East Asian Savage - Untouched Orientalism and Imperial Anthropology

How to Cite

Lee, A. J.-S. (2021). East Asian Savage - Untouched Orientalism and Imperial Anthropology: Introduction to the Special Issue - Anthropology and East Asia. Transnational Asia, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.25615/NQS6-BY12


This special issue of Transnational Asia focuses on East Asia, an under explored region within the annals of anthropological theory. One major factor, most obviously, was that no Western Imperialist Power ever colonized the entire continent of Asia. Intermittent encounters between the putative West (chiefly Western Europe and the U.S.) and East Asia can be detected as early as the 13th century, with Jesuit missionaries in China before the arrival of “modern” nation states (Fang 2020).[i] But formal and continued interest from the emerging discipline of anthropology did not occur until after World War II. Significantly, this development concurred with U.S. Cold War ascendency in the region. As a result, unlike parts of the world squarely colonized by the West, such as Melanesia, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent, East Asia represented a relatively “untouched” area within the genealogy of anthropological thought. This presupposed untouched quality—what I term “untouched Orientalism”—exposes specific challenges to the discipline of anthropology. Famously, Edward Said described Orientalism as “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’” (1979: 2). This definition relies on an act of objectifying abstraction, “one that is evidenced in [Orientalism’s] confusing amalgam of imperial vagueness [e.g., a field called the Orient] and precise detail [e.g., Oriental things and people]” (ibid). Unspoken here is a parallel boundary making practice. It divides the seemingly unadulterated categories of a marked, studied Orient from an unmarked, studying Occident.

In this Introduction, I coin untouched Orientalism to highlight a dynamic less explicit within Said’s famous formulation. Notwithstanding the richness and diversity of anthropologies of East Asia, analyses unmindful of this underlying bias, I argue, risk replicating an earlier imperial logic that ideologically and discursively isolates a purported non-Western other from a Western self. What emerges is an imagined West (and its knowledge producing agents) favorably dissociated from “local” debates in the region concerning legacies of formal colonial rule.[ii] For example, whereas territorial and wartime disputes between the Empire of Japan and its former colonies in Asia continue unabated, mainstream discussion about the U.S.’ uninterrupted occupation of militarized zones in Seoul (the U.S. Army garrison at Yongsan) and Okinawa (Kadena Air Base) are marginalized from mainstream conversation.[iii] Untouched Orientalism facilitates the reproduction of anthropology’s earliest analytic bias towards people and places deemed non-Western. This bias manifests as a kind of preferred “savage slot” that surreptitiously depoliticizes the West’s asymmetrical relationship with East Asia.[iv] It does so by maintaining relative silence about the causes and conditions of the West’s hegemonic presence in the region.[v]

In referencing a savage slot, I draw on Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s instructive proposal for a more ethically congruent anthropology. For Trouillot, anthropology (like all academic disciplines) inherits a field of significance (a pre-established compartment within a wider symbolic field he calls the savage slot), which preceded the discipline’s formalization (2003: 9).[vi] I follow Trouillot’s admonition that anthropology can only find new directions using a critical and reflexive lens that reappraises the savage slot “upon which anthropological discourse is premised” (2003: 9). In the context of anthropological studies of East Asia, this savage slot (and the untouched Orientalism it relies on) encompasses extant legacies of Western encroachment since the late 19th century and continuing through the mid-20th century. Significantly, conceptual pillars like kinship formed alongside the discipline’s earlier penchant for veiled ethnocentrism via cultural insularity. Late 20th century critiques by social scientists called for a more reflexive, less Eurocentric analytic “turn.” Nonetheless, contemporary anthropology’s depoliticizing savage slot remains frequently intact when discussing East Asia.

I address this problematic by examining the relationship between imperialism and early histories of anthropological theory, chiefly those concerning kinship. Of course, there is the temporal fact of imperialism: the formal decolonization of colonial subjects in Africa, the Americas, Asia-Pacific, and Australia, chiefly from British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and U.S. American powers. In the context of East Asia, however, the primary emblem of imperial brutality, conventionally, is the nearly eight-decade (1868-1947) rule of the Empire of Japan over Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria (and, occasionally, parts of the Russian and German Empires). Animus towards this emblem is palpable in former colonies like South Korea, where legitimate protests over colonial and wartime atrocities often deteriorate into caricatures of Japan as metonymic evil. It is consequential how rarely broad-based indignation over Japan’s unrepentant stance translates into related critiques of extant Western imperial influence in East Asia, for instance U.S. hegemony in South Korea.[vii] Consequently, my delineation of imperialism is not limited to the historical, political, and economic control of a subordinate territory by a dominant one. Rather, I follow postcolonial scholarship, arguing that the end of juridical colonial rule did not necessarily mean an end to asymmetrical relations and entitlements between a historic imperial core and its peripheries.

