Orientalism Past and Present
An Introduction to a Postcolonial Critique
The aim of this article is to introduce the term orientalism, its meaning, its history
and most important its future. I will start with a definition of the term itself with
regard to the scholarly tradition in the West of studying Asian cultures, languages
and societies. I will then continue with a recapitulation of the critique on orientalism
and the following debate that has been going on since the beginning of the 1960s.
After a few notes on the absence of such a debate in peripheral countries like
Sweden, I will end the article by trying to pinpoint some aspects of orientalism for
What is orientalism
Orientalism has, according to Oxford English Dictionary,1 been the term used for
the subject and the works of the orientalists, scholars versed in the cultures, histories,
languages and societies of Asia or the Orient, since the 18th century when the
tradition was born. In Germany and in Scandinavia orientalistik has been the
equivalent term, and this linguistic difference sometimes causes confusion when
discussing the matter of orientalism.
The first Asian or oriental language studied in the West was Hebrew, a
language which together with Syriac and Chaldean, was known among Christian
theologians already in the early Middle Ages.2 In the middle of the 13th century, at
the time of the Crusades, a second Asian language became necessary to master for
the Westerners, Arabic, and from the 15th century the subject had been established
at main European universities to facilitate the study of classical Greek and Roman
authors through Arab translations.3
However, it was not until the 18th century when Western colonial domination
in Asia became more pronounced and obvious, that the study of the various languages
1 Oxford English Dictionary, London, 1971.
2 Beryl Smalley, The study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, Oxford, 1983.
3 Pierre Martino, L´Orient dans la littérature française, Paris, 1906.
spoken on the vast continent began in earnest. Russians were studying different
Ugric or Altaic languages in Central and Northern Asia, while the English and the
French took on a whole variety of tongues spoken in South and East Asia including
Hindu and Chinese, and the Dutch who had founded the first orientalist society in
1781, mapped the languages of South East Asia. 4 A milestone in the history of
orientalism was the Welshman William Jones´ discovery in the 1780s that Sanskrit
and the ancient European and West Asian languages were related.5
In 1873, during the heydays of Western imperialism, the first orientalist
congress was held in Paris followed by sixteen others up to World War I, the last
being in Vienna in 1912.6 The period, for many known as La belle époque, is today
seen as the golden age of orientalism, the study of Asia and Asians in the West.
After World War I, only four conferences have been held, and again in Paris in
1973, the congress changed its name from the International Congress of Orientalists
to the International Congress of Human Sciences in Asia and North Africa, marking
a new beginning and a crucial change in international political ontology.
The critique on orientalism
The first criticism on orientalism and the orientalists emerged during the years of
decolonisation in the early 1960s, and was mounted by ethnic Asians educated and
living in exile in the West. Through this critique and the consequent debate,
orientalism as a term was transformed from a fully accepted name of a subject in
the humanities to one of the most charged and contested words in modern scholarship
making it almost impossible to utilize expressions like “the Orient” and “orientals”
without using quotation marks.
The assault on orientalism was launched on three different fronts.7 The first
critique came from Anouar Abdel-Malek, an Egyptian philosopher at the University
of Sorbonne in Paris, with his article “Orientalism in crisis” in 1962.8 Abdel-Malek
starts by establishing the fact that the emergence of anti-colonial and national
liberation movements in Asia after World War II, and the victories achieved by
these movements in the form of political independence, has plunged the orientalist
profession in a serious crisis. No longer is it natural that the Westerners would rule
the planet and enjoy direct control of Asia and the Asians.
The main reason for this crisis is, according to Abdel-Malek, the intimate
relationship between the orientalist scholars and the colonial powers, which made
4 Vasilli Vladimirovitch Barthold, La découverte de l´Asie. Histoire de l´orientalisme en Europe
et en Russe, Paris, 1947.
5 Rosane Rocher, ”British orientalism in the eighteenth century: The dialectics of knowledge
and government”, in Carol A. Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer (ed.), Orientalism and the
colonial predicament, Philadelphia, 1993, 215-49.
6 Including one in Sweden in 1899. See Huub de Jonge, “ICANAS XXXVI” (2002-05-20):
7 The genealogy of criticism on orientalism is told in Alexander Lyon Macfie (ed.),
Orientalism. A reader, New York, 2000.
