Essay on What is Orientalism?

            Orientalism has been widely discussed in academic literature and the media sources. According to researchers, the nature of the Orient invites imagination due to the uniqueness of this concept (Ziauddin 1). Orientalism can be viewed as a positive concept that sets a high value on the role of the Orient nature in the life and development of the West (Said 203). The history of Chinese dynasties has direct link with the history of Roman Empire and the establishment of Orientalism as an ideology. American Orientalists are involved in the study and analysis of the Orient. According to Said, Orientalism calls for specific knowledge of people, places and civilizations (203). The study of Orientalism allows having a deep understanding of the West’s beliefs and views on the Arab in general and Islamic world in particular. As Orientalists are involved in the investigation of the roots of ancient Oriental traditions and the nature of the artistic representation of the Orient in Western world, it is necessary to place emphasis on several aspects in the study of this issue (Ziauddin 21). This paper will give explanation of the concept of Orientalism and provide the information regarding the effects of Orientalism on today’s society. In order to explain the meaning of Orientalism, it is crucial to consider changes in the meaning of this term. Today, Orientalism is considered to an influential ideology that allows finding differences between East and West (Diken et al. 26). Researchers are focused on the study and analysis of powerful Oriental influences in different areas of today’s society, placing emphasis on the significant role of religious concepts and philosophies, for example Asian religious traditions and beliefs. Thesis statement: The meaning of Orientalism has been changed due to continuing effects of this concept on today’s society, including  powerful effects on attitudes, beliefs, images and knowledge found in various cultural and social activities: art, music, literature, and other elements of culture.

The major goal of this research paper is to discuss the meaning of Orientalism and consider the continuing effects of this concept on the development of today’s society. The study will be narrowed down to the United States. The following issues should be discussed in this paper: background information about the concept of Orientalism, some differences in the definitions of the term “Orientalism”, some important facts from the history of Orientalism, the nature of American Orientalism and its continuing effects on today’s society.

Background information about the concept of Orientalism

In order to discuss the meaning of Orientalism, it is necessary to consider the key facts about the concept of Orientalism. In fact, the meaning of the term “Orientalism” is closely connected with the history of this concept. Edward Said’s book Orientalism written in 1978 had a strong impact on the study of the origins of Orientalism and the “Third World cultural studies in Europe and the United States” (Dirlik 384). Said provides three different meanings of the term “Orientalism”, each of which is independent in its explanation (133).  Orientalism as a concept can be characterized as influential Western ideology. At the same time, it can be characterized as an academic discipline studied in educational institutions as a field of academic study, or it can be represented as a literary motif. Moreover, the concept of Orientalism has direct relation to the depiction of prejudiced interpretations (Kontje 56)

 Some differences in the definitions of the term “Orientalism”

The concept of Orientalism can be viewed as a controversial concept, which has been defined differently. To start with, the term “Orientalism” has been defined as an “ideology, a set of prejudices that bolster a sense of European superiority over the East and thus implicitly or explicitly legitimate imperialism and colonialism, the exploitation of subjugated people deemed culturally or racially inferior to the dominant culture” (Kontye 56). Researchers suggest that the ideology of Orientalism may set certain limits to European way of thinking regarding the nature of the Orient. As a result, the ideology of Orientalism may exist as a set of ideas that fill social activities.

Secondly, the term “Orientalism” refers to the academic discipline, which involves the study of Eastern culture, beliefs, values, religions, traditions and languages (Kontye 56). Generally speaking, Orientalism as the field of study is based on the application of the Christian traditions of West. According to Wesley Longhofer and Daniel Winchester, “Orientalism is considered to have commenced its formal existence with the decision of the Church Council of Vienne in 1312 to establish a series of chairs in Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac in Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Avignon and Salamanca” (377). The historical development of Orientalism as an academic discipline is based on its increasing scope because it is a field with an increased geographical representation in a wide range of realities, including social realities, political and linguistic realities (Longhofer & Winchester 377).

Thirdly, the term “Orientalism” has been applied to art and literature as a theme for discussion (Kontye 56). The value of Orientalism is concluded in its artistic and artful techniques which make art and literature communicate important ideas. For example, the exhibition of Chinese ceramics from the Han Dynasty, such as houses and camels, reflects the values of historical period and the role of Confucianism in the establishment of Empire. In visual arts and literature of China, the ideas of Orientalism symbolize Chinese cultural traditions and beliefs.

