tagReviews & EssaysOrientalism and 'Yellow Fever'

Orientalism and 'Yellow Fever'

byal_Ussa©

"East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," or so wrote the illustrious Rudyard Kipling in his 'Ballad of East and West.' With all due respect to Kipling, however, the two have indeed met, and have been dancing a complicated exchange of goods, ideas and even people for many centuries now. And this cultural exchange applies to almost all areas of society, not the least of which is sex and sensuality, as well as more basic concerns of identity, ethnicity, language, religion and culture. Rather than the traditional narrative which views the so-called 'East' as the 'exotic,' 'submissive' and oft-times feminine 'other' which has been molded before the inevitable march of 'progress' represented by the 'West,' I intend to show that society has been molded by the best of both worlds, and that the future belongs to a greater sphere of Asia-Pacific cultural influence rather than some bland, homogenized world.

The Great Geographic Divide

Before I get too far ahead of myself, however, I would like to begin by stating fundamentally that there is no 'real' East. While the late Claude Lévi-Strauss might have argued that dualism is an essential part of the human psyche, the fact is that terms like 'East' and 'West' refer to entirely artificial concepts. The very notion of the 'East' has essentially come to mean all civilizations east (and, for that matter, south) of Europe. This includes, but is in no way limited to, the great civilizations of the Islamic World, India, Inner Asia, China, Korea, Japan, Indochina and even onward into the Pacific. Indeed, even parts of Europe which western scholars wanted to overlook or ignore have found themselves lumped into this same hodge-podge category. Hence, the Ottoman Empire and both Imperial and later Soviet Russia, along with the various Warsaw Pact states, have found themselves lumped in with 'the East'.

This is not so much a geographic distinction (after all, for those of us in the Americas, Asia would be west of us, and Europe to the east) as one which was based off culture, religion, language and especially race. The greatest single problem with this, of course, is that it is based on a flawed assumption that everyone not part of Europe (or European civilization) was somehow 'the same'. As if the entire world, and all of its inhabitants, could be divided into merely two categories. Not only is this most definitely not the case, but every single 'Eastern' society is quite aware of the differences with its neighbors. Each has developed its own history, culture, language, political structure, religion, philosophy and artistic expression. Does a Syrian Arab share much in common with someone from Vietnam, Bangladesh or South Korea? Does someone in Tokyo have anything in common with someone in Bangkok, Samarkand or Hong Kong?

True, one may be able to speak of certain great civilizations, which have been able to impose or export their culture and influence upon other neighboring parts of the world. The ancient melting pot of India exported both Hinduism and later Buddhism into much of Central and Southeast Asia. This facilitated the exchange of Sanskrit and Pali terminology, Indian philosophical ideas and even artwork. China, which long called itself Zhonggao, or 'the Middle Kingdom,' was able to spread Chinese culture, ideograms and Confucian intellectualism into Mongolia, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, and established a wide Diaspora of Chinese merchants in much of Southeast Asia. The great culture of Islam is even more diverse, embracing much of the Arabic Middle East and North Africa, Persia, Turkic Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Indonesian Archipelago, not to mention portions of Africa and the Balkans. Russia too has historically claimed influence over much of Central Asia and Eastern Europe, inheriting this from the earlier, Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire.

The salient issue here is that these great civilizations did not necessarily view themselves as sharing anything with one another. True, cultural and intellectual exchanges occurred, but this does not mean that it would be accurate to lump all of Asia together solely because they are not European. Chinese, Indian and Islamic culture, the great religions of Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taosim, Confucianism and Shinto, and the thousands of tribal people from Siberia to the Pacific do not share much in common.

Indeed, Islam is a global religion which shares much in common with Judaism and Christianity, both of which have their roots in the Middle East. Nor are Judaism and Christianity the sole property of Europeans even today. Aside from the Orthodox and Oriental Churches, such as the Russians, Greeks, Armenians, Copts and Assyrians, there has been aggressive missionary work by Europeans. The Philippines and East Timor are both Catholic majority nations, while areas like South Korea, Nagaland, and many Pacific islands have been converted by contact with American missionaries. Yet they are decidedly 'non-western'.

