engaged in these activities, but is also the traditional term for any scholar of Oriental studies.

These meanings were given a new twist by Edward Said in his controversial 1978 book Orientalism, where he uses the term to describe a tradition, both academic and artistic, of hostile and deprecatory views of the East by the West, shaped by the attitudes of the era of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. When used in this sense, it often implies essentializing and prejudiced outsider interpretations of Eastern cultures and peoples. Said was critical of this scholarly tradition and also of a few modern scholars, including Princeton University professor Bernard Lewis. In contrast, the term has also been used by some modern scholars to refer to writers of the Imperialist era who had pro-Eastern attitudes, as opposed to those who saw nothing of value in non-Western cultures.

Meaning of the term

Like the term Orient, Orientalism derives from the Latin word oriens (rising) and, equally likely, from the Greek word ('he'oros', the direction of the rising sun). "Orient" is the opposite of Occident. In terms of The Old World, Europe was considered The Occident (The West), and its farthest-known extreme The Orient (The East). Dating from the Roman Empire until the Middle Ages, what is now, in the West, considered 'the Middle East' was then considered 'the Orient'. In that time, the flourishing cultures of the Far East were unknown, likewise Europe was unknown in the Far East.

In time, the common understanding of 'the Orient' has continually shifted eastwards, as Western explorers traveled farther in to Asia. In Biblical times, the Three Wise Men 'from the Orient' were actually Magi from "The East", (relative to Judea), probably meaning the Persian Empire or Arabia. After a period, as Europe learned of countries farther East, the defined limit of 'the Orient' shifted eastwards, until it reached the Pacific Ocean, in what Westerners came to call 'the Far East'. In the West, these shifts in time confuse the scope (historical and geographic) of Oriental Studies.

Yet, there remain contexts where 'the Orient' and 'Oriental' denote older definitions, e.g. 'Oriental spices' typically are from the Earth's regions extending from the Middle East to sub-continental India to Indo-China. Moreover, travel on the Orient Express train (ParisIstanbul), is eastward (to the sun), but does not reach what is currently understood to be the Orient.

In contemporary English, Oriental is usually synonymous for the peoples, cultures, and goods from the parts of East Asia traditionally occupied by East Asians and some Southeast Asians racially categorised as "Mongoloid". This excludes Indians, Arabs, most Southeast Asians and the other West Asian peoples. In some parts of the United States, the term is considered derogatory; for example, Washington state prohibits use of the word "Oriental" in legislation and government documentation, preferring the word "Asian" instead.

The arts

Imitations of Oriental styles

Orientalism has also come to mean the adoption of typical eastern motifs, styles and subject matter in art, architecture, and design. Turquerie was the oldest such fashion, which began as early as the late 15th century, and continued until at least the 18th.

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

Chinoiserie is the catch-all term for the fashion for Chinese themes in decoration in Western Europe, beginning in the late 17th century and peaking in waves, especially Rococo Chinoiserie, ca 1740–1770. From the Renaissance to the 18th century Western designers attempted to imitate the technical sophistication of Chinese ceramics with only partial success. Early hints of Chinoiserie appear, in the 17th century, in the nations with active East India companies: England (the British East India Company), Denmark (the Danish East India Company), Holland (the Dutch East India Company) and France (the French East India Company). Tin-glazed pottery made at Delft and other Dutch towns adopted genuine blue-and-white Ming decoration from the early 17th century, and early ceramic wares at Meissen and other centers of true porcelain imitated Chinese shapes for dishes, vases and teawares (see Chinese export porcelain).

Pleasure pavilions in "Chinese taste" appeared in the formal parterres of late Baroque and Rococo German palaces, and in tile panels at Aranjuez near Madrid. Thomas Chippendale's mahogany tea tables and china cabinets, especially, were embellished with fretwork glazing and railings, ca 1753–70, but sober homages to early Xing scholars' furnishings were also naturalized, as the tang evolved into a mid-Georgian side table and squared slat-back armchairs suited English gentlemen as well as Chinese scholars. Not every adaptation of Chinese design principles falls within mainstream "chinoiserie." Chinoiserie media included imitations of lacquer and painted tin (tôle) ware that imitated japanning, early painted wallpapers in sheets, and ceramic figurines and table ornaments. Small pagodas appeared on chimneypieces and full-sized ones in gardens. Kew has a magnificent garden pagoda designed by Sir William Chambers.

