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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

February 3, 2010

Written by C.N.

Orientalism in Mainstream Book Covers

For those who are unfamiliar, “Orientalism” is a term used by academics and cultural critics that generally refers to a set of biases, stereotypes, cultural images, and popular portrayals of Asians and/or Asian Americans — individually, nationally, or institutionally — as exotic, hypersexual, submissive, effeminate, dangerous, and/or inferior. Orientalism is frequently manifested in the overrepresentations of Asians and Asian Americans in mainstream TV shows and movies as one-dimensional geisha, ninja, prostitute, or martial arts characters.

As another examples, my fellow sociologist bloggers at Sociological Images alerted me to an interesting post by Caustic Cover Critic (CCC) that examines stereotypical elements in mainstream books and novels about China or Japan:

If you’re designing a cover for a book by a Chinese or Japanese writer, or with a Chinese or Japanese setting, it seems that there are some compulsory elements which must be included. For variety’s sake, there are four elements, but you MUST use at least one of them. Advanced designers, of course, may use two or more.

To summarize CCC’s post, the four elements (with some example covers) are:

#1: Blossoms

Element 1: BlossomsElement 1: BlossomsElement 1: Blossoms

#2: Fans

Element 2: FansElement 2: FansElement 2: Fans

#3: Dragons

Element 3: DragonsElement 3: DragonsElement 3: Dragons

#4: A Woman’s Neck

Element 4: Woman's NeckElement 4: Woman's Neck

As you can see, these elements are present in books that are written by both Asians/Asian Americans and non-Asians. In other words, even Asian and Asian American writers are not immune to Orientalist tendencies. In those cases, my guess is that such Asian/Asian American authors are “encouraged” (or perhaps even “compelled”) by their publishers (who are almost always American) to create these kinds of Orientalist covers to appeal to American perceptions and stereotypes of China, Japan, and other Asian countries and societies.

Either way, it is indeed sad to see that at least judging by these book covers, mainstream American society sees Asian and Asian American culture in such a one-dimensional and stereotypical way. As one of my colleagues once said to me, “It’s exhausting to be exotic.”


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Orientalism in Mainstream Book Covers" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2010/02/orientalism-mainstream-book-covers/> ().

Short URL: http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/?p=1562