The West as 'The Other'

Conversely, much argument could be made for lumping most of Europe together as 'The West,' in as much as that the various European nation-states share common ideology, culture and history which transcends national borders and unites them in many ways. Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland, Sweden, Norway... what could all of these countries have in common? A lot more than, say, China, Iraq and Singapore. Almost all of Europe was shaped by the Roman Empire, the invasion by Germanic barbarian tribes, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the era of colonialism and exploration, the Napoleonic Wars, both World War I and World War II, the Cold War and the rise of Communism, and now the rise of the European Union.

For much of its history, and for those who play identity politics like the BNP and Geert Wilders, Europe (and, correspondingly, the imagined 'West') has come to be defined by Christianity. While this essentially ignores (or worse, excludes) the role of other religions and ideologies in 'the West,' it has a grain of truth, at least in the way that the 'West' has chosen to portray itself. All of the countries of Western Europe were historically Roman Catholic, and all were affected by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Even today most Protestant Churches have inherited the intellectual legacy of the earlier Catholic Church. The Enlightenment brought with it a far more secular and materialistic view point, which has come to be the socially accepted norm in much of Europe today. Perhaps ironically, some European countries still have state religions, or did until fairly recently.

While European cartographers, social scientists and diplomats were busy creating the modern concepts of 'East' and 'West' during the era of exploration and colonial expansion, this idea became increasingly more narrow. As it became apparent that certain parts of the West WERE poorer and less economically developed than their neighbors, these countries to the south and east of the continent found themselves specifically excluded from the games of influence. Poland, Romania, Hungary and the Czech and Slovak Republics became in essence a dividing ground, separating the 'West' off from the 'East,' which had now grown to encompass the Slavic-speaking Orthodox countries more aligned to Imperial Russia and the Ottoman Empire. It is no coincidence that these were many of the same countries where the idea of the Reformation and Enlightenment never took root.

Of course, it should also be remembered that Europe itself is a relatively small area, and was unfortunately largely cut off from the outside world several times in its history. Asia alone accounts for some 4 billion people, and covers about 17 million square miles. Both India and China account for well over a billion people each! Following this is Africa, with a population of about a billion people, and covering about 12 million square miles. By comparison, Europe only covers about 3 million square miles and has a population of only about 731 million people, and even this number is shrinking. Compared to the incredible diversity of Asia, it only makes sense that one would find more similarities in a smaller population.

The Invention of the East

I had said before that these distinctions are purely artificial ones, which might beg the astute reader to ponder where such distinctions arose. The Greek city-states, Alexander's Hellenistic Empire and the Roman Empire were largely multi-ethnic affairs which spanned across the Mediterranean. By the Dark Ages, various kingdoms of Germanic origin came to dominate Europe, but what cut off contact with the other side of the Mediterranean was the increasing influence of the Roman Catholic Church and the rise of Islam. The former due to the Latins coming into competition with the Greek and later Slavic Orthodox Churches in the east of Europe, and the latter because of an increasingly bitter hatred that Christian Europe came to feel towards the Muslim world.

Islam represented a challenge to the teachings of the Catholic Church, and one which could produce cultured, literate civilization that far exceeded anything in Western Europe. Furthermore, Islam like Christianity is proselytizing faith, which meant it was a competition for souls. The intellectuals of Europe sought not only to fight against Muslim scholarship, but against the Islamic world in general. They felt the need to dehumanize the Islamic civilizations to the south and east of the Mediterranean. Even as Crusades were raging in the Levant and al-Andalus, a more sinister approach of academic separation was beginning to take root in European literature.

Earlier map-making traditions, inherited from the Greeks and influenced by Biblical tradition, had envisioned three continents (Europe, Africa and Asia), inhabited by three races of man, each descended from a Biblical Patriarch (Japheth for Europe, Ham for Africa and Shem for Asia). While these early traditions were not inherently racist, instead reflecting a quality similar to mythical ancestors common in most cultures, they would later come to be used as a justification by racists. Nonetheless, European explorers, missionaries and traders held out hope that a friendly Christian civilization would be found in Africa or Asia, for both economic and military reasons.