8 Anouar Abdel-Malek, “Orientalism in crisis”, Diogenes 44 (Winter 1963), 104-12.
it possible for the first-mentioned to get full access to the material pre-conditions
for the subject itself, namely the accumulation and concentration of Asia´s treasures
in the forms of texts and manuscripts, cultural and artistic artefacts in Western
libraries, museums and archives. Abdel-Malek shows that the orientalists viewed
Asia and the Asians as objects who were to be defeated, unveiled and ruled over by
the Westerners in the name of development and civilization, and that the once
golden past of Asia was perceived to have vanished forever for a “decadence that is
ineluctable”. It was only through the study of Asia´s past, that contemporary Asia
could be understood, most notably the study of languages and religions, and the
scientific works of indigenous Asian scholars were passed over in silence. The
Hegelian bias in this view of human progress is indeed striking.
Two years later, the Palestinian historian A.L. Tibawi at the University of
London, published the article “English-speaking orientalists”, which explicitly
criticized the way how orientalists had portrayed Islam and the Arab world.9 Tibawi´s
point of departure is his emphasizing of the almost eternal and deep-seated hostility
between the Islamic and the Christian world, an historical fact that explains why
the study of Asia and the Asians was initiated in the first place. This heritage of a
religious hostility heavily influenced the classical orientalists who formed an alliance
with the Christian missionaries and started to evaluate Islam and the Islamic societies
in extremely derogatory and scornful terms.
Thus, Tibawi´s critique on orientalism is mainly scientific, as the orientalists
can be said to have shown a complete misunderstanding of the nature of Islam
itself. In 1979, Tibawi published a continuation of his first critique, “A second
critique of English-speaking orientalists”, where he displayed how contemporary
orientalists after the power of the West in Arab countries had eclipsed, driven by
their desire to understand Islam as a means of combating the Moslems, caused
“colossal failures” among their indoctrinated students and made it impossible for a
Western scholar to adopt a fresh point of view of Islam.10
The third critique on orientalism, both the most influential and the most
complete, came in 1978 with the Palestinian literary historian Edward Said at
Columbia University in New York. Inspired by post-structuralist, feminist and
Marxist theories, Said managed to wage a frontal attack on orientalism as a cumulative
and hegemonic discourse in his pioneering work Orientalism.11 The Orient is for
Said the West´s eternal other, and orientalism is a discourse that has survived and
been able to reproduce itself for centuries, resulting in catastrophic consequences
for the victims, the Asians themselves.
This discourse says that the West stands for rationality and modernity, while
the Orient stands for religiousness and tradition, and following the logic of
developmental thinking, the West possessed therewith the right to conquer, suppress
and rule over Asia. Orientalism is a way of thinking about Asia and Asians as
strange, servile, exotic, dark, mysterious, erotic and dangerous, and has helped the
West to define itself through this contrasting and dichotomous image. It is important
to remember that the relationship between the West and Asia has never been equal,
9 A.L. Tibawi, “English-speaking orientalists”, Islamic Quarterly 8 (1-4 1964), 25-45.
10 A.L. Tibawi, ”A second critique if English-speaking orientalists”, Islamic Quarterly 23 (1
11 Edward Said, Orientalism, New York, 1978.
as the West conquered, colonized, and exploited the people of Asia. To rationalize
the conquest, it defined Asia and the Asians as despotic or stagnant and in need of
Christianizing, civilizing or control. Demands for democratization among Asian
countries came only after the West had retreated, thereby giving credence to counter-
arguments about Western opportunism in international analysis.
After Said, numerous studies have been published on the different orientalisms
of the West that various countries and cultures of Asia have suffered.12 Among
many orientalists, Said´s book provoked angry and sometimes even hateful responses,
while others declared themselves ready for a fundamental change of attitude towards
Asia and the Asians, their objects of study.13 Said´s theory of orientalism has also
provided feminists and post-colonial theorists with a general method of understanding
the nature of oppression.
The Swedish response
Orientalism has been a serious subject in Sweden since the days of Sven Hedin,
Bernhard Karlgren and H.S. Nyberg at the beginning of the 20th century. Orientalism
has its academic institutions mainly at the universities of Uppsala, Stockholm,
Lund and Gothenburg where the cultures and languages of China, Japan, Korea,
Thailand, India and Persia can be studied among others. In spite of this orientalist
tradition, the debate on orientalism has never really reached Sweden. Edward
Said´s book was not translated into Swedish until 1993, and with the misinterpreted
title of Orientalism, not Orientalistik which would have been more fitting.14
The introductory chapter written by the orientalist Sigrid Kahle established
12 See for example, Jala Al-i Ahmad, and Hamad Algar (ed.), Occidentosis: A plague from the
West, Teheran, 1984, Arlif Dirlik, “Chinese history and the question of orientalism”, History
and Theory, 35 (4 1996), 96-118, Madeleine Dobie, Foreign bodies: Gender, language, and
culture in French orientalism, Stanford, 2002, Ronald B. Inden, Imagining India, Oxford,
1990, Rana Kabbani, Europe's myths of Orient: Devise and rule, London, 1988, Robert D.
