Orientalism Essay

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Orientalism refers in general to the interest by Western Europeans and Americans in Near Eastern and Far Eastern societies, cultures, art, and architecture, which reached a peak in the 18th and 19th centuries but has long been a facet of European culture. The term also refers to a pejorative, romantic, and colonial habit of thinking, embodied in such academic study and ongoing into the present, which holds that the East is in some way essentially different from the West. This latter meaning of the term is rooted in Edward Said’s book of the same name, Orientalism, published in 1978.

During the period of the Crusades, many designs and ideas from the Near East, as Turkey and the Holy Land were then known, were taken to Western Europe. Some of these concerned philosophical views, medical science, and geometry. Others concerned art, architecture, and military sciences. With the rise of the Seljuk Turks from the 11th century, and the Ottoman Empire from the 15th century, few people from Western Europe were able to get to China, Marco Polo (1254-1324) being a major exception. His account was, for much of the early modern period, the only one readily available that described Imperial China. It excited the culturally adventurous in Europe, but some recent detractors have argued that he may not have gone to China.

In 1510 the Portuguese had not only sailed to India but captured the city of Goa, making it the center of their power on the Indian subcontinent until 1962. They seized Malacca (in modern-day Malaysia) in 1511 and started trading with China in 1513. They established their base at Macau in China in 1557, and also traded with Japan.

These Portuguese voyages fostered Western European interest in Indian, Chinese, and Japanese foods and artifacts. The Dutch, French, and British soon tried to take control of as much of the trade as they could. In 1671 Louis le Vau built the Trianon de porcelaine at Versailles, France, where Chinese art and locally-made items in the style of Chinese art, were used to decorate a room. The idea quickly spread and the term chinoiserie came to represent this European and North American fondness for Chinese-style furniture, pottery, textiles, and interior decoration. Few large houses in Germany were without their “Chinese room.”

During the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48) and the Seven Years War (1756-63), Britain emerged as the preeminent military power in India, with great riches flowing back to the country. The fortunes made by Lord Clive and Warren Hastings inspired many British (and other) young men to seek their fortunes in India. Many died there, but others returned, often with a taste for Indian food and art. Among the many places with Indian architectural styles were the facade of the Guildhall, London (1788-89); Sezincote House, Gloucestershire, England (around 1805); and Sanssouci, Potsdam. When the British Lord Macartney went to China to try to open an embassy in Beijing in 1792, it was hoped that this would facilitate trade between Britain and China. The Chinese declined the British offer, but drawings of the meetings, and other similar encounters in India and elsewhere, showed the clothing, furniture, and decorations of the Orient to a public that had sufficient disposable income to purchase oriental items.

By the 18th century, the Orient came to represent anything from the Balkans eastward, including Egypt-not just India, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. This interest in Eastern art and culture received a boost when Napoleon embarked on his invasion of Egypt in 1798-1801. He took with him many scholars and essentially led to the creation of the discipline known as Egyptology, which involves the study of pharaonic Egypt from 4500 B.C.E. until 641 C.E. Subsequent French interest in North Africa, leading to the invasion of northern Algeria in 1830, led to the formation of a painting school known as the Orientalists, often including painters who had only been to Morocco and Algeria, as well as Egypt and Arabia. Some even saw the Moorish style of Spain as being Oriental.

In 1811, the British sent a massive expedition to the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), with the commander, Lord Minto, bringing with him antiquarians and archivists. In the early 19th century, trade between China, India, and Western Europe was vast. Tea clippers brought large amounts of tea to Europe, with tea houses opening in many cities. Some of these were decorated with Chinese artifacts, and it was not long before local copies of Chinese art started to appear on the market, and some buildings inspired by Chinese architecture were built. The Royal Pavilion at Brighton, England, was constructed in 1815-22, and represents the interest in Mogul Indian architecture in Regency Britain. Chinese-style pagodas were built in botanical gardens, including in Kew Gardens in London and the English Gardens in Munich. Large numbers of houses in England and France, and also later in the United States, now had a Chinese room, where items from China, or in the style of these, were displayed. Chinese or Chinese-style furniture was also used to decorate these rooms and other parts of the house.

The 19th century also saw a large number of books written about the Orient. Novels such as Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbo (1862), set in Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) captured the essence of Orientalism of that period. The opening up of Japan in the 1860s saw an interest in Japanese woodblock prints and Japonaiserie. By the early 20th century books and stories set in the Orient often had a more dangerous edge to them. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934), P.C. Wren’s Beau Geste (1924), and Sax Rohmer’s character, Fu Manchu, set among the Chinese in London, focused on this exotic but dangerous Oriental theme. Nowadays the all-encompassing term orient has been replaced with more specific interest in Arab, Chinese, Egyptian, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Persian, Tibetan, or Turkish styles.

The persistence of certain ways of thinking rooted in the colonial era, however, are arguably still present in contemporary “oriental” regional scholarship. This persistence of essentialist ideas, holding the orient to be distant, alien, irrational, and the mirror “other” to the West’s rationality, has been pointed to by a large number of postcolonial scholars. Most prominent among them is Edward Said, whose book Orientalism points out that domination of colonial nations and peoples around the world was historically not simply a matter of brute force, but also one of ideology. The necessary logic of domination, he suggests, is one where the East is mystical, unknowable, irrational, feminine, and in need of control. The long scholarly tradition noted above, he further insists, deeply reflects and constitutes an academic tradition that cements this vision of the world and justifies foreign rule. Orientalism refers therefore to an academic field as well as a dangerous state of mind.

In terms of environmental issues and ecological history, Orientalism has been arguably influential in the development of modern environmental science. The notion of “tropicality,” for example, a discourse that holds that temperate environments are more suited to civilization, is a long-standing tradition in historiography, closely tied to essentialist ideas of the “primitive” or mystical East. Quaint as such ideas may seem, their tacit persistence suggests that Orientalism remains a pertinent issue in human/environment studies.

Bibliography:

  1. Alexander MacFie, Orientalism: A Reader (Edinburgh University Press, 2000);
  2. Donald Rosenthal, Orientalism: The Near East in French Painting (Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, 1982);
  3. Edward Said, Orientalism (Random House, 1978).

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