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The Orient is a term that traditionally refered to the Middle-East, South Asia, and East Asia, or more specifically most regions east of Europe. Today the term generally only refers to that part of the world where both Dharmic religions are dominant and most natives of the region have an epicanthic fold. This would include Burma, Cambodia, China, Japan, parts of Indonesia, Korea, Manchuria, Mongolia, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, Tibet and Vietnam.

"Oriental" has been used by the West as a term to describe cultures, countries, peoples and goods from the Orient. Some usages of Oriental are still common, for example, Mizrahi Jews (native to the Middle East) are often referred to as Oriental Jews and it is common in older universities: the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge both have a Faculty of Oriental Studies that focuses on the Middle East, East Asia and South Asia. The American Oriental Society remains the premier body for the study of Oriental societies.


The term "Oriental" is derived from the Latin word oriens, the present participle of "orior": to rise. The implication is that it refers to the rising sun. Thus, "Orient" describes the "land of the rising sun", i.e. the "Far East", and is exactly analogous with the Chinese (and Japanese) term for Japan. Similar terms such as "Levant" of French derivation and "Anatolia" from the Greek anatole, describe locations for the direction in which the sun rises. The opposite term "Occident" - derived from the Latin word occidens, from the verb "occido": I fall - was once used to describe the western world, i.e. the "land of the falling (setting) sun".

The creation of a polarity oriens/occidens originated in Roman imperial administration from the time of Diocletian and was taken up in Christian Latin literature. Despite this some scholars claim the term Orient did not enter Western European languages until the time of the Crusades[1]

Perceptions & Connotations

Although oriental is generally considered a neutral term in the UK, other parts of the Commonwealth and most of Europe, there is some controversy regarding the connotations and implications of the term in North America. According to Abdurrahman R. Squires "politically correct terms have taken the place of the word 'Orientalism'". [2] According to The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook the term is offensive and should be avoided. [3] However, the entire concept of political correctness and its many implications are the center of much debate.

Thus, there is a certain degree of controversy associated with any politically correct term. So, while some people in 21st century America consider the term oriental derogatory, there are others who dispute this connotation.

References and Sensitivity Guides

A number of reference works used in the United States describe Oriental as pejorative, antiquated or offensive "in some instances". However, the American Heritage Book of English Usage qualifies this charge by noting:

It is worth remembering, though, that Oriental is not an ethnic slur to be avoided in all situations. It is most objectionable in contemporary contexts and when used as a noun, as in "the appointment of an Oriental to head the commission". In these cases Asian (or a more specific term such as Vietnamese, Korean, or Asian American, if appropriate) is the only acceptable term. But in certain historical contexts, or when its exotic connotations are integral to the topic, Oriental remains a useful term.[4]

Random House's Guide to Sensitive Language states "Other words (e.g., Oriental, colored) are outdated or inaccurate." This Guide to Sensitive Language suggests the use of "Asian or more specific designation such as Pacific Islander, Chinese American, [or] Korean." [5] Merriam-Webster describes the term as "sometimes offensive,"[6] Encarta states that when the term is used as a noun it is considered " a highly offensive term for somebody from East Asia" [7] However, the same reference also defines the adjectival usage as "relating to East Asia (dated)" or "high quality".

According to widely accepted textbook guidelines, there are many racially insensitive terms and concepts (including the word oriental) which are to be avoided when used in conjunction with Asian people. Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education under Clinton and Bush(considered by many to be "one of the country's most spirited and respected education analysts" [8]) has documented a series of images and depictions which are banned from textbooks and references. (Examples below.)

Historical Connotations

In 19th century academia, some works in "Oriental studies" contained inaccurate information that Westerners then used to justify colonization of these countries. Some 19th and 20th century Europeans and Americans who used the term are thought to have held a patronizing attitude toward the region. Many of "these people" saw "the East" as backwards, while the West was seen as logical, rational and more modern. This view was first, and most famously, put forward by Edward Said in his Orientalism.

