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

Meaning Of The Term

Like the term "Orient" itself "Orientalism" derives from a Latin word Oriens referring simply to the rising of the sun, to imply "the East" in the most general sense. Unless one is travelling on the Orient Express, the "Orient" is a vague destination. "Orient" and "Oriental" have been used in English to refer to both Near and Far Eastern countries. Similar terms are the French-derived "Levant" and "Anatolia," from the Greek anatole, two further locutions for the direction in which the sun rises.

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


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

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

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

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