Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture

Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture

Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture

Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture

Synopsis

Saffron-robed monks and long-haired gurus have become familiar characters on the American popular culture scene. Jane Iwamura examines the contemporary fascination with Eastern spirituality and provides a cultural history of the representation of Asian religions in American mass media. Encounters with monks, gurus, bhikkhus, sages, sifus, healers, and masters from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and religious traditions provided initial engagements with Asian spiritual traditions. Virtual Orientalism shows the evolution of these interactions, from direct engagements with specific individuals to mediated relations with a conventionalized icon: the Oriental Monk. Visually and psychically compelling, the Oriental Monk becomes for Americans a ''figure of translation''--a convenient symbol for alternative spiritualities and modes of being. Through the figure of the solitary Monk, who generously and purposefully shares his wisdom with the West, Asian religiosity is made manageable-psychologically, socially, and politically--for popular culture consumption. Iwamura's insightful study shows that though popular engagement with Asian religions in the United States has increased, the fact that much of this has taken virtual form makes stereotypical constructions of "the spiritual East" obdurate and especially difficult to challenge.

Excerpt

In the spring of 1950, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki arrived in the continental United States for his third extended stay. Like his visits in 1897 and 1939, his arrival went largely unnoticed. Although the aged scholar, at mid-century, was an author of international stature, his work was primarily known to those in the West who held an esoteric interest in Japanese religions and culture. All that would change during his eight-year residency in the United States.

Through the new option of commercial air travel, Suzuki’s status as a global figure would be consolidated by side trips to Mexico, Europe, and cities throughout the United States. The influence of this small, unassuming Japanese man was spread not only by plane but also by print; his image would be featured in the pages of Time, Newsweek, and the New Yorker. By the time Suzuki left the United States in 1958, he was no longer an obscure figure but someone whose name and likeness would forever be associated with Zen in the West.

Two decades later, an American television audience viewed the final episode of the popular television series Kung Fu on the evening of June 28, 1975. Dubbed TV’s first “Eastern Western,” Kung Fu chronicled the fugitive existence of a mixed-race Shaolin monk, Kwai Chang Caine, on the nineteenth-century American frontier. The series dealt with Caine’s transpacific exile, his encounter with European and Asian immigrants, and his flashbacks to his life in China. The show was transnational in nature in terms of not only the plot but also production. Kung Fu drew on the talent of Jewish . . .

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