After 1860, Japonisme, sparked by the arrival of Japanese woodblock prints, became an important influence in the western arts in particular on many modern French artists such as Monet. The paintings of James McNeill Whistler and his "Peacock Room" are some of the finest works of the genre; other examples include the Gamble House and other buildings by California architects Greene and Greene.

Depictions of the Orient in art and literature

Depictions of Islamic "Moors" and "Turks" (imprecisely named Muslim groups of North Africa and West Asia) can be found in Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art. The first stirrings of Orientalism in Western art are found in Biblical scenes in Early Netherlandish painting, where secondary figures, especially Roman and Jewish ones, are given exotic costumes that distantly reflect the turbans and other clothes of the contemporary Near East. The Three Magi in Nativity scenes were an especial focus for this. Renaissance Venice had a phase of particular interest in depictions of the Ottoman Empire in painting; Gentile Bellini, who travelled to Constantinople and painted the Sultan, and Vittore Carpaccio were the leading exponents. By then the depictions were rather more accurate, with men typically dressed all in white.

In the nineteenth century the numbers of Oriental scenes greatly increased. In many of these works the myth of the Orient as exotic and decadently corrupt is most fully articulated. Such works typically concentrated on Near-Eastern Islamic cultures. Artists such as Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Léon Gérôme and Alexander Roubtzoff painted many depictions of Islamic culture, often including lounging odalisques, and stressing lassitude and visual spectacle. When Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, director of the French Académie de peinture painted a highly-colored vision of a turkish bath (illustration, right), he made his eroticized Orient publicly acceptable by his diffuse generalizing of the female forms, who might all have been of the same model. If his painting had simply been retitled "In a Paris Brothel," it would have been far less acceptable. Sensuality was seen as acceptable in the exotic Orient. This orientalizing imagery persisted in art into the early 20th century, as evidenced in Matisse's orientalist nudes. In these works the "Orient" often functions as a mirror to Western culture itself, or as a way of expressing its hidden or illicit aspects. In Gustave Flaubert's novel Salammbô ancient Carthage in North Africa is used as a foil to ancient Rome. Its culture is portrayed as morally corrupting and suffused with dangerously alluring eroticism. This novel proved hugely influential on later portrayals of ancient Semitic cultures.

The use of the orient as an exotic backdrop continued in the movies for instance in many movies with Rudolph Valentino. Later the rich Arab in robes became a more popular theme, especially during the oil crisis of the 1970s. In the 1990s the Arab terrorist became a common villain figure in Western movies.



Opera, ballets, musicals

Orchestral works

Shorter musical pieces






Edward Said and "Orientalism"

A central idea of Edward Said is that Western knowledge about the East is not generated from facts, but through imagined constructs that see all "Eastern" societies as fundamentally similar, all sharing crucial characteristics unlike those of "Western" societies, thus, this ‘a priori’ knowledge established the East as antithetical to the West. Such Eastern knowledge is constructed with literary texts and historical records that often are of limited understanding of the facts of life in the Middle East.

Before Said's book, "Oriental" was widely used as the opposite of "occidental" ('Western'). The comparisons between them generally were unfavorable to the Orient; however, respected institutions like the Oriental Institute of Chicago, the London School of Oriental and African Studies or Università degli studi di Napoli L'Orientale, carried the term with no explicit reproach. The word "Orient" fell into disrepute after the word "Orientalism" was coined with the publication of Said's book. Following the ideas of Michel Foucault, Said emphasized the relationship between power and knowledge in scholarly and popular thinking, in particular regarding European views of the Islamic Arab world. Said argued that Orient and Occident worked as oppositional terms, so that the "Orient" was constructed as a negative inversion of Western culture. The work of another thinker, Antonio Gramsci, was also important in shaping Edward Said's analysis in this area. In particular, Said can be seen to have been influenced by Gramsci's notion of hegemony in understanding the pervasiveness of Orientalist constructs and representations in Western scholarship and reporting, and their relation to the exercise of power over the 'Orient'.

