The Birth of Orientalism
Publication Year: 2010
Modern Orientalism is not a brainchild of nineteenth-century European imperialists and colonialists, but, as Urs App demonstrates, was born in the eighteenth century after a very long gestation period defined less by economic or political motives than by religious ideology.
Based on sources from a dozen languages, many unavailable in English, The Birth of Orientalism presents a completely new picture of this protracted genesis, its underlying dynamics, and the Western discovery of Asian religions from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. App documents the immense influence of Japan and China and describes how the Near Eastern cradle of civilization moved toward mother India. Moreover, he shows that some of India's purportedly oldest texts were products of eighteenth-century European authors.
Though Western engagement with non-Abrahamic Asian religions reaches back to antiquity and can without exaggeration be called the largest-scale religiocultural encounter in history, it has so far received surprisingly little attention—which is why some of its major features and their role in the birth of modern Orientalism are described here for the first time. The study of Asian documents had a profound impact on Europe's intellectual makeup. Suddenly the Bible had much older competitors from China and India, Sanskrit threatened to replace Hebrew as the world's oldest language, and Judeo-Christianity appeared as a local phenomenon on a dramatically expanded, worldwide canvas of religions and mythologies. Orientalists were called upon as arbiters in a clash that involved neither gold and spices nor colonialism and imperialism but, rather, such fundamental questions as where we come from and who we are: questions of identity that demanded new answers as biblical authority dramatically waned.
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
Series: Encounters with Asia
Figures and Tables
‘‘Orientalism’’ has been a buzzword since Edward Said’s eponymous book of1978. Critics have pointed out that Said’s ‘‘Orient’’ is focused on the Arab world and excludes most of what Westerners mean by the word. A more recent history of Orientalism, Robert Irwin’s For Lust of Knowing, criticizes Said’s narrow view of orientalists as ‘‘those who travelled, studied or wrote...
When a dozen years ago I began to study oriental influences on Richard Wagner’s operas in the mid-nineteenth century, I had no idea where my investigations would lead. Having done some research on the Western discovery of Japanese religions in the sixteenth century, it did not take me long to find traces of this discovery in the nineteenth century. But Raymond...
Chapter 1. Voltaire’s Veda
François Marie Arouet—better known as Voltaire (1694–1778)—was a superstar in eighteenth-century Europe and for a time one of its most read and translated authors. His plays were performed across the continent, and his view of world history was so influential that the Russian Czar, upon reading...
Chapter 2. Ziegenbalg’s and La Croze’s Discoveries
Studies about the European discovery of Buddhism tend to belong to one of two categories. The first depicts a gradual unveiling of what we today know about Buddhism (its founder, history, geographical reach, texts, rituals, art, and so forth) in form of a three-act play. Act 1 deals with antiquity and the Middle Ages, act 2 with the missionary discovery until about 1800, and act 3...
Chapter 3. Diderot’s Buddhist Brahmins
In the first volumes of the central monument of the French Enlightenment, the Encyclope´die, there are several articles about Asian religions that are either signed by or attributed to Denis Diderot (1713–84). The most important ones in the first volumes are entitled ‘‘ASIATIQUES. Philosophie des Asiatiques...
Chapter 4. De Guignes’s Chinese Vedas
The ‘‘invention,’’ ‘‘discovery,’’ or identification of major Asian religions (in particular, Hinduism and Buddhism) is often situated in the ‘‘longer’’ nineteenth century during which, as a recent book claims, ‘‘the Invention of World Religions’’ took place. Its author states that toward the end of the nineteenth century Buddhism ‘‘had only recently been recognized as ‘the...
Chapter 5. Ramsay’s Ur-Tradition
When D. P. Walker wrote about ‘‘ancient theology’’ or prisca theologia, he firmly linked it to Christianity and Platonism (Walker 1972). On the first page of his book, Walker defined the term as follows: ...
Chapter 6. Holwell's Religion of Paradise
An Internet search for John Zephaniah Holwell (1711–98) produces thousands of references, most of which contain the words ‘‘Black Hole.’’ The back cover of Jan Dalley’s The Black Hole: Money, Myth and Empire explains: ...
Chapter 7. Anquetil-Duperron’s Search for the True Vedas
In 1762, after his return from India, Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (1731–1805) wrote to one of his former classmates at a Jansenist seminary in Utrecht, Holland: ...
Chapter 8. Volney’s Revolutions
‘‘Orientalism’’ has been portrayed by Edward Said in his eponymous book, first published in 1979, as a very influential, state-sponsored, essentially imperialist and colonialist enterprise. For Said, the Orientalist ideology was rooted in eighteenth-century secularization that threatened the traditional Christian European worldview. That worldview had been reigning for many centuries...
Synoptic List of Protagonists