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For other uses of "Orient", see Orient (disambiguation).

The Orient means the East. It is a traditional designation for anything that belongs to the Eastern world or the Near East or Far East, in relation to Europe. In English it is largely a metonym for, and coterminous with, the continent of Asia.


The term "Orient" derives from the Latin word oriens (Orion) meaning "east" (lit. "rising" < orior " rise"). The use of the word for "rising" to refer to the east (where the sun rises) has analogs from many languages: compare the terms "Levant" (< French levant "rising"), "Vostok" Russian: Восток (< Russian voskhod Russian: восход "sunrise"), "Anatolia" (< Greek anatole), "mizrahi" in Hebrew ("zriha" meaning sunrise), "sharq" Arabic: شرق‎ (< Arabic yashriq يشرق "rise", shurūq Arabic: شروق‎ "rising"), "shygys" Kazakh: шығыс (< Kazakh shygu Kazakh: шығу "come out"), Turkish: doğu (< Turkish doğumak to be born; to rise), Chinese: (pinyin: dōng, a pictograph of the sun rising behind a tree[1]) and "The Land of the Rising Sun" to refer to Japan. Also, many ancient temples, including pagan temples and the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, were built with their main entrances facing the East. To situate them in such a manner was to "orient" them in the proper direction. When something was facing the correct direction, it was said to be in the proper orientation.

The opposite term "Occident" derives from the Latin word occidens, meaning west (lit. setting < occido fall/set). This term meant the west (where the sun sets) but has fallen into disuse in English.

History of the term

Further information: Orientalism

In the later Roman Empire, the Praetorian prefecture of the East, the Praefectura Praetorio Orientis, included most of the Eastern Roman Empire from the eastern Balkans eastwards; its easternmost part was the Diocese of the East, the Dioecesis Orientis, corresponding roughly to the region of Syria. Over time, the common understanding of 'the Orient' has continually shifted eastwards, as Western explorers traveled farther into Asia. It finally reached the Pacific Ocean, in what Westerners came to call 'the Far East'. These shifts in time and identification sometimes confuse the scope (historical and geographic) of Oriental Studies. Yet there remain contexts where 'the Orient' and 'Oriental' have kept their older meanings, e.g. 'Oriental spices' typically are from the regions extending from the Middle East to sub-continental India to Indo-China. Travelers may again take the Orient Express train from Paris to its terminus in the European part of Istanbul, a route established in the early 20th century.

In European historiography the meaning of "the Orient" changed in scope several times. Originally the term referred to Egypt, the Levant, and adjoining areas.[2] Later the term became synonymous with Islam and Judaism and its scope expanded both eastward and westward to include all non-European areas of Eurasian civilization, including North Africa as far west as Morocco.[2] During the 1800s India, and to a lesser extent China, began to displace the Levant as the primary subject of Orientalist research. By the mid-20th century Western scholars generally considered "the Orient" as just East Asia, Southeast Asia, and eastern Central Asia.[2] As recently as the early 20th century the term "Orient" continued to often used in ways that included North Africa and even parts of southeastern Europe. Today the term primarily evokes images of China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and peninsular Southeast Asia.[2] Throughout the history of the changing sense of the term, "the Orient" was never equivalent to Asia as a whole. "The Orient" being largely a cultural term, large parts of Asia—Siberia most notably—were excluded from the scholarly notion of "the Orient".[2]

Equally valid terms for the Orient still exist in the English language in such collocations as Oriental studies (now Asian Studies in some countries).

The adjectival term Oriental has been used by the West to mean cultures, peoples, countries, and goods from the Orient. "Oriental" means generally "eastern". It is a traditional designation (especially when capitalized) for anything belonging to the Orient or "East" (for Asia), and especially of its Eastern culture. It indicated the eastern direction in historical astronomy, often abbreviated "Ori."[3] In contemporary English, Oriental usually refers to things from the parts of East Asia traditionally occupied by East Asians and most Central Asians and Southeast Asians racially categorized as "Mongoloid". This excludes Jews, Indians, Arabs, and most other South or West Asian peoples. Because of historical discrimination against Chinese and Japanese, in some parts of the United States, some people consider the term derogatory. For example, Washington state prohibits the word "Oriental" in legislation and government documents, preferring the word "Asian" instead.[4]

