Oriental (word)

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Oriental refers traditionally to a generalized notion of the "East," including the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia. In modern usage, it is applied to those parts of Asia east of Afghanistan, but outside of the Indian sub-continent; this would include Myanmar (formerly Burma), Cambodia, China, Japan, parts of Indonesia, Korea, Manchuria, Mongolia, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, Tibet, and Vietnam.

Orientalism is the western (European and American) study of "the Orient" in its traditional, more expansive, sense. During the 19th century, fashion styles and collecting art inspired from the East, was also referred to as Orientalism.


The term "Orient" is derived from the Latin word oriens, the present participle of "orior": to rise. The implication is that it refers to the rising sun. Thus, "Orient" describes the "land of the rising sun", i.e. the "Far East", and is exactly analogous with the Chinese and Japanese terms for Japan. Similar terms such as "Levant" of French derivation and "Anatolia" from the Greek anatole, describe locations for the direction in which the sun rises. The opposite term "Occident" - derived from the Latin word occidens, from the verb "occido": I fall - was used to describe the western world, i.e. the "land of the falling (setting) sun", and the term "occidental" is still sometimes used to refer to Europeans (and by extension, Americans of European origin).

The creation of a polarity oriens/occidens originated in Roman imperial administration from the time of Diocletian and was taken up in Christian Latin literature. Despite this some scholars claim the term Orient did not enter Western European languages until the time of the Crusades[1]

The first recorded use of Orient in English is in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1375), borrowed from Old French, and oriental as an adjective was used in about 1386 in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women. [2].

Although the geographical term "Orient" is relatively neutral, there is a measure of controversy about the adjective and substantive forms when applied to individuals; see below. The adjective "oriental" has thus been used in Occidental (Western) societies as a term to describe cultures, cuisines, and goods (like rugs) from the Orient. Terms in common, non-controversial usage include species names ("oriental fruit fly") and cuisines ("oriental rice"), and usage in technical literature such as medicine. However "oriental medicine" is somewhat more controversial. [3]

Numerous organizations have a legacy use of "oriental" dating back many decades and have not changed. Legacy usage includes the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies; the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge both have a Faculty of Oriental Studies; they focus on the Middle East, East Asia and South Asia. The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago has been a leading research center since 1919. Scholars in the field belong to the The American Oriental Society, founded in 1842.

Others legacies include the Oriental Food Association [4], and the Shriners (from 1903)[5]. The American Association of Oriental Medicine and state associations of oriental medicine still use the term. [6] The Oriental Martial Arts College and other martial arts organizations employ the term regularly. [7] Many Asian gangs such as the OPB, Oriental Playboys, and the ORB Oriental Rutheless Boys, refer to themselves as oriental to stress they are outside social norms .[8][9]

Belly dancing is also referred to as Oriental dancing. The Arabic term for belly dancing is raqs sharqi (Arabic: رقص شرقي‎) which roughly translates to 'Oriental dance'.[10][11]

Controversial usage

In the 1960s, Asian Americans began protesting the term as applied to people as insulting. In the 1970s the Ford administration banned the word (as applied to people) from federal government usage. Today in educated and polite company, one very rarely hears the word applied to people.

The adjective and substantive forms are now widely considered offensive when applied to people. While "I ordered oriental rice" is acceptable language, "I handed my coat to an oriental woman" is not. The reason is that the usage carries heavy baggage: a long tradition of connotations of being exotic, foreign, inscrutable, or mysterious, which coincide with many of the stereotypes held of Asians. Furthermore, many find the indiscriminate lumping together of groups with very distinct identities (such as Chinese, Japanese and Koreans)--perhaps because Westerners could not tell them apart--to be offensive. Alan Hu writes, "The upshot is to use whatever word you feel most comfortable with, or that makes your listeners most comfortable, but don't be surprised if someone takes offense." [12]

Usage guides offer different warnings. The American Heritage Book of English Usage explains:

Oriental is not an ethnic slur to be avoided in all situations. It is most objectionable in contemporary contexts and when used as a noun, as in "the appointment of an Oriental to head the commission". In these cases Asian (or a more specific term such as Vietnamese, Korean, or Asian American, if appropriate) is the only acceptable term. But in certain historical contexts, or when its exotic connotations are integral to the topic, Oriental remains a useful term.[13]

Many sensitivity guides more forcefully recommend against its application to people. Random House's Guide to Sensitive Language states: "Other words (e.g., Oriental, colored) are outdated or inaccurate." This reference also suggests the use of "Asian" or more specific designation such as Pacific Islander, Chinese American, or Korean. [14] While the term "Oriental" is an example of Eurocentrism some endorse Eurocentrism and use the term deliberately.[15]

The Washington State legislature held that

the use of the term "Oriental" when used to refer to persons of Asian descent is outdated and pejorative. There is a need to make clear that the term "Asian" is preferred terminology, and that this more modern and nonpejorative term must be used to replace outdated terminology.[16]

In the UK, however, the term "Asian" normally refers to South, not East, Asians.

Geographical terms are not controversial when used for people and places, e.g., South Asia, East Asia, and South-East Asia. Although Far Eastern is considered less offensive than Oriental, East Asian is preferred because this term is significantly less Eurocentric. Other alternative terms include Asia and the Pacific or the Pacific Rim or the Pacific Basin. Terms such as these may also be preferred because they do not collapse East and South-east Asian peoples into the same group.


  1. Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (Harvard University Press) 1992 p. 1 and note.
  2. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (1988) ISBN 0-550-14230-4
  3. http://www.acupuncture.ca.gov/pubs_forms/cons_guide_2002.pdf
  4. http://www.orientalfood.org/
  5. http://www.webruler.com/shriners/oriental.htm
  6. http://www.aaom.org/ Website of American Association of Oriental Medicine
  7. See [1], [2] and [3]
  8. http://www.fbi.gov/dojpressrel/pressrel03/release121903.htm
  9. http://www.fbi.gov/publications/leb/2003/feb2003/feb03leb.htm
  10. Boushnak, Laura (6 April 2009). Raqs Sharqi or Oriental Dance. Women, Power and Politics. International Museum of Women. Retrieved on 16 April 2014.
  11. Plant, Carmen (16 February 2014). History of Raqs Sharqi Belly Dancing. Raqsarabia. Retrieved on 16 April 2014.
  12. See Alan Hu at [4]
  13. "Asian." The American Heritage Book of English Usage [5]
  14. "Race, Ethnicity, and National Origin." Sensitive Language. Random House Merriam-Webster college dictionaries describes the term as "sometimes offensive," Merriam-Webster Encarta states that when the term is used as a noun it is considered "a highly offensive term for somebody from East Asia" [6]
  15. White supremacy groups champion use of the word. See Walter Nowotny, "Political Correctness and the Power of Names" on the Pro-White Forum, 7/02/2002 at [7]
  16. RCW 1.20.130: "Preferred terminology in government documents." Revised Code of Washington. The controversial version applying to Asians sometimes appears in obscure government documents, but has mostly been removed by 2007. See for a state document [8], for a library classification see [9]