While the term is clearly an example of Eurocentrism some people do not think Eurocentrism is undesirable. Additionally, many scholarly works in the 19th and 20th Century were riddled with errors, but the outcry to replace words and phrases has not be even-handed or uniform. For example, according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica and Tim McCaskell of the Toronto Board of Education, the works of Charles Linnaeus, Charles Darwin, Francis Galton and others have been used to justify many atrocities, including slavery, colonization, and racial genocide. Despite the fact that evil acts were justified by the works of these men, phrases such as the "Origin of Species"; the "Theory of Evolution"; the "General System of Nature"; "survival of the fittest" et.al., are still in use today. [9] [10] [11] [12][13]

Serious Opposition to Textbooks and Sensitivity Guides

Supporters of the traditional usage of the term oriental are frightened by how easy it is to ban a word from American textbooks. Toby Merrill of the Yale Book Review states:

All it takes to forever banish a word or image from schools across the nation is a well-placed, vocal group to lobby the Board of Education in either of these states. It is in the California market that publishers feel the most pressure from the left. [14]

Although the definitions found in most dictionaries are sufficiently vague to argue for or against the appropriateness of the term Oriental in some contexts, many Americans feel that banning words and images has gone too far. Judge Robert Bork in Slouching Towards Gomorrah writes, "Now, however, the educational system has become the weapon of choice for modern liberals in their project of dismantling American culture."

Scholarly works such as "The Language Police", "The Battle of the Books" and "Challenging the Myths about Multicultural Education" have argued for the continued usage of politically incorrect terms including Oriental. [15][16][17][18][19] Diane Ravitch has documented the existence of an elaborate and well-established protocol of beneficent censorship, quietly endorsed and implemented by textbook publishers, states, and the federal government. "Publishers practice self-censorship to sell books in big states." [20] Ravitch has documented "the 'bias guidelines'" for major publishers of texts and tests. "The "bias guidelines" consist of advice to writers and editors about words and topics that must be avoided."[21]

Laurie Morrow, a former Salvatori Fellow of the Heritage Foundation and professor of English mocked proponents of political correctness and attempt to imply extreme sarcasm when she wrote the following in support of traditional usage of the term oriental:

Although the Japanese proudly consider themselves eastern--from the Land of the Rising Sun (remember that World War II flag?)--don't call them "Oriental," for this is Eurocentric, and one should have no center in the happy world of cultural equivalence. (One wonders whether the language police would object to a Tokyo resident's using the term Occidental?)[22]

Professor Morrow also writes:

The language police seek to eliminate anything that might cause students discomfort or distress. The world is, however, a difficult and trying place, full of ideas that must be resisted and fought. What students need to learn are courage and perseverance in the face of difficulty, so that they can confront what should be resisted--including censorship by the language police.[23]

However, even those who support traditional usage of words and terms do not support an end to all sensitivity. Sybil Maimin writes:

Ravitch does not call for elimination of bias and sensitivity panels but rather for their work, now behind closed doors, to be open to public view. She believes that teachers or school districts rather than state officials should choose books for the classroom, which would decrease the power of pressure groups and lessen uniformity. She has confidence that “language evolves in response to social change. Lots of words disappear naturally,” [24]

Allegedly Banned Words and Thoughts

Author and historian Diane Ravitch has documented how far political correctness has intruded into the American educational system by documenting banned words, images and thoughts. In addition to banning the word, the following words are considered inappropriate and therefore banned from usage in modern textbooks when refering to Orientals or the Orient:

  • Exotic
  • Inscrutable
  • Mysterious
  • Orient, Oriental: banned as offensive
  • Sneaky[25]

The reader may be suprised to learn that the following depictions are banned from US references and textbooks:

  • Asians as very intelligent, excellent scholars
  • Asian Americans with look-alike features for all ages: short, skinny, slanted eyes, wear glasses
  • Asian Americans as a "model minority", repressed, studious, goody-goody
  • Asian Americans as ambitious, hard-working, and competitive
  • Asian Americans as having strong family ties
  • Asian Americans as quiet, polite, concerned with proper form
  • Asian Americans as inscrutable, mysterious, concerned with saving face
  • Asian Americans as frugal, passive, rigid, submissive, unathletic
  • Asian Americans as musical prodigies or class valedictorian
  • Asian Americans unable to speak English or uninvolved in mainstream America
  • Asian Americans working as laundry workers, engineers, waiters, gardeners, health workers
  • Asian Americans living in ethnic neighborhoods
  • Asian Americans as predominantly refugees
  • Asian Americans working in a laundry
  • Asian American males as peasants, coolies, waiters, laundry owners, math students
  • Asian Americans working at vegetable stands
  • Asian American females as doll-like, geisha-girl image, ingratiating to males
  • Asian Americans playing only with toys from the mainstream culture or only with toys from their own culture
  • Chinese people living and working only in Chinatown or in China working in rice fields
  • Asian Americans shown with eyes as single, slanted lines; look alikes; straight black hair with bangs; buck teeth
  • Modern Chinese males wearing pigtails and classes
  • Modern Chinese women wearing high-collared cheong dresses
  • Modern Chinese males with inscrutable grins, with folded or clasped hands or always wearing glasses and looking serious and polite
  • Chinese people who have great food
  • Chinese people who own or run laundries and restaurants
  • Chinese people who love to gamble
  • Chinese people who are cruel
  • Modern Asian Americans wearing dark business suits and glasses
  • Hordes of Japanese with suits and cameras
  • Modern Japanese women wearing kimonos or carrying babies on their backs
  • Japanese people who are law-abiding
  • Japanese people who are great imitators
  • Japanese people who are sneaky
  • Japanese women who are servile and obedient
  • Korean Americans owning or working in fruit markets [26]

Alternative terminology

Those who believe the term is derogatory or archaic prefer to employ geographical terms for people and places typically desribed by oriental, e.g., South Asia, East Asia, and South-East Asia. Although the Far Eastern is considered more politically correct than Oriental, East Asian is preferred because this verbiage is significantly less Eurocentric. Other politically correct alternative terms include Asia and the Pacific or the Pacific Rim or the Pacific Basin.

Current Usage of Oriental and Related Depictions

The term is used widely across a broad spectrum of North America.

In Government

Although the term Oriental is "sometimes offensive", the term remains inoffensive sometimes and wide use in across the United States. This usage is evidenced by many sources. The term is used on a great number of governmental document and websites across in the USA describing place names [27], medicine[28][29], wildlife [30][31] plants[32], food[33][34] and people [35][36][37] or communities.[38][39][40][41][42][43][44] The term is even found on Equal Opportunity Employment[45] and Fair Housing [46] documents.

Conversely, at least two state legislatures have passed or proposed legislation declaring a preference for terms other than Oriental in official documents. A finding by the Washington State legislature held that

the use of the term "Oriental" when used to refer to persons of Asian descent is outdated and pejorative. There is a need to make clear that the term "Asian" is preferred terminology, and that this more modern and nonpejorative term must be used to replace outdated terminology.[47]

In 2005, the California senate mandated that the terms "oriental massage" and "oriental medicine" in existing statutes be changed to "Asian medicine" and "Asian massage." [48] Despite this "mandate" businesses and schools across California and the country continue to employ the term. [49][50][51][52] California has not purged the term from current documents or websites and the term remains on many pages which display "© 2007 State of California". [53][54] [55] [56][57]

In Business

Businesses such as Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, Mandarin Oriental, Oriental Financial Group, Inc.,Orient Thai Airlines, Orient Steam Navigation Company, Orient Watch Co., Neptune Orient Lines are just a few of many successful enterprises to share this term as a part of their name.

In Academia

Many universities no longer accept the usage of the term Oriental when describing people. [58] However, the highly-regarded American Oriental Society and many others continue to use the term in its publishings. [59][60][61][62]


According to the FBI, some Asian gangs, the "OPB" ("Oriental Playboys"), and the ORB ("Oriental Rutheless Boys"), refer to themselves as oriental. [63][64]

Conservative commentators [65] and prominent Filipina Michelle Malkin regularly employ the term. [66] [67] [68][69].

