Alastair Bonnett discusses Eastern ideas of the West, and argues they form part of a non-Western debate on modernity and society.
The V&A’s new exhibition ‘Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800’ is about a mutual fascination and mutual ‘myth-making’ of two cultural worlds. A playful curiosity animates many of the pieces on display: all those hairy and probably pungent Europeans depicted by Japanese artists seem anything but menacing. The exhibition’s cut-off date of 1800 suggests a desire to avoid the painful era of European domination, thereby nodding to Edward Said’s influential portrait, in Orientalism (1978), of the last two centuries as characterised by the power of the West to control the image of the East.
Said focused on how the West made ‘the rest’. Yet in recent years a number of ‘Eastern’ scholars, such as Sun Ge and Xiaomei Chen in China, have explored how the West has been formed in the non-Western imagination. This ‘occidentalist’ research reveals a growing interest in how the West has been stereotyped and deployed as an idea in the service of political ambitions in non-Western countries.