 Some important facts from the history of Orientalism

            The origin of Orientalism refers to the so-called “western construction of knowledge about peoples in the Middle East and Asia” that was formed during colonial era (Merryfield & Subedi 288).  Today Orientalism is part of human life. It affects practically all aspects of human activity. The history of Orientalism is long and interesting. At the end of the 15-th century, after the discovery of America, which provided the sea route to India, there was an increase in the development of economic relations between East and West. That period was marked by the development of the philosophy Orientalism as a new philosophical thought.

            Additionally, in the early 19-th century the concept of Orientalism was applied to visual art. The term “Orientalism” was used to describe the unique features of the genre of painting, which was promoted by many French and British artists. They were focused on the representation of the Orient in their impressive art works, revealing the themes of the established Middle Eastern traditions and customs. Historians believe that the amazing works of many Orientalists not only embraced truly oriental expression, but also inspired them to develop the themes of the Orient in their further works. Researchers have found cross-cultural influences of artists (Merryfield & Subedi 285). Various Indian, Chinese and Japanese traditions, values and beliefs were reflected in paintings, textiles, and ceramics, furniture, and architecture styles. Said reinterpreted these cross-cultural influences through the development and application of radical theory, which proves the fact that the depiction of the East influenced social and cultural life of people living in the West (Merryfield & Subedi 285).

            Furthermore, the effects of Orientalism on society had absolutely different forms. These differences depended on the cultures which were influenced by Orientalism. According to Said’s theoretical views, the discourse of Orientalism can be characterized as “basically homogeneous” discourse (Burke & Prochaska 22). Said states that “Orientalism is 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 3). The meaning of Orientalism is based on the above mentioned Said’s claim because it reflects the idea of supremacy of the West and its influence on the East. Said writes,

Orientalism refers to several overlapping domains: first, the changing historical and cultural relationship between Europe and Asia, a relationship with a 4000-year-old history; second, the scientific discipline in the west according to which, beginning in the early 19-th century, one specialized in the study of various Oriental cultures and traditions; and, third, the ideological suppositions, images and fantasies  about a currently important and politically urgent region of the world called the Orient (90).

            Thus, the history of Orientalism highlights the role of cultural relationship between the West and the East. The Chinese dynasties

 The nature of American Orientalism

            The nature of American Orientalism can be explained by the discourse that regarding the differences and different theoretical perspectives on the analysis of Western cultural practice and non-Western cultural practice that were enhanced by the effects of colonialism. Due to Said’s analysis of the West’s ideological domination over the East, it becomes possible to have a better understanding of the nature of American Orientalism. The West’s construction of the East is based on the promotion of the specific style of thought that finds the obvious features of differences between the Orient and the Occident.

As a matter of fact, the study of China’s history is aimed at finding the proper explanations of the origin of Orientalism and its effects on today’s society. China’s language, history, cultural traditions, values and beliefs give explanation to its tremendous growth as an Empire. Many critics pay due attention to the study of cultural traditions of non-Western societies, including Chinese society, in order to explain why these cultures “remained humanist, egalitarian societies that were ‘corrupted’ by colonist subjugation” (Kirkwood 42). American Orientalism reflects the influences of China because it was “built on European Orientalism and its negative depictions of Asians, but took a form that was specific to and supportive of the United States emerging role as a worldwide moral and economic force” (Ion 274). In other words, Americans wanted to see Asia well-developed, highly civilized and Christianized. In the case of China’s dynasties, Orientalism was used to reflect ideologies of the nation. American Orientalism was closely connected with American progressivism and the idea of Manifest destiny. Due to American intervention in China, Orientalism become more progressive as China was converted into more Christian society. Prejudices caused by the growth of the ideas of Orientalism in the United States were caused by China’s humiliation (Ion 275). Orientalism became part of a powerful imperialist project based on the idea to make China similar to the U.S. and the West. According to researchers, the new form of Orientalism is based on the so-called sameness, as today “China is seen as in a process of haltingly but inevitably becoming the same as us: open, liberal, modern and free” (Vukovich 1).

