The impact of the orientalist ideas on the selection of symbolic signifiers that represented modern China

In 1978, Edward W. Said published his book Orientalism , which produced an immediate sensation in the Western and even the entire global academic community. As a cornerstone of his theory, “orientalism” soon became an issue impossible to be dodged in any post-colonialist discourse. As interpreted by a Chinese researcher, an essential point about the theory of orientalism is that “the Western world, in accordance with its own economic, political and cultural interests, has fabricated a complete system of knowledge with which to reconstruct the East, and to reinterpret the East from its own particular viewpoint. Through deliberate efforts in literary, historical and academic writings, the Western world seeks to forge an image of the East that can be used in the service of its imperialist political and military purposes.”15

Therefore, what we can discover is that, while De Quincey, in his confessions of opium-eating, described his feelings of mystery, horror, darkness and chaos induced by the use of opium, Friedrich Hegel was engaged in seriously theorizing about how primitive, horrible, uncivilized and stagnant were the many phenomena that happened in China, phenomena which formed a diametrically opposition with those in the West. The articulations by both De Quincey and Friedrich Hegel not only refer to and reinforce one another but also share the same system of vocabulary, imagery, discourse and outlooks that combined to communicate, dominate and construct a Chinese prototype as perceived by the Western society.16 Within this system of discourse, “opium” served as the signifier of a symbol for China and, in a metaphorical manner, embodied the Western world’s desire for colonial expansion, and helped to justify the criminality of Western aggressions and conquests.

As an academic terminology, orientalism developed in close parallel with the century-old colonial expansion of the Western world. As a mode of thinking, orientalism demonstrates a myth in which the Western world fabricated a fantasy out of nothing. As a mechanism of power, orientalism constructed a political doctrine which the Western imperialism readily imposed on the East.

As a form of knowledge, orientalism sought to answer to and underpin the need of the Western world for colonial expansion. Behind this doctrine of orientalism lay the cultural ideals and power manipulation of the Western world. By constructing a negative and demonized image of China, the theory created the myth of the comprehensive superiority of the West over the East,17 which tried to vindicate the global expansion of the West and provide an intellectual rationale for the West to affirm the new order of geo-civilization.

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