Posted by: Mm | February 18, 2008

Orient moved to China (a quasi-empirical survey)

In the golden age of European Orientalism the taxonomy was admirably predictable. “West” was in Europe (preferably France or Britain), “East” was in the Middle East (pun intended) and beyond this feared Orient, in the hic-sunt-leones there was China. So much admired a century before, but now considered a decadent, aging and feeble empire, China did not seem to fit, as Said struggled to explain, the “typical” imagery of the Orient of the orientalist discourse.

Today, however, something seems to have changed. The Orient, according to the users of Flickr, on-line photo sharing application that reportedly contains more than 2 billion photos, has little to do with the lands where it used to be placed. A simple search for “Orient” in Flickr archives reveals shockingly unequivocal results.

Although Orient still prevails over Occident in the quantity of imagery it stimulates in a ratio of 96:1, the content of the orientalist imagery seems to have changed. The “clusters”, a Flickr system of organizing photos with similar topics, shows that photos of Orient cluster into three most prominent groups:

  • Asia, travel, China etc. (more than 96% of the “clustered” photos)
  • orient express etc. (3%)
  • mosques, islam etc. (5 (!) photos)

Only five pictures of the lands that used to be considered as “Orient” show that the orientalist imagery has greatly transformed. However, when search is done with the tag “Oriental”, it is obvious that some of the orientalist traits still cling on to the term “oriental”. A great majority of the images clustered under “oriental” portrays the prototype of the Oriental women, although they’re mostly Chinese:

  • Asian, Chinese, girl (62% of the clustered photos)
  • Shanghai, China, pearl (13%)
  • lily , flower, pink (11%)
  • Asia, travel, Thailand (14%)

To a great number of Flickr users “Orient” stands for East Asia and, more specifically, China, while “Oriental” mostly means East Asian (if we ignore the lilies and the Oriental Pearl tower) . The Orient has definitely moved.

Watch out for the next edition of 1001 Nights, it could just as well be set in Xi’an.

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