 The continuing effects of Orientalism on today’s society: the case of China

            It has been found that Orientalism was originated in the period of colonialism, but today the effects of Orientalism can be identified in any society as it “continues to shape attitudes, images and knowledge” (Merryfield & Subedi 288).  Said highlights that use of specific methods of teaching that can be used to “overcome orientalist thinking through contrapuntal (a term from music meaning characterized by counterpoint) literature and histories that create new understandings and knowledge” (Merryfield & Subedi 288).

Generally speaking, the themes revealed by Orientalism, its principles and traditions are obvious in today’s society. Researchers, including sociologists and historians are focused on providing argumentation on existing differences between the cultural aspects of the East and the West (Diken & Laustsen 26). The most important argument gives explanation to the continuing effects of Orientalism on today’s society is that the “relationship between the West and the Orient is not merely one of a difference between two elements within the same space” (Diken & Laustsen 26). According to researchers, the Orient is characterized as a “fantasy space” because it is associated with human produced by fantasy. The criticism of Orientalism is caused by different styles and trends found in the art worked produced by the Asian artists and writers (Said 60). In the 20-th century, a wide range of cultural themes of the West were reflected in Asian art and culture. Moreover, Orientalism influenced cinema and theater, and photography.

Chinatown that became a form of Chinese settlement that reflected Oriental ideas in the form of specific attributes of Chinese people. The framework of Orientalism involves the effects of internal colonization; therefore, Chinatowns were shaped by the presence of colonialist attitudes. For example, Chinese decorative arts influenced the creation of visual images by American painters. Many elements of Chinese architecture, including pagodas Chinese-style pavilions, and impressive landscapes helped to create romantic Oriental visions.

            The effects of Orientalism on art and culture through images and language

            The effects of Orientalism on art and culture, including literature, painting, music, theatre, cinema, and photography can be explained by the national cultural dialogue, which influences various elements of cultural development. The intense interest of Americans in the Orient, especially the Oriental culture and traditions contributed to the development of American Orientalist thought. For example, the popularity of the Arabian Nights among Americans influenced the growth of tourism industry.  According to historians, the United States entered Orientalism in 1850s-1860s by means of literature, painting, and music. Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad (1869) highlights the new development associated with Orientalism.

In fact, the significant role of the Oriental culture was reflected in aesthetic and ethical discourse in the United States. The Oriental images were represented in Oriental landscapes. Sanford Robinson Gifford, an American landscape painter, reflected the effects of orientalism in his paintings: The Desert at Assouan (1869), Long Branch Beach (1867) and other art works. The works of American painters help to find the link between the Orient and the West through the cultural and historical imaginary (Ziauddin 35).

Besides, Orientalism was found in music. Many composers were influenced by the Oriental ideas which can be found in various forms of Oriental music. The growing rate of Asian immigrants in the United States promoted the reflection of Orientalism in music.  It has been found that American popular music revealed increased de-masculinization, intensive role of exoticism, dehumanization and other elements of Orientalism. Due to musical representation of Asian immigrants, the difference between the East and the West became more obvious and clear for Americans. The Orient found in American music can be characterized as fantasy developed by the civilized world.  For example, Jerome and Schwartz’s song demonstrates the theme of Orientalism through the representation of local Chinatowns as “foreign entities within the U.S. borders” (Dirlik 127). In general, music industry was influenced by Orientalism and played an important role in the construction of national identity. Images and language in various art works contributed to the increased role of the Oriental ideas in art and culture.

            The effects of Orientalism on cinema

            The effects of Orientalism on cinema and film production can be explained by the increased representation of Asian culture and traditions in films, documentaries and television shows that were produced in the United States, especially Chinese culture. According to historians, “four major stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans emerged from the imagination of primarily white cultural producers in Hollywood: Yellow Peril, Dragon Lady, Charlie Chan and Lotus Blossom (Shah 1). The images of Asians were characterized as the images, which reflected both negative and positive stereotypes. Negative stereotypes proved the significance social control. Positive stereotypes proved the significance of the Orientalist thought (Shah 4). At the same time, China developed its own tradition of warriors’ depiction. This tradition was popularized in films, folklore and music. Orientalism in cinema and theater highlights the role of historicism. Zhang Yimou’s Hero reflects Orientalism through historicism, as well as many other films (Diken & Laustsen 122).

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