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Orientalism (Living the Twenties #AtoZChallenge 2020)

Orientalism arose as a concept between the XVIII and the XIX century as a result of colonialism and geographic discoveries, which allowed European countries to come in contact with the Orient (Asia, Indian and the Muslim countries) and learn about Their history and culture. 

This contact created a fascination of the Western World for the Asian realities and a cultural appreciation that started in the Napoleonic times and never really faded. 

What Orient?

The concept of Orientalism existed for a couple of centuries. But Palestinian anthropologist Edward Said first described it in his 1978 essay Orientalism

Edward Wadie Said was a professor of literature at Columbia University, a public intellectual, and a founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies
Edward Wadie Sa’id

Said theorised that Orientalism isn’t a knowledge of any actual Asian culture or history, or of any Asian nation with a specific geographic location. But it’s an ensemble of ideas, myths and exotic images that don’t describe what it’s ‘Asian’, but what it’s ‘not Western’. 

Orientalism was, therefore, a way in which the Western World defined itself by describing Asia and the Asian culture as the opposite. 

Like all stereotypes, Orientalism tends to lump together different cultures in the same concept: all of Islam, all of India, even all of the Asian countries. It then gives them consolidated characteristic – spirituality, irrationality, fanatism – which may exist in different cultures but that don’t mean anything when jammed together. 

Although more often than not, Orientalism expresses a fascination in a positive way, the object of that fascination is, in fact, a fabrication. It’s a form of exoticism whose object doesn’t really exist. 

Europe’s fascination with the Orient

Europe’s fascination with the Orient started in the 1700s when The One Hundred and One Nights was first translated and became extremely popular throughout Europe. This work was, of course, no realistic depiction of the Orient, but constituted the first step toward that fictitious creation that would become the European idea of the Orient. 

Jean-Léon Gérôme: The Snake Charmer, 1870
Jean-Léon Gérôme: The Snake Charmer, 1870

In the 1800s, the arts became enamoured with Asian aesthetics, which Art Nouveau often integrated in its creations. 

At the beginning of the 1900s, the first Japanese prints arrived in Europe and found Art Deco growing. The Japanese clean, stylised lines spoke the same language as the Art Deco, which soon incorporated that aesthetic in its work. 

In all these examples, it was never a specific Asian reality that became known. Particular aspects, often taken away from their original context, were reinvented and redesigned. And so became something totally different. 


Love to Know – Definition of Orientalism

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Pantheon Books, New York City, 1978


  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 17, 2020 at 08:00

    There is a book about how the Araian Nights was edited and translated, I really want to read it. I have read some fascinating articles about Orientalism back in college…

    The Multicolored Diary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 25, 2020 at 18:26

      This was my first approcah to Orientalism, but it sounds like a fascinating subject. The way we try to understand us by interpreting the ‘other’. I’m totally fascinated.

  • Frédérique
    Posted April 17, 2020 at 16:45

    It’s great to be opened to other cultures 😉

    • Post Author
      Posted April 25, 2020 at 18:27

      True. Though Orientalism has a different form of complexity to it.

  • Leslie Moon
    Posted April 17, 2020 at 17:55

    An opening of the mind by looking at their cultures and learning from their knowledge.

    The Letter O

    • Post Author
      Posted April 25, 2020 at 18:37

      Orientalism is such a complex concept. I’ll have to research it more in depth.

  • Liam Sullivan
    Posted April 17, 2020 at 19:54

    Fascinating A to Z theme! I will have to go back an read all your earlier posts.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 25, 2020 at 18:41

      Hi Liam, thanks so much for stopping by 🙂
      Happy you enjoyed the post.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 17, 2020 at 21:32

    I’ve seen a number of 1920s films featuring Oriental settings, like The Thief of Bagdad, Waxworks, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and The Weary Death. I also agree about how some people lump all Asian cultures together. For example, it was really embarrassing to read a story where a Japanese character had a Chinese surname!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 25, 2020 at 18:55

      True. We tend to make all kind of assumption when we speak of a different culture.
      Still, even when we start with the stereotype, we can sometimes come to a deepr undersdaing. With a little effort, of course 😉

  • msjadeli
    Posted April 18, 2020 at 02:33

    That’s unfortunate because there were so many real live “Orientals” building the railroad they could have gotten to know instead drawing generalizations from a fairy tale (1001 Nights.)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 25, 2020 at 18:57

      True. But creating a meaningful relationship with a person from a different culture, especially when language is in the way, may prove very difficult.

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 21, 2020 at 16:15

    Mm, sounds like a messed-up cultural appropriation fantasy they all lived in (and some people sadly still do).

    An A-Z of Faerie: Occult

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