Kaplan, The Arabists: The romance of an American elite, New York, 1993, Richard King,
Orientalism and religion: Postcolonial theory and the “mystic East”, London, 1999, Zhang
Longxi, “The myth of the other: China in the eyes of the West”, Critical Inquiry, 15 (1
1988), 108-31, Lisa Lowe, Critical terrains: French and British orientalisms, Ithaca, 1991,
Kamakshi P. Murti, India: The seductive and seduced “Other” of German orientalism, London,
2001, B. Neilson,“Inside Shangri-La, outside globalisation: Remapping orientalist visions of
Tibet”, Communal/Plural. Journal of Transnational & Cross-Cultural Studies, 8 (1 2000),
95-112, A.K. Ramakrishnan, “Orientalism, imperalism and Middle East area studies in the
United States”, Scandinavian Journal of Development Alternatives, 16 (3-4 1997), 245-52,
Kalpana Sahni, Crucifying the Orient: Russian orientalism and the colonization of Caucasus and
Central Asia, Bangkok, 1997, Q. S. Tong,“Inventing China: The use of orientalist views on
the Chinese language”, Interventions. International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 2 (1 2000),
6-20, and John Whittier Treat, Great mirrors shattered: Homosexuality, orientalism, and Japan,
New York, 1999.
13 For examples of the first-mentioned, see Donald P. Little, ”Three Arab critiques of
orientalism”, Muslim World 69 (2 1979), 110-31, and Bernhard Lewis, Islam and the West,
Oxford, 1993, and for the second-mentioned, Stuart Scaar, ”Orientalism at the service of
imperialism”, Race and Class 21 (1 1979), 67-80, and Ernest J. Wilson III, ”Orientalism: A
Black perspective”, Journal of Palestine Studies 10 (Winter 1981), 59-69.
14 Edward Said, Orientalism, Stockholm, 1993. Translated by Hans O. Sjöström.
the Swedish response to Said that was to be followed by others – that the Swedish
orientalists in various fields had been exceptions. Kahle meant that the Swedish
orientalists had not presented the depreciating view of Asia and the Asians that
their Western colleagues had done. Kahle spoke for the Arabists and the Iranists,
especially her own father H.S. Nyberg,15 while Joakim Enwall and Mirja Juntunen
defended the Central Asianists and the Indologists in their review of Said´s book
one year later.16 The same conclusion was reiterated for the Japanologists by Bert
Edström in 1996,17 and for the Sinologists by Kenneth Nyberg in 2001.18
One easy way of relating to this Swedish response is to agree with today´s
Swedish orientalists, that their predecessors were free from the worst expressions of
orientalism. Another hopefully more constructive way, is to understand this
unwillingness of admit that Sweden was a fully integrated part of imperialist Europe
with its own colonizers and slave traders,19 as an expression of Sweden´s self image
as the great exception from everything which can be stamped as evil and bad.
Instead, Sweden is perceived by the Swedes as the world´s most democratic country,
the world´s most anti-racist country, and a paradise for human rights, equality and
I would at this point like to recommend an excellent and thought provoking
study about the fact that Sweden has developed to the most segregated and
discriminating country in the West in the treatment of non-White immigrants
including Asians. I am here speaking of Alan Pred´s study Even in Sweden. Racisms,
racialized spaces, and the popular geographical imagination.20 Pred, a professor in
cultural geography at the University of California, shows in a persuasive way how
their self-image has stopped the Swedes from being self-critical and has resulted in
a self-righteousness which today is going through a painful process as Sweden has
suddenly become the most racist country in the West in terms of racial discrimination
and with the most dynamic Neo-Nazi movement in the world.
15 Sigrid Kahle, ”Orientalism i Sverige” [Orientalism in Sweden], in Said (1993), 7-58.
16 Joakim Enwall and Mirja Juntunen, ”Några funderingar kring Edward Saids Orientalism”
[Some thoughts on Edward Said´s Orientalism], Orientaliska Studier 82 1994, 3-8, and Mirja
Juntunen, “Indologi och Indienbilden på 1800-talet” [Indology and the image of India
during the 19th century], Orientaliska Studier 102 2000, 20-34.
