Orientalism is the study of Near and Far Eastern societies and cultures, generally by Westerners. Although this term had become archaic and rare by the late twentieth century, Edward Said redefined this term in his groundbreaking work (Orientalism, 1979) to emphasize the relationship of power and knowledge in scholarly and popular thinking, in particular, regarding Europeans and how they saw the Arab world.
Taking a comparative and historical literary review of European scholars and writers looking at, thinking about, talking about, and writing about the peoples of the Middle East, he sought to lay bare the relations of power between the colonizer and the colonized in those texts. While his work owes much (as Said himself made clear) to that of Michel Foucault, Said's work has had far-reaching implications beyond the Middle East, to India, China, and post-colonial studies generally.
Many scholars now use Said's work to undermine long-held, often taken-for-granted European ideological biases regarding non-Europeans 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.
Throughout history, western culture built up a stereotype of "the Orient" -- seductive women and dangerous men living in a static society with a glorious but long-gone past. Many critical theorists regard Orientalism as part of a larger, ideological colonialism justified by the concept of the "white man's burden".
"Orientalism" in reference to art and culture
The word Orientalism can also refer to Western appropriations of oriental themes and imagery in art, architecture, literature, and other manifestations of popular or high culture. This has taken many forms:
- the fashion for Chinoiserie in Victorian decorating,
- William Thomas Beckford's Vathek;
- Richard Francis Burton's The Arabian Nights;
- the Malay passages in Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater;
- Oscar Wilde's Salomé;
- Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado;
- Many early 21st century Western cartoons have been stylisticly influenced by Japanese anime, which is itself becoming very popular in the West and many less memorable cultural productions. Middle Eastern, Chinese, and Japanese themes are here usually put in the service of exotic fantasy.
- The strong popular association of the martial arts with Asian cultures.
The Decline of Scholarly Orientalism and Transition to Asian Studies
In most universities in North America, Orientalism has now been replaced by Asian Studies and East Asian Studies, which have a somewhat different focus of research and perspective. Many professional scholars and students of East Asian Studies are Asian Americans, especially Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, and Korean Americans.
See also: Sinology (study of China)