The economic reason came to be a major sticking point, as Europe has historically been rather poor and backwater compared to Asia. Because of their favorable climate, Asian civilizations had access to abundant natural resources which Europe lacked such as coffee beans, tea leaves, fruits and a variety of spices. They also produced a number of manufactured goods such as silk, lacquer ware, porcelain, and the like. And it was primarily through the great Islamic civilizations along the Silk Road and Mediterranean that such goods reached consumers in Europe, who viewed them as luxury items. However, the Church and European social elites disdained doing business with Muslim merchants. One of the major things which triggered the age of exploration was the hope of bypassing Turkish trade routes and dealing directly with the 'East'.

Gunboat Diplomacy and White Man's Burden

What is especially ironic is that the 'West' was evenly matched with Asia for a long time, if not outclassed entirely. It is no coincidence that the British did not establish a firm presence in the Indian subcontinent until the 18th century, after seeing how the French were able to defeat the Mughals. Prior to this period, they had been too intimidated by the power and grandeur of the Mughal Emperors. The revelation that the Mughals could be defeated made them, and the other European powers eager to establish ports in India, all the more determined. Soon the subcontinent was swarming with European trading concessions; a process which would be repeated throughout Asia.

One of the major sticking points was an imbalance in trade between Asia and the 'West,' which had soon grown to include the United States as well as Europe. While Asia was still producing trade goods that European markets desired, the only thing the 'West' had that was of interest was gold and silver. This led to increasingly aggressive tactics on the part of Westerners. The most famous examples of these incidents in the 19th century would include Commodore Perry forcing the Japanese to open their ports with his four 'Black Ships,' and the British Opium wars, in which British smugglers brought opium into China, then declared war when the smugglers were arrested by the sovereign Chinese government. The British forced the Chinese into a series of humiliating treaties, taking territory as compensation. Similar tactics followed the Anglo-Burmese wars as well.

Another major motivation for 'Western' intervention was the so-called 'Civilizing Mission,' which viewed it as the moral obligation of Europeans to 'civilize' their 'less advanced' Asian brethren. Born out of both jealous and the xenophobia towards the non-Christian 'East' that had developed since the Middle Ages, this impulse took many forms. Sometimes, as in the case of the early Portuguese conquistadors and later American missionary societies, it meant literally converting Asians to Christianity (sometimes even to the point of suppressing indigenous Christian communities). Other times it took a more secular bent. European social scientists envisioned a clear-cut, linear evolution of culture, in which 'Western' culture was naturally at the top, and to be aspired to by all other cultures.

That some of us choose not to be a part of that still infuriates some to this very day. These ideas of linear evolution and social Darwinism are not quite dead yet, but ironically, things happening across the Pacific would also have an impact. These same catastrophic social changes wrought by 'Western' intervention led to a large exodus into the Americas and the colonies.

Yellow Peril

No doubt you've heard the term before. In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was a popular fad, comparable in some ways to today's Islamophobia and sharing many of the same roots. Immigrants from China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines (an American colony since the close of the Spanish-American War in 1898) sought out wealth and stability in the United States. Similar factors drove other immigrants to different parts of the so-called 'Western' world. Many Indians, subject to British rule, found themselves in colonies as diverse as Burma, Malaya, Singapore, southern and eastern Africa, even Canada and Fiji. Nonetheless, the prejudice that these immigrants found was appalling.

Sensationalistic accounts viewed white Anglo-American culture as being drowned out by the rapidly expanding sea of 'yellow' and 'brown' people. Asians were depicted as emasculated, almost feminine villains, relying upon their treacherous intellect, in contrast to rugged and 'manly' whites. These racial caricatures were, of course, not true, but they served as propaganda to incite hatred against all Asians. Laws were passed which tried to limit Asian (and non-European) immigration, if not ban it altogether, and Asians were limited in what businesses they could go into. This is, ironically, why many immigrants were forced into laundry services and cooking, as well as certain examples of manual labor in which they were treated almost as slaves.