17 Bert Edström, ”Japan i svenska geografiläroböcker 1842-1993” [Japan in Swedish
geography books 1842-1993], in Bert Edström (ed.), Öst i Väst [The East in the West],
18 Kenneth Nyberg, Bilder av Mittens rike. Kontinuitet och förändring i svenska resenärers
Kinaskildringar 1749-1912 [Images of the Middle Kingdom. Continuity and change in
China descriptions by Swedish travellers 1749-1912], Göteborg, 2001.
19 K-G Olin, S:t Barthélemy – den svenska slavön [S:t Barthélemy – the Swedish slave island],
20 Alan Pred, Even in Sweden. Racisms, racialized spaces, and the popular geographical
imagination, Berkeley, 2000.
The future of orientalism
With all this said, what then is the future of orientalism? My own theory is that
orientalism in its classical meaning has survived as something which can be called
post-orientalism in the geopolitical sphere of security politics, and as so called
re-orientalism in its indigenized form of nationalism and fundamentalism in Asia.
However, in the scholarly field, orientalism has vanished almost completely in
most Western academic institutions, perhaps with the exception of peripheral
countries like Sweden, while on the other hand it has managed to survive as
popular orientalism, some kind of romanticism in Western popular culture.
The most manifest example of post-orientalism whereby the ugly legacy of
classical orientalism is showing its power to otherize and dichotomize, is the political
theory of Samuel P. Huntington, the so called “clash of civilizations”.21 Huntington
presupposes that the West, just recently the master of the planet, has begin to
retreat as a dominating global power, and that its culture is slowly decaying. The
main threat to the West, according to Huntington, comes from the East in the
form of a nightmare alliance between the Islamic and Confucian civilizations, and
thus the Westerners have to prepare a defence by rearming instead of disarming, by
maintaining military bases both in West and East Asia, and by integrating Eastern
Europe and Latin America to balance the demographic disadvantage towards the
Arabs and the East Asians.
Orientalism has also survived as re-orientalism in the forms of fundamentalism
and nationalism in the newly independent former colonies of Asia. It is possible to
view fundamentalism, especially its Islamic version, as a form of indigenized
orientalism whereby the orientalized re-orientalize himself in a manner which can
be summed up as: “Yes, we orientals are really religious minded, despotic and cruel
by nature.”22 Nationalism as re-orientalism basically works the same way, albeit in a
more positive meaning: “Yes, we orientals are really diligent and hardworking.”
This type of re-orientalized nationalism seems to be most common in South, East
and South East Asia.23
Since the end of the 1970s, most academic institutions in the West have
more or less accepted the critique on classical orientalism and tried to distance
themselves from their predecessors. Instead, it is in the form of popular orientalism
that the discourse has managed to survive in the West as a romantic and colonial
nostalgia reproduced in arts, movies and literature.24 This kind of popular orientalism
is for example extremely well-represented in commercials here in Sweden.
So finally it is time to ask ourselves - is there a way out of orientalism, and
21 Samuel P. Huntington, The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order, London,
1997. It is interesting to notice that this dualistic concept of a race war between the West and
the East has its equivalent or maybe even its origin in classical anti-Semitism whereby the
eternal struggle between the Aryans and the Jews makes all other non-Aryans or non-Jews
un-interesting or even superfluous.
22 Lawrence Davidson, Islamic fundamentalism, Westport, 1998.
23 See for example, Hyung Il Pai and Timothy R. Tangherlini, Nationalism and the
construction of Korean identity, Berkeley, 1998.
24 Gina Marchetti, Romance and the ”yellow peril”. Race, sex and discursive strategies in
Hollywood fiction, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1993.
can we imagine a world beyond orientalism? Well, my personal guess is that
orientalism will always exist in one or another form as long as the West has
hegemonic power. Orientalism is strongly intertwined with the Western self-image
to such an extant that if orientalism goes, then Western world power or even the
West itself must also go.25 And isn´t that what we are seeing today, a slow but
unstoppable power shift from the West towards East Asia with China and Japan in
the forefront, maybe also South Asia with India as a leading nation, while the
academic world itself is undergoing of a rapid Asianization, giving way to a more or
less given higher competence of diaspora Asians in the subjects involved?
25 As Norman Davies has shown in his highly popular, Europe. A history, Oxford, 1996, the
West was actually created as an entity in opposition to the Moslem East in the 8th and 9th