Although Edward Said limited his discussion to academic study of Middle Eastern, African and Asian history and culture, he asserted that "Orientalism is, and does not merely represent, a significant dimension of modern political and intellectual culture." (p. 53) Said's discussion of academic Orientalism is almost entirely limited to late 19th and early 20th century scholarship. Most academic Area Studies departments had already abandoned an imperialist or colonialist paradigm of scholarship. He names the work of Bernard Lewis as an example of the continued existence of this paradigm, but acknowledges that it was already somewhat of an exception by the time of his writing (1977). The idea of an "Orient" is a crucial aspect of attempts to define "the West." Thus, histories of the Greco-Persian Wars may contrast the monarchical government of the Persian Empire with the democratic tradition of Athens, as a way to make a more general comparison between the Greeks and the Persians, and between "the West" and "the East", or "Europe" and "Asia", but make no mention of the other Greek city states, most of which were not ruled democratically.

Taking a comparative and historical literary review of European, mainly British and French, scholars and writers looking at, thinking about, talking about, and writing about the peoples of the Middle East, Said sought to lay bare the relations of power between the colonizer and the colonized in those texts. Said's writings have had far-reaching implications beyond area studies in Middle East, to studies of imperialist Western attitudes to India, China and elsewhere. It was one of the foundational texts of postcolonial studies. Said later developed and modified his ideas in his book Culture and Imperialism (1993).

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

Said puts forward several definitions of 'Orientalism' in the introduction to Orientalism. Some of these have been more widely quoted and influential than others:

  • "A way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western experience." (p. 1)
  • "a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between 'the Orient' and (most of the time) 'the Occident'." (p. 2)
  • "A Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient." (p. 3)
  • "...particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient." (p. 6)
  • "A distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts." (p. 12)

In his Preface to the 2003 edition of Orientalism, Said also warned against the "falsely unifying rubrics that invent collective identities," citing such terms as "America," "The West," and "Islam," which were leading to what he felt was a manufactured "clash of civilisations."

Criticisms of Said

Critics of Said's theory, such as the historian Bernard Lewis, argue that Said's account contains many factual, methodological and conceptual errors. Said ignores many genuine contributions to the study of Eastern cultures made by Westerners during the Enlightenment and Victorian eras. Said's theory does not explain why the French and English pursued the study of Islam in the 16th and 17th centuries, long before they had any control or hope of control in the Middle East. He has been criticised for ignoring the contributions of Italian, Dutch, and particularly the massive contribution of German scholars. Lewis claims that the scholarship of these nations was more important to European Orientalism than the French or British, but the countries in question either had no colonial projects in the Mideast (Dutch and Germans), or no connection between their Orientalist research and their colonialism (Italians). Said's theory also does not explain why much of Orientalist study did nothing to advance the cause of imperialism. As Lewis asks,

Lewis argued that Orientalism arose from humanism, which was distinct from Imperialist ideology, and sometimes in opposition to it. Orientalist study of Islam arose from the rejection of religious dogma, and was an important spur to discovery of alternative cultures. Lewis criticised as "intellectual protectionism" the argument that only those within a culture could usefully discuss it.

In his rebuttal to Lewis, Said stated that Lewis' negative rejoinder must be placed into its proper context. Since one of Said's principal arguments is that Orientalism was used (wittingly or unwittingly) as an instrument of empire, he contends that Lewis' critique of this thesis could hardly be judged in the disinterested, scholarly light that Lewis would like to present himself, but must be understood in the proper knowledge of what Said claimed was Lewis' own (often masked) neo-imperialist proclivities, as displayed by the latter's political or quasi-political appointments and pronouncements.

Specifically, Lewis is aligned with prominent think tanks that promote neoconservative views on U.S. Middle East Policy. Most scholars in Middle Eastern Studies departments at American and European universities take a position much closer to Said's than to Lewis', and scholars at certain privately-funded think tanks, such as Martin Kramer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Daniel Pipes at the Middle East Forum, who are aligned with Lewis, have alleged that this constitutes bias, and is a reason to cut federal funding from these Middle Eastern Studies departments, and subject all such academic departments to federal government oversight in order to prevent scholarly bias. Pipes is the author of a website,, which encourages students to report bias on the part of their professors.