In more local uses, "oriental" is also used for eastern parts of portions of the Mediterranean Sea, for example Morocco's Oriental Region. Oriental is also used as an adjective akin to "eastern," especially in the Spanish-speaking world. For example, the Philippine islands of Mindoro and Negros are each divided into two provinces whose titles include the words "oriental" and "occidental" respectively. The official name of Uruguay is the República Oriental del Uruguay or Oriental Republic of Uruguay because it is east of the Uruguay River.[5]

Since the 19th century, "orientalist" has been the traditional term for a scholar of Oriental studies; however, the use in English of "Orientalism" to describe academic "Oriental studies" is rare: the Oxford English Dictionary cites only one such usage, by Lord Byron in 1812. Orientalism is more widely used to refer to the works of the many 19th-century artists who specialized in "Oriental" subjects, often drawing on their travels to North Africa and Western Asia. Artists as well as scholars were already described as "Orientalists" in the 19th century. In 1978, Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said published his influential and controversial book, Orientalism; he used the term to describe a pervasive Western tradition, both academic and artistic, of prejudiced outsider interpretations of the Arab and Muslim worlds, shaped by the attitudes of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries.[6]

Current usage

American English

Some in the United States consider "Oriental" an antiquated, pejorative, and disparaging term. John Kuo Wei Tchen, director of the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute at New York University, said the basic critique of the term developed in the 1970s. Tchen has said, "With the anti-war movement in the ’60s and early ’70s, many Asian Americans identified the term ‘'Oriental'’ with a Western process of racializing Asians as forever opposite ‘others’."[7] In a press release related to legislation aimed at removing the term "oriental" from official documents of the State of New York, Governor David Paterson said, "The word ‘oriental’ does not describe ethnic origin, background or even race; in fact, it has deep and demeaning historical roots".[8]

British English

In British English, the term Oriental is not considered a pejorative or offensive word, and refers to people from East and Southeast Asia. Asian is generally used only to mean people from South Asia.[9] This usage reflects historic immigration into the UK, since more than 50% of the non-European population is from India, Pakistan and Bangladeshi (in British English terminology called British Asian), whereas East and Southeast Asians comprise only 5-6% of the non-European population. Of those, the majority are of Chinese descent.[10]

Orient is also a word for the lustre of a fine pearl.[11]

Australian English

In Australian English, the term "Asian" generally refers to people of East Asian or Southeast Asian descent, such as those of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, or Filipino descent. Persons of Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and most other South Asian descent are referred to by their respective demonym, but without explicit knowledge, those people are indeterminately inferred as "Indian."

The word Oriental, in place of Asian, is seldom used in colloquial conversation in Australia and is understood, but considered anachronistic rather than offensive.

Canadian English

In Canadian English, as with Australian English and Hiberno-English, "Asian" most often refers to people of East or Southeast Asian descent. It can be expanded, however, such as when referring to colonial times, to include South Asian countries such as India and Sri Lanka, as is common usage by South Asians themselves. In Canada persons of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan descent by their respective demonym but without explicit knowledge, are indeterminately inferred as "Indian." In modern Canadian usage, according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, the term "Oriental" is considered offensive when applied to a person of East Asian ancestry.[12]


In German Orient is usually used synonymously with area between the Near East and India, including Israel, the Arab World and Greater Persia

The term Asiaten (English: Asians) means the people of East Asia and Southeast Asia. Another word for Orient in German is Morgenland (now poetic), which literally translates as "morning land".

See also


References and further reading

  • [Ankerl, Guy] Coexisting Contemporary Civilizations: Arabo-Muslim, Bharati, Chinese, and Western, INUPRESS, Geneva, 2000. ISBN 2-88155-004-5
  • The American Oriental Society
  • The Oriental Instititute at University of Chicago
  • Model Minority posting by Alan Hu.
  • Banned Words For comparative analysis: a list "banned" words (including Oriental) as documented by Diane Ravitch.
  • by George Hamlin Fitch
  • German Orient Gate
  • "About Japan: A Teacher's Resource"
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