John Larrysson Column: Orientalism

Once I was told that I should not refer to Go (圍棋) as an Oriental game, because that was derogatory. What! Why? Why should calling Go an Asian game be any different?


First a quick English usage note: The game of Go is normally capitalised, where chess, mah-jong and checkers are not. The noun the game Go is too easily confused with the action of the verb go. So it is capitalised to indicate the difference.


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Oriental studies, orientalism or orientalist scholarship are extremely broad academic labels. The history of colonial rule by a few European countries, and the political domination of Asia, distorted the study of Asian cultures. In a post-colonial context, any word like Oriental or Asian has negative historical connotations. That is why even the most knowledgeable, well-meaning, and culturally sympathetic Western Orientalist are still studying people as other-than-himself. People often disapprove of academic terms like Orientalism.

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The word Orient refers to so many different cultures Arab / Turk / Israeli / Russian / Persian / Indian / Thai / Mongolian / Chinese &c. that it has little meaning other than not-from-Europe. (See Orientalism, by Edward W. Said) By collocation (common use) in American English the word Asian is understood to mean Chinese, Japanese or Korean. However in British English the same word is usually used to refer to Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi.

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Academics need precise words to identify exactly what they mean. The word Orient is much too vague to have any meaning in an academic study. It is only useful for very general use. For example: Rice is an oriental grain. Go is an oriental game. He likes oriental music. The word Asian can be substituted, but both are clumsy vague words. Calling Go an oriental game is as harmless as calling America a Western country, but words do have a history.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


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