In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section China and "Orientalism"

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Dictionaries
  • Journals
  • Academia and Orientalism
  • Self-Orientalism
  • Chinese History and Orientalism
  • China in Popular Culture
  • Globalization and Orientalism
  • Chineseness and Orientalism

Chinese Studies China and "Orientalism"
David Martínez Robles
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0113


Very few books have left a more lasting impression on scholars involved with non Euro-American cultures than Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), translated in 1999 both as Dongfangxue 東方學 in Hong Kong (published by Sanlian shudian三聯書店) and Dongfang zhuyi 東方主義 in Taiwan (by Lidu 立緒) in the same year. Orientalism is defined by Said as a style of thought that establishes an epistemological and ontological distinction between the West and the Orient, an essentialist and reductionist discourse which is constructed by imperial societies while at the same time nourishing imperial enterprise. From his point of view Orientalist scholarship is a constituent of the cultural dimension of that enterprise. Following Michel Foucault, for Said, knowledge cannot be independent from power, and therefore intellectuals cannot avoid the ideological and political dimension of their work. Actually, one of Said’s definitions of Orientalism points to scholarship: Orientalism is what Orientalist scholars do. Nevertheless, despite the polemical nature of this kind of claim, in the first years after the publication of his book, Said’s ideas aroused very few debates in the China area. China scholars presumed that Orientalism had not affected the China field of study and consequently it was irrelevant for the development of their research. Sinology had allegedly followed a very different path from that of “Oriental” studies and the biased discourse of Orientalism had nothing to do with sinologists. Indeed, in Orientalism Said himself only mentioned China in passing. Only after a decade or so, at the end of the 1980s, did China scholars begin to be more aware of the need to tackle the discursive reflections posed by Said and postcolonial theory in their research. As a consequence of this late development, the number of publications concerned with China and the question of Orientalism is still relatively low. Even so, the influence of Saidian reflections on China scholars has increased in recent years and is apparent in a few disciplines, such as literary or visual culture studies, while other academic fields have been much more reluctant to include it.

General Overviews

The number of monographs and articles dedicated to the question of Orientalism and China from a general perspective is low. Centered on Chinese history but with reflections that can be applied beyond that field, Dirlik 1996 provides an insightful analysis of the question and introduces the key concept of self-Orientalism. Hägerdal 1997 analyzes the debates about the influence of Orientalist ideas in Chinese studies and the approach of China scholars to their object of study. Vukovich 2013 critically examines the traces of Orientalism by contemporary history scholars. The analysis of Western perceptions of China has traditionally received more attention by China scholars, before and after Orientalism. Mackerras 1999 provides an excellent and critical account of the history of Western images of China, and Zhou 2006 accurately analyzes European views of China in the modern world, while the contributors of Hayot, et al. 2008 address more particular and diverse aspects of the ways China has been represented in the West.

  • Dirlik, Arif. “Chinese History and the Question of Orientalism.” History and Theory 35 (1996): 96–118.

    DOI: 10.2307/2505446

    Dirlik examines the application of Said’s ideas to Chinese history and argues that the Chinese Other has been an agent that has historically taken part in the development of an Orientalist representation of itself.

  • Hägerdal, Hans. “The Orientalism Debate and the Chinese Wall: An Essay on Said and Sinology.” Itinerario 21 (1997): 19–40.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0165115300015217

    A review of the impact and the different reactions that Said aroused in Chinese studies until the end of the 1990s. The author argues that the relation between Chinese studies and Orientalism is nuanced, complex, and influenced by ideological factors.

  • Hayot, Eric, Haun Saussy, and Steven G. Yao, eds. Sinographies: Writing China. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

    A collection of essays about the different perspectives and devices used in the Western construction of China from early modernity to the present. It critically examines topics related to Western representations of Chinese otherness such as imperialism, translation, popular culture, European writing of Chinese aesthetics, or Chinese American literature, among others.

  • Mackerras, Colin. Western Images of China. Hong Kong and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    With an approach greatly influenced by Said, this work is a panoramic review of the images of China in the West, from ancient times to the contemporary world, and from scholarly works to the media or cinema, centered mainly in the Anglophone world.

  • Vukovich, Daniel. China and Orientalism: Western Knowledge Production and the PRC. London: Routledge, 2013.

    A critical analysis of how China historians have represented Chinese history of the Mao and post-Mao era. Vukovich questions scholars’ dominant dismissive attitude toward the revolutionary period. The author argues that the dominant analyses of Maoist and post-Maoist history are simplistic, ethnocentric, and ideologically biased.

  • Zhou Ning (周宁). Tianchao yaoyuan: Xifang de Zhongguo xingxiang yanjiu (天朝遥远: 西方的中国形象研究). Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2006.

    An account of seven centuries of Western images of China and the way Western culture and society has been mirrored in these evolving images. The author argues that 1750 is a watershed that determines the evolution of Western perceptions of China from a utopian view to an ideologically biased approach.

  • Zhu Yaowei (朱耀偉). Hou Dongfang zhuyi: Zhong-Xi wenhua piping lunshu celue (後東方主義:中西文化批評論述策略). Taipei: Luotuo, 1994.

    This book examines the evolving construction of the image of China in the contemporary world and discusses how critical theory has affected this construction from Foucault, Derrida, or Said to China scholars like Du Weiming (Tu Wei-ming), Zhang Longxi, or Perry Link. Zhu advocates for the need for rebuilding the image of China from an open and pluralistic “post-Orientalist” perspective.

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