The Oriental Food Association [70], Oriental Bellydancer Association [71][72], The Association of Oriental Arts [73], the Shriners [74][75] and other social groups continue to use the term. The American Association of Oriental Medicine and many other state-specific associations of oriental medicine still use the term. [76] The World Wide Web has a profusion of "oriental" pornography and so-called mail order bride sites that exploit stereotypes as well desperate individuals on both sides of the transaction. [77][78][79] The Oriental Martial Arts College and other martial arts organizations employ the term regularly. [80][81][82]

Regional Variations

Major objections to the use of the word "Oriental" are chiefly limited to certain elements in North America. Its usage is not controversial in Europe, where the word is considered neutral and in widespread usage as evidenced by its usage on the online British Monarchy Media Centre.[83] In France the terms "l'Occident" and "l'Orient" are used without any negative associations in academic contexts. In Europe the term is often used to describe such things as the East's cuisine and goods, ancient culture, and religions, at times to denote an exotic quality with upmarket or mildly positive connotations. In the UK the term "Asian" has become almost exclusively tied to the Indian subcontinent, as evidenced through BBC Asian Network, a radio station of the BBC devoted to the British Asian community.


  1. Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (Harvard University Press) 1992 p. 1 and note.
  2. http://www.muslim-answers.org/orientalism.htm
  3. Beard, Henry and Cerf, Christopher. The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook. New York: Villard Books, 1993.
  4. "Asian." The American Heritage Book of English Usage [1]
  5. "Race, Ethnicity, and National Origin." Sensitive Language. Random House
  6. "Oriental." Merriam-Webster
  7. "Oriental." [2]
  8. http://www.sacbee.com/content/opinion/story/6184665p-7139626c.html%20%7C Sacramento Bee, February 27, 2003 "Editorial: Policing the vocabulary Textbook sensitivity goes fanatic"
  9. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9108541/philosophical-anthropology
  10. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jonmorro/race.html
  11. "A History of Race/ism", Prepared by Tim McCaskell, a representative of the Toronto Board of Education
  12. http://www.scholars.nus.edu.sg/victorian/history/empire/Empire.html
  13. http://www.mediamonitors.net/harunyahya37.html
  14. http://www.yalereviewofbooks.com/archive/summer03/review12.shtml.htm Yale Book Review
  15. http://mtprof.msun.edu/Win1994/PTrev.html
  16. Battle of the Books: The Curriculum Debate in America 1993 James Atlas published by W W Norton & Co Inc
  17. The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Children Learn by Diane Ravitch (c) 2003 published by Knopf
  18. http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/Home.portal?_nfpb=true&_pageLabel=RecordDetails&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=EJ497173&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=eric_accno&objectId=0900000b8003e14e Challenging the Myths about Multicultural Education by Carl A Grant
  19. "Multicultural Education Through the Lens of the Multicultural Education Research Literature." by J.A. Banks and C.A. McGee Banks (eds.). Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education NY: Simon. and Schuster Macmillan
  20. http://www.randomhouse.com/knopf/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780375414824
  21. http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110003695
  22. http://www.worldandi.com/newhome/public/2003/September/bk2pub.asp
  23. http://www.worldandi.com/newhome/public/2003/September/bk2pub.asp
  24. http://www.educationupdate.com/archives/2003/june03/issue/spot_ravitch.html Education Update
  25. http://www.freewebs.com/bannedwords/
  26. http://www.freewebs.com/bannedwords/#IMAGEASIAN
  27. http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/about/pr2004/pr04_61.html
