The Birth of Orientalism

The Birth of Orientalism

The Birth of Orientalism

The Birth of Orientalism


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.


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 Schwab’s La renaissance orientale and studies on the history of the Western encounter with Asian religions such as Henri de Lubac’s La rencontre du bouddhisme et de l’Occident presented an utterly confusing mass of data arranged according to modern notions such as “Buddhism” or “Hinduism” and to modern geographical units such as “India” or “China.”

A major reason for this confusion was the fact that the primary sources seem to come from a different world where such neat delimitations do not exist. They tend, for example, to distinguish between esoteric and exoteric “branches” of a pan-Asian religion or to connect the creeds of various countries of “the Indies” to some descendant of Noah. Another factor that complicated matters was the sheer mass of data in many European languages that used different local pronunciations and transcriptions for the same person or thing. Thus, the Portuguese missionaries in Japan often called the Buddha “Xaca,” the French missionaries in China “Xekia” or “Foe,” the Italians in Vietnam “Thicca,” and so on. Some were aware of their identity, others not; and again, others claimed that the Indian god Vishnu, the Persian prophet Zoroaster, or the Egyptian Hermes Trismegistos were alternative names of Buddha. An additional complicating factor was the maze of authors and texts. Trying to distinguish the trailblazers from imitators, embellishers, copyists, and plagiarists turned into a laborious enterprise that involved burrowing through heaps of multilingual literature in libraries on several continents in order to find out where specific items of information came from. This often was difficult. However, patient investigative work over a decade clarified matters to a certain extent and allowed me to isolate a number of ideas, figures . . .

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