The metamorphosis of China from exotic to global contender

May 8, 2020 by Essay Writer

China’s image as a whole has transitioned from a place of exoticism to being a global contender. From cinema to even literature China’s image was slowly molded into an exotic object built on oriental ideals. It was looked upon with wonder and desire for something different, and not so western.

However, China has managed to adjust its image. To understand these images, we must understand the concept of Orientalism, beginning with the word Orient itself. The “Orient” often referred to the East. Orientalism constructs cultural, social, and visual ideologies and stereotypes that are often connected to the political ideologies of governments and institutions. The influence of these ideologies has impacted the formation of knowledge and the process of knowledge production. Often oriental ideals depict an exotic and therefore racialized and often sexualized culture from a distant land. As a result, they simultaneously claim to be an authentic glimpse of a location and its inhabitants.

Edward Said, a professor of literature at Columbia University, and a founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies, contemplated this idea orientalism. He begins his study of orientalism with first defining the terms of which orientalism is established. Edward Said states,” orientalism is a western-style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” he goes on to argue that the Orient has helped to define Europe or the West as it is contrasting image, idea, personality and experience. However, I believe that although the West used Oriental ideals to define for themselves from the East. The Orient used oriental ideals to also define themselves, develop a sense of nationalism and establish a global image.

To fully understand the impact of Orientalism on the Orient, the foundation of Orientalism must be analyzed. Exotic is formally defined as: strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different or unusual. Likewise, exoticism is the quality or state of being exotic. The divide between the West and Orient (or the east) can be first dated back to as late as 8th century BC in the Odyssey by Homer. Odysseus the protagonist of the story travels along the ocean and in book nine sails through murky water and lands upon this island of Cyclops. The Cyclops were depicted as being both rough and uncivilized race of one- eyed giants. The Greeks are also argued to be responsible for the western conception of India. In the late fourth century the Marvels of the East: a Study in the History of Monsters was published. Marvels of the East kindled an exotic image of India as whole. India was depicted as a place of spices, monsters with long ears, and inhuman creatures. From about the twelfth century onwards the marvels penetrated in to the field of religious art. The fabulous races were the products of God’s will. Therefore, part of the mission of the apostles to bring them the Gospels. Although, both the Marvel’s of the East and The Odyssey’s depictions of monsters can be proven to be fictional. The remnants of these Oriental ideologies still haunt the divide between both the East and West.

In 1965 the film The face of Fu Manchu was directed by Don Sharp was released. In the film Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie hunt down the oriental crime lord Fu Manchu, who plans to destroy society with a toxic gas. This diabolical crime Lord Full Manchu, as a whole is molded and created to portray oriental ideals. In any movie the visuals are the most important aspect. When Full Manchu first appears he is made to visually portray a caricature of a Chinaman. Fu Manchu is dressed in traditional or oriental clothing. Portraying that he is obviously oriental, and different from the Western characters. Moreover, his clothing also portrays an inability to move pass past cultural ideals and adapt to the rest of society. Fu Manchu also has a very distinct beard which like his clothing is a product of the oriental caricature. Considering the less visual aspect of the film, Fu Manchu’s motive for wanting to destroy humanity with a gas is not explained in the film clearly. As a result, he is molded into an irrational and unstable person who is just simply cruel for fun. Fu Manchu as a character also had very few lines within the film. His muteness conveys not just covertness and distrust, but also a more submissive East. As a result, a power dynamic is established in the film.
One ought never to assume that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or of myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away. I myself believe that Orientalism is more particularly valuable a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is as a verification discourse about the Orient (which is what, in its academic or scholarly form, it claims to be(Edward Said 7).

The Oriental ideals portrayed in the film establishes a hierarchy of power, between the West and the Orient. The possession of greater power generally invests the knowledges of the more powerful with a greater authority than those of the powerless, and this authority facilitates the creation of universalized images of both the powerful and the powerless. Through Oriental ideals the West reinforced its superiority and dominance. Moreover, the West was able to invoke fear through the idea that the Chinaman was the most dangerous competition to the white man. However what Edward Said failed to address is the response from the East. For the concept of Orientalism is a two- way street, with opinion and perspectives flowing back and forth between the observer and the observed. I believe that Orientalism provoked China to not only discover, but also define who they were. China responded to orientalist ideals by diverging from the evil and diabolical image they are depicted to be. By defying the image of the West China began to paint their image from exotic, to being a global contender on a canvas built on Western oriental ideals. Although China began to change and establish their identity in spite of the Western ideal they still lacked power. As a result, the image of the dangerous China man continued to be reflected in literature and media.


  • 1 From Orientalism to Nationalism
  • 2 Chinese Globalization

From Orientalism to Nationalism

Two images of China are recognizable to people to both the USA and Britain. These images focus on intelligence or martial arts. But what sells and makes country a commodity like China to the West. The simple answer would be the exotic factor, built on Orientalist ideologies. Although the ideologies are exaggerated and distorted. China utilized Oriental ideals to create a strong sense of Nationalism. Nationalism is a political, social, and economic ideology and movement characterized by the promotion of the interests of a particular nation with the aim of gaining and maintaining the nation’s sovereignty over its homeland.
As the influence of a dominant country is seen to recede in a given region at least one of the other regional states, previously restrained by the erstwhile hegemon , attempts to expand its power(A) power vacuum means t/at natural forces draw in a new hegemon to replace the old one. The new dominant power may not yet be as strong as the former hegemon in its heyday, only stronger than any other country in the region(Zheng 5).