Far more pertinent for this essay, however, were the anti-miscegenation laws which were popular in the United States until surprisingly recently. Concerned with the influx of Asian immigrants, law-makers managed to restrict and even Asian women from entering the country. However, they were never able to stop Asian men from having sexual relations with non-Asian women. The anti-miscegenation laws were an attempt at preventing this. It was especially common amongst Filipino immigrant laborers, who often wound up having relations with women, but it also occurred with the Japanese and (interestingly) Indians as well. One fairly well-documented community of Panjabi Sikh men in California actually would go to Mexico to find wives, as the Mexicans did not implement anti-miscegenation laws.

Racist views in America criticized women in such relationships as being of loose moral character, or alternatively, as having been 'tricked' or 'stolen away' by devious Asian men. Aside from the inherent racism of such views, these also take agency away from the women, viewing them as lifeless automatons who can be manipulated by any strong willed man. Nonetheless, absurd as they may be, such views found common usage in film and pulp throughout the early 20th century.

Dragon Ladies and China Dolls

But if Asian men were seen as sly if somewhat androgynous villains, then Asian women were dehumanized in a very different way, being reduced to 'exotic' treasures. Yes, there certainly are many beautiful Asian women. I'm not saying anything bad about that. But there are also many beautiful women who are white, black, American Indian and any other ethnic group. Rather, my critique is on the sexual fetishization of Asian women in the media, and especially the reduction of them from individual human beings to what is little more than a two-dimensional stock character.

Perhaps this too can be found in earlier European contact with Asia. Early explorers were shocked by some of the customs of Asia, which differed dramatically with that of the relatively repressed European ethic. The comparatively revealing clothing of women in Burma, Thailand and Southern India, not to mention nudity in some of the more tribal areas, gave European explorers the idea that women were 'loose' and 'promiscuous'. High class courtesans such as in Mughal India or the Japanese Geisha did not help matters. The fact is that prostitution existed in Asia, obviously, as it does in all countries and cultures. Sailors who partook of such things in Asian ports, where such practices had gone on amongst earlier travelers like the Tamils, Chinese, Malays and Syrians, were only the latest in a long line of horny men.

Furthermore, many Asian societies took a radically different view of sex and sensuality than did the so-called 'West' with its overwhelmingly Christian outlook on such issues. The above mentioned Geisha in Japan are only one such example. In Islam and many traditional societies, polygamy was accepted. Some tribal societies viewed multiple partners, even outside of marriage, as completely normal and acceptable. Women in Burma traditionally held high status, to the point of even running businesses. Polynesia and Melanesia were especially open about sex, something which European sailors eagerly took part in. Some cultures were even noted for sexually charged ritual or theatrical performances, which both shocked and fascinated European witnesses. Even some mythologies were replete with tales of the various gods and their amorous adventures (Shiva being perhaps the most noteworthy example).

These accounts helped the Orientalist agenda by presenting a picture of Asia as an opulent land of sexual excess and depravity. Orientalist painters gleefully depicted such lurid details in their paintings, portraying decadent 'Eastern' men and their seedy harems. Translations of the Kama Sutra (of which only a small portion actually deals with sex), Perfumed Garden and Japanese Pillow Book became popular amongst European intellectuals, as did post cards depicting 'exotic' women (often prostitutes) from North Africa, Southeast Asia and other parts of the 'East'. Indeed, it would seem that the popularity of such material gave the repressed Victorian mindset a socially acceptable outlet for interest in sex and sexuality.

Perhaps this view bled into more recent popular culture, influencing Hollywood, theatre and pulp. The result was two very divergent stereotypes on Asian women. The first, the so-called 'Dragon Lady,' who represents an aggressive sexuality (compared to 'good' submissive white women). The second is the 'China Doll,' who represents the opposite extreme, being extremely meek, demure and submissive to male authority. Both are ridiculous to anyone of Asian descent, or for that matter, anyone who has a basic grasp on human behavior. Nonetheless, they persist up to the present.

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