A term fraught with political and cultural baggage referring vaguely to the East and long used to refer to collectively, if imprecisely, to the diverse societies east and south of Europe. The term Orientalism was originally used to name the expertise of specialists in Semitic and Indo-European languages and societies. Sir William “Oriental” Jones was the archetypal Orientalist; an official of the East India Company, he noted the similarities between Sanskrit and classical Greek, and hypothesized the now widely accepted common origins of the languages of India and those of Europe. In British India, the term Orientalist referred to those such as Jones who did not think that the cultures they studied should be ranked below that of the West. By contrast, anglicizers such as Thomas Babington Macaulay held that Oriental learning was obsolete and that Indians should be trained in the language and culture of the superior Western society.
   Outside India, the term Orientalist was in general applied to students of Islamic and Asian languages and societies, and normally implied great and recondite learning. In the arts, Orientalism referred to the use of the Orient as a setting or character, symbolizing a diverse range of attributes from splendor to squalor, majesty to decadence. This was true in 1819 for Goethe’s West-östlicher Diwan, a collection poems inspired by the Persian poet Hafiz, as well as for Richard Strauss’s Salome, an opera first performed in Dresden in 1905. In 1978, Edward Said published his study - some would say his polemic - Orientalism, which argued that Orientalists had constructed a hostile caricature of the Orient designed to justify imperial conquest. Though Said’s work has been subjected to destructive criticism on many grounds, under his influence the term Orientalism has become almost impossible to use in its earlier sense; for many, especially in leftist and so-called postcolonial circles, it signifies the imposition of hostile categories on oppressed peoples rather than erudition.
   See also <>; <>.
    Irwin, Robert. For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies. London: Allen Lane, 2006;
    Lewis, Bernard. “The Question of Orientalism.” The New York Review of Books, June 24, 1982;
    Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Norton, 1978.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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