Bryan Turner critiques Said’s work saying there were a multiplicity of forms and traditions of Orientalism. He is therefore critical of Said’s attempt to try to place them all under the framework of the orientalist tradition. Other critics of Said have argued that while many distortions and fantasies certainly existed, the notion of "the Orient" as a negative mirror image of the West cannot be wholly true because attitudes to distinct cultures diverged significantly. In any case it is a logical necessity that other cultures will be identified as "different", since otherwise their distinctive characteristics would be invisible, and that the most striking differences will hold up the mirror to the observing culture. John MacKenzie notes that Said’s Orientalism is critiqued for implying that western dominance is and has been unchallenged, ignoring for example the ‘Subaltern Studies’ group of scholars work of resistance and giving voice to the unvoiced. Further criticism includes the observation that the criticisms levied by Said at Orientalist scholars of being essentialist can in turn be levied at him for the way in which he writes of the west as a hegemonic mass, stereotyping its characteristics.

Eastern views of the West

Many of the essentially dismissive and patronizing concepts associated with Western "Orientalism" as expressed above are found in many Asian works by Indian, Chinese and Japanese writers and artists.

In contrast, some Eastern artists adopted and adapted Western styles. The Indian painter Ravi Varma painted several works that are virtually indistinguishable from some Western orientalist images. In the late 20th century many Western cultural themes and images began appearing in Asian art and culture, especially in Japan. English words and phrases are prominent in Japanese advertising and popular culture, and many Japanese anime are written around characters, settings, themes, and mythological figures derived from various Western cultural traditions.

Recently, the term Occidentalism has been coined to refer to negative views of the Western world sometimes found in Eastern societies today. In a similar ideological vein to Occidentalism, Eurocentrism can refer to both negative views and excessively positive views of the Western World found in discussions about 'Eastern culture'.