  28. http://www.acupuncture.ca.gov/pubs_forms/cons_guide_2002.pdf
  29. http://www.health.gov/nhic/NHICScripts/Entry.cfm?HRCode=HR2824
  30. http://www.epa.gov/fedrgstr/EPA-IMPACT/2003/January/Day-10/i491.htm
  31. http://ecos.fws.gov/species_profile/servlet/gov.doi.species_profile.servlets.SpeciesProfile?spcode=B03C
  32. http://www.in.gov/dnr/invasivespecies/oriental_bittersweet_1.pdf
  33. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/other/syah/orierice.htm
  34. http://hawaii.gov/health/about/rules/11-29.pdf
  35. http://bioethics.gov/transcripts/jun03/session2.html
  36. http://www.michigan.gov/documents/cis_ofis_fis_1043_24817_7.pdf
  37. http://www.fws.gov/midwest/horicon/nativeamericans.html
  38. http://www.loc.gov/acq/devpol/sociology.html
  39. http://vitalrecords.alaska.gov/dph/bvs/PDFs/1999/annual_report/Introduction.pdf
  40. http://www.hawaii.gov/dbedt/info/census/Folder.2005-11-23.1639/ec02-reference/small_diner_condensed_final.pdf
  41. http://www.nps.gov/archive/manz/hrs/hrs10i.htm
  42. http://www.va.gov/vetapp/files1/9401243.txt
  43. http://www.michigan.gov/documents/GBFT0203_61996_7.pdf
  44. http://www.nifl.gov/nifl-health/1998/0198.html
  45. http://ocp.dc.gov/ocp/frames.asp?doc=/ocp/lib/ocp/information/solatt/attachment_j.04_eeo_compliance_documents.doc&open=%7C34644%7C
  46. http://www.hud.gov/offices/fheo/library/part109.pdf
  47. RCW 1.20.130: "Preferred terminology in government documents." Revised Code of Washington
  48. California State Senate
  49. http://www.acupuncture.ca.gov/education/schools.htm
  50. http://yp.yahoo.com/py/ypMap.py?Pyt=Typ&tuid=12363968&ck=2317990383&tab=B2C&tcat=8106973&city=Monterey&state=CA&uzip=93940&country=us&msa=7120&cs=4&ed=3Cjhzq1o2TwW0JlAiouvxdEhci7IWZ92n2SEvi.yLw_KCQ--&stat=:pos:0:regular:regT:2:fbT:0
  51. http://www.csomaonline.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3289
  52. http://yp.yahoo.com/py/ypResults.py?stx=oriental+medicine&stp=a&tab=B2C&city=Los+Angeles&state=CA&uzip=90012&country=us&msa=4480&slt=34.052170&sln=-118.243469&cs=4&Submit=Search
  53. http://www.acupuncture.ca.gov/law_reg/art35
  54. http://www.acupuncture.ca.gov/exams/stats_mar2006.htm
  55. http://www.acupuncturetoday.com/mpacms/at/article.php?id=27949&MERCURYSID=719fb03a0214a10a71b0f5217cfbddae
  56. http://www.acupuncture.ca.gov/law_reg/1399_45_modtext.pdf
  57. http://www.acupuncture.ca.gov/pubs_forms/cons_guide_2002.pdf
  58. http://www.freewebs.com/bannedwords
  59. http://www.degruyter.de/journals/zac/261_5290_ENU_h.htm
  60. http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/default.html
  61. http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/dept/linguist/index.html
  62. http://www.ksi.edu/seke/cpol.html
  63. http://www.fbi.gov/dojpressrel/pressrel03/release121903.htm
  64. http://www.fbi.gov/publications/leb/2003/feb2003/feb03leb.htm
  65. http://www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=16541
  66. http://michellemalkin.com/archives/000239.htm
  67. http://michellemalkin.com/archives/006107.htm?print=1
  68. http://michellemalkin.com/archives/000239.htm
  69. http://www.altavista.com/web/results?itag=ody&pg=aq&aqmode=s&aqa=oriental&aqp=&aqo=&aqn=&aqb=&kgs=1&kls=0&dt=tmperiod&d2=0&dfr%5Bd%5D=1&dfr%5Bm%5D=1&dfr%5By%5D=1980&dto%5Bd%5D=4&dto%5Bm%5D=11&dto%5By%5D=2006&filetype=&rc=dmn&swd=michellemalkin.com&lh=&nbq=10
  70. http://www.orientalfood.org/
  71. http://www.orientdance.ru/index_e.htm
  72. http://homepage.realtv21.com/?userid=obda_1&pagetype=&viewno=94
  73. http://www.art-virtue.com/demo/2006-TaoArt/index.htm
  74. http://www.webruler.com/shriners/oriental.htm
  75. http://www.ladiesorientalshrine.org/home.html
  76. http://www.aaom.org/ Website of American Association of Oriental Medicine
  77. http://www.oriental-bikini.com/
  78. http://www.orientals.com/
  79. http://www.orientalcompanion.com
  80. http://www.omacworld.com
  81. http://www.west-meet-east.com/martialarts.htm
  82. http://www.orientalmartialarts.org/
  83. http://www.royal.gov.uk/output/page5495.asp

References and further reading