After the cold war, cause the downfall of the former Soviet Union the Chinese image transformed from being very submissive to a sort of dominant figurehead. This was the first time in its history that China encountered the opportunity to become a powerhouse. As a result, China felt the need to rise to the occasion and take on this dominant figure. China reconstructed their culture or identity to cope with changing domestic and international environment. The west was the standard that China aimed for. Portraying the message that only by westernization could China develop a strong nation – state making the countries equals. Because China was portrayed as weak, its leaders looked to the West to change its on worldview, while also preserving culture and tradition. The west still spread oriental ideals of the East increasing nationalism in the Republic of China. Nationalism in China became a means for survival from foreign aggression. According to Sun Yat – sen the founder of China, the meaning of Chinese nationalism is multifold. He states, First nationalism was the equivalent to the doctrine of the State as China had developed as a single State out of a single race ever since the Qin and Han dynasties. Second, nationalism was the key to the development and survival of the China nation, and third, nationalism called for the equality of all races and was the way to restore freedom and equality to China(17). This multifold nationalism was overall a direct response to the Oriental ideals imposed upon China. The Chinese government sensibly appealed Oriental ideal to counter the Chinese threat abroad. However, like orientalism nationalism is a double -edged sword. While Orientalism imposes power it simultaneously gives rise to other powers in this case China. Overall, Chinese political leaders’ main goal was not to overthrow the existing system, but rather receive recognition of Chinese power and its place in the world by other major world powers.

In a strive to defy oriental ideals China managed to paint a new image for itself leading to more communication, and a higher rank in the eyes of the world. Reversing its image in spite of Edward Said’s theory of power. China used Oriental ideals to benefit itself. Moreover, it created more unity within the country, because the citizens were fighting a common enemy the West diabolical image of them.

Chinese Globalization

Globalization is the process by which businesses or other organizations develop international influence or start operating on an international scale. Globalization allows for comparative advantage. This allows countries that are good at producing certain goods, are better off exporting to countries that are less efficient at producing that good. Orientalist ideals of the East overall raised the living standards in most places of the East through tourism. However, if we simplify Edward Said’s argument about Orientalism functioning solely on power, then globalization coincides with this based on the power of economics. However, the traditional power structures formed by the East and West through Orientalism in the twenty first century are no longer the sole form of dominance anymore. Due to globalization, cultural power of the west is no longer hegemonic. Meaning, that the West is not solely the ruling or dominant power in both a political and social context. Orientalism is not as effective anymore due China’s increasing economic and political power since both colonial and post-colonial era of exotic lands.

Over the past few years China has experienced an average of nearly ten percent growth rates for almost four decades. It is the first developing nation to become a great power (NYTimes). Because power is needed for Orientalism to work The west is no longer able to impose itself upon China. Therefore, globalization has become the new Orientalism. In the twenty-first century the East and the West don’t have to compete for world image, but rather for the power of the purse. Whoever controls the money has the power. It is no longer about demeaning a race of people by depicting them as barbaric monsters.

During the age of colonialism and discovery the Oriental world was basically a distant place that many had not traveled. It was a land of fictional monsters and barbaric humans. In Marvels of the East: A study in the history of Monsters, India was portrayed to contain, Although during the 14th century men like Nicolas Oresme and Henry of Hesse mark the beginning of a strong opposition against occult sciences and credulity in monsters, the belief in the marvels only died very slowly. In fact, even the enlightenment brought about during the 15th century by the geographical expansion and the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s geography did not lead to a noticeable break in the tradition (Marvel’s of the East 84). Although the traditions did not make a transformation in the fifteenth and fourteenth century it has in the twenty-first century.

This change is due to the rise of globalization and the demolition of Orientalism. Globalization, unlike Orientalism sole driving force is communication and economic power, which has allowed China to transform from exotic to a global contender. Making the competition between the East and the West more tangible than fictional monsters. As China in the twenty- first century increases its power the exotic factor has become more diluted and China has created its own image. Views of domestic issues show that most Chinese are optimistic about their country’s power and influence. According to Pew, sixty-seven percent of the Chinese public in 2015 believed that China would eventually surpass the United States as the world’s leading superpower. The same poll showed that only sixteen percent believed that China would never replace the United States as a superpower. Chinese people are similarly optimistic regarding the nature of China’s influence abroad, ninety-seven percent believed that China had a positive impact in the region (YunHan Chu). As surveyed China not only counteracts Oriental ism through the gains of globalization, it also uses globalization to spread a positive image of themselves. As a result, the modern-day image of and Asian in Western media majority of the time is of a doctor, lawyer, martial art or someone very intelligent. Unlike the earlier image portrayed in Fu Manchu.

Overall the metamorphosis of China from exotic to a global competitor is due to three main factors. The first, defining themselves despite the diabolical image portrayed by Western oriental ideologies. However, China at the time lacked power. Therefore, the demeaning image of a dangerous Chinaman continued to spread. The second factor being nationalism. China was able to create a strong sense of nationalism among its citizens. This allowed China to cope with the changing domestic and international environment. The third, being globalization. With globalization China increased its power. While simultaneously increasing its influence on the world. I believe that in the future the West could become less influential. Therefore, becoming subject to Orientalist ideals from the East. Therefore, we must ask how our current international relations and influence standing are. Moreover, the West should reflect on how the West would cope under shifting power dynamics. One option the West could cope with/ shifting power dynamic would be to simply accept the power shift. However, with the West having a large influence this is the most ideal, but least realistic. I believe that China’s increased power countries in the West could start to feel threatened. Therefore, sending the message to China that the West doesn’t want China to develop and become an equal contender, nor truly recognize China’s power. However, with China’s increasing economic growth, China has become more confident In dealing with other countries. Resulting in China gaining a high level of respect from other countries within the international network of communication.

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