See also

External links



Further reading

  • Balagangadhara, S. N. "The Future of the Present: Thinking Through Orientalism", Cultural Dynamics, Vol. 10, No. 2, (1998), pp. 101-23. ISSN 0921-3740.
  • Benjamin, Roger “Orientalist Aethetics, Art, Colonialism and French North Africa: 1880-1930”, California UP, 2003
  • Benjamin, Roger "Orientalism; Delacroix to Klee", Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1997.
  • Biddick, Kathleen. "Coming Out of Exile: Dante on the Orient(alism) Express", The American Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 4. (Oct., 2000), pp. 1234–1249.
  • Davies, Kristian. The Orientalists: Western artists in Arabia, the Sahara, Persia & India. New York: Laynfaroh, 2005 (hardcover, ISBN 0-9759783-0-6).
  • Crawley, William. "Sir William Jones: A vision of Orientalism", Asian Affairs, Vol. 27, Issue 2. (Jun. 1996), pp. 163–176.
  • Fleming, K.E. "Orientalism, the Balkans, and Balkan Historiography", The American Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 4. (Oct., 2000), pp. 1218–1233.
  • Halliday, Fred. "'Orientalism' and Its Critics", British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2. (1993), pp. 145–163.
  • Irwin, Robert. For lust of knowing: The Orientalists and their enemies. London: Penguin/Allen Lane, 2006 (hardcover, ISBN 0-7139-9415-0). As Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents. New York: Overlook Press, 2006 (hardcover, ISBN 1-58567-835-X).
  • Jersild, Austin. Orientalism and Empire: North Caucasus Mountain Peoples and the Georgian Frontier, 1845–1917. Montreal: McGill–Queen's University Press, 2002 (hardcover, ISBN 0-7735-2328-6); 2003 (paperback, ISBN 0-7735-2329-4).
  • Kabbani, Rana. Imperial Fictions: Europe's Myths of Orient. London: Pandora Press, 1994 (paperback, ISBN 0-04-440911-7).
  • Kalmar, Ivan Davidson & Penslar, Derek. Orientalism and the Jews; Brandeis 2005
  • Kennedy, Dane. "'Captain Burton's Oriental Muck Heap': The Book of the Thousand Nights and the Uses of Orientalism", The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 39, No. 3. (Jul., 2000), pp. 317–339.
  • Kincheloe, Joe L. and Shirley R. Steinberg, The Miseducation of the West: How the Schools and Media Distort Our Understanding of Islam. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Press, 2004. (Arabic Edition, 2005).
  • Klein, Christina. Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003 (hardcover, ISBN 0-520-22469-8; paperback, ISBN 0-520-23230-5).
  • Knight, Nathaniel. "Grigor'ev in Orenburg, 1851–1862: Russian Orientalism in the Service of Empire?", Slavic Review, Vol. 59, No. 1. (Spring, 2000), pp. 74–100.
  • Kontje, Todd. German Orientalisms. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004 (ISBN 0-472-11392-5).
  • Little, Douglas. American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001 (hardcover, ISBN 0-8078-2737-1); 2002 (paperback, ISBN 0-8078-5539-1); London: I.B. Tauris, 2002 (new ed., hardcover, ISBN 1-86064-889-4).
  • López-Calvo, Ignacio, ed. Alternative Orientalisms in Latin America and Beyond. Newcastle, England: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007 (hardcover, ISBN 1-84718-143-0; ISBN 13: 9781847181435
  • Lowe, Lisa. Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalisms. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992 (hardcover, ISBN 978-0801425790; paperback, ISBN 978-0801481956).
  • Macfie, Alexander Lyon. Orientalism. White Plains, NY: Longman, 2002 (ISBN 0-582-42386-4).
  • MacKenzie, John. Orientalism: History, theory and the arts. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995 (hardcover, ISBN 0-7190-1861-7; paperback, ISBN 0-7190-4578-9).
  • Murti, Kamakshi P. India: The Seductive and Seduced "Other" of German Orientalism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001 (hardcover, ISBN 0-313-30857-8).
  • Noble dreams, wicked pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870–1930 by Holly Edwards (Editor). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000 (hardcover, ISBN 0-691-05003-1; paperback, ISBN 0-691-05004-X).
  • Orientalism and the Jews, edited by Ivan Davidson Kalmar and Derek Penslar. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2004 (paperback, ISBN 1-58465-411-2).
  • The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse: The Allure of North Africa and the Near East, edited by Mary Anne Stevens. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1984 (paperback, ISBN 0-297-78435-8).
  • Paul, James. "Orientalism Revisited: An Interview with Edward W. Said", MERIP Middle East Report, No. 150. (Jan.–Feb., 1988), pp. 32–36.
  • Peltre, Christine. Orientalism in Art. New York: Abbeville Publishing Group (Abbeville Press, Inc.), 1998 (hardcover, ISBN 0-7892-0459-2).
  • Prakash, Gyan. "Orientalism Now", History and Theory, Vol. 34, No. 3. (Oct., 1995), pp. 199–212.
  • Richardson, Michael. "Enough Said: Reflections on Orientalism", Anthropology Today, Vol. 6, No. 4. (Aug., 1990), pp. 16–19.
  • Rotter, Andrew J. "Saidism without Said: Orientalism and U.S. Diplomatic History", The American Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 4. (Oct., 2000), pp. 1205–1217.
  • Sahni, Kalpana. Crucifying the Orient: Russian Orientalism and the Colonization of Caucasus and Central Asia. Bangkok; Oslo: White Orchid Press, 1997 (hardcover, ISBN 974-8299-50-3).
  • Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978 (ISBN 0-394-42814-5); New York: Vintage, 1979 (ISBN 0-394-74067-X).
  • Schneider, Jane. Italy's "Southern Question": Orientalism in One Country. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1998 (hardcover, ISBN 1-85973-992-X; paperback, ISBN 1-85973-997-0).
  • Varisco, Daniel Martin. "Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid." Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007. (hardcover ISBN 978-0-295-98758-3; paperback 978-0-295-98752-1).
  • Visions of the East: Orientalism in film by Matthew Bernstein (Editor), Gaylyn Studlar (Editor). Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997 (hardcover, ISBN 0-8135-2294-3; paperback, ISBN 0-8135-2295-1).



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