How 'the Orient' moved eastward

A performance of 'Scheherazade' reminds the Monitor's language columnist just how fluid Western concepts of 'the exotic East' really are.

"The Orient" isn't where it used to be.

That's one of the ideas I took away from the Boston Symphony Orchestra's recent performance, under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade." Another idea was this: Look how "the Orient" has become simply "Asia."

"Scheherazade" was a romantic family favorite as I was growing up. And so when I saw it on the schedule last spring, I had to sign up.

Our preconcert lecturer described Rimsky-Korsakov's tone poem, based on the "Arabian Nights" stories, as suggestive of the original Middle Eastern and South Asian fairy tales, but not quite "program music," with an explicit story to tell.

Our speaker further noted that there was a word for this kind of 19th-century European fascination with the "exotic East" – Orientalism. It's a concept that's been in rather bad odor since the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said used it as the title of a book in 1978.

His thesis was that Westerners' study of those parts of the world is necessarily tainted by what he called "a subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture." It's still a controversial idea.

Our lecturer noted that whereas today "the Orient" tends to refer to East Asia, in Rimsky-Korsakov's day it referred to what we now call "the Middle East." This usage lives on in proper names, such as the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, founded in 1919, "devoted to the study of the ancient Near East."

Since the concert, I've done some atlas-wrangling to confirm that the Russian Empire of Rimsky-Korsakov's day sprawled well east of where Sinbad, Aladdin, and the rest supposedly hung out. And yet we say Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the leading figures in (Western) classical music in Russia.

To orient oneself is to get one's bearings, literally to face east, to point in the direction in which the sun rises. Dictionaries trace orient back to a Latin word, oriri, meaning "rising" or "beginning." Both origin and orchestra are related words. Similarly, east and its counterparts in other European languages are rooted in the idea of the dawn or the sunrise. The Levant is another old-fashioned term for the countries of the eastern Mediterranean: the lands where the sun first comes up, literally – or rather, the lands where the sun comes up before it reaches Europe on any given day.

But if "Orient" is still OK, Oriental with reference to people is not, for reasons related to Said's thesis. The American Heritage Dictionary has this to say in its "usage note" on Oriental: "Asian is now strongly preferred in place of Oriental for persons native to Asia or descended from an Asian people. The usual objection to Oriental – meaning 'eastern' – is that it identifies Asian countries and peoples in terms of their location relative to Europe. However ... the real problem with Oriental is more likely its connotations stemming from an earlier era when Europeans viewed the regions east of the Mediterranean as exotic lands full of romance and intrigue, the home of despotic empires and inscrutable customs."

That's what makes Oriental sound old-fashioned, at the least, and positively offensive when used as a noun to refer to people of Asian origin. The Orient has moved. And so have Western ideas about Asia.

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