In his self-described “sequel” to Orientalism (1979), Edward Said forwards that “[i]mperialism did not end, did not suddenly become ‘past,’ once decolonization had set in motion the dismantling of the classical empires” (1994: 278). Instead, a legacy of connections still binds former empires with their colonial territories. Likewise, the enduring prominence of the U.S.—politically, militarily, economically, and culturally—after World War II suggests a new set of power relations structuring the world (ibid).[viii] Following suit, I highlight how imperialism’s formal territorial occupation and governance may change in its perceptible form but not necessarily its political function. To demonstrate this, I define certain analytic practices rooted in anthropology’s nascent relationship with formal Western colonialism. I proceed by locating contemporary manifestations of these practices—what we might call imperial anthropology—within Anglophone East Asian social science. In so doing, I move beyond the obvious markers of U.S. military, political, and economic authority in the region. Instead, we are reminded of the intimate ties between anthropological theory and “Eurocentered colonialism” (Quijano 2007: 168). I bring up kinship studies to show how early Western anthropology’s preoccupation with “natural,” bounded bases of kinship (i.e., genetic ties within secluded groups) outside the West reflected and reinforced such imperial logics. Finally, by channeling critical movements within the discipline, such as feminist and queer theories, I hope to reveal the potential rewards that may flow from an uncovering of the processes and stakes behind anthropological theory.


[i] Defining “the West” is difficult but important. Scholars have noted the term’s multivalent and sometimes empty signification. For example, Stuart Hall’s description of “one of the most hallowed social constructs in the Western world, the very idea of ‘the West,’” is useful (Gupta, James, Andersen, Galabuzi, and Maaka 2018: 85). For Hall, the concept of the West operates as a naturalized regime of knowledge through which other forms of knowledge and subsequent representations of reality (usually of the other) are mediated (ibid). Robert Young goes further. Criticizing Said himself as “unselfconsciously within the European cultural heritage,” Young describes postcolonial theories’ own tendency to reify the idea of a West distinct from a dissenting Oriental other (2004: 180). Young writes: “What Said’s analysis neglects, therefore, is the extent to which [O]rientalism did not just misrepresent the Orient, but also articulated an internal dislocation within Western culture, a culture which consistently fantasizes itself as constituting some kind of integral totality, at the same time as endlessly deploring its own impending dissolution” (ibid). Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit provide a case in point, reminding us that “non-Westerners” have been just as likely to employ the West (and its binaristic logics of self and other) to produce relational meaning. For example, to Asians around World War II, the West figured as a high mark of modernity, but also, consequently, a (colonizing) force for Asia to overcome (Buruma and Margalit 2005: 3-5). Suppressed within the barrier of non-English translation, however, Asian-language sources have indicated productive (although not entirely unproblematic) lines of investigation: for example, around the geographic demarcation of the West and its imperial others throughout history (Lee 2012) or Western academia’s studies of ancient Korean history (Yo 2010). The diversity of these perspectives suggests one shared quality: any critical analysis of the concept of the West must interrogate the word’s commitment to stereotypical absolutes, such as unshared identities based on the myth of coherent, unified rationality (Herzfeld 1992: 2).

[ii] Influential publications like The Journal of Asian Studies provide a good example. In its August 2020 issue, authors Leigh K. Jenco and Jonathan Chappell persuasively present new modes for envisioning “continuity between empires and nation states.” Unfortunately, their reevaluation does not venture beyond their assumed area of expertise, China. Instead, they reconceptualize imperial forms only in relation to the Qing dynasty’s territorial expansion, sidelining the presence of any parallel Western power in China at the time.

[iii] For more on the relationship between U.S. militarism and imperialism, see Magdoff 1970 and Bello 2007. For scholarship on anthropology’s ties to militarism, refer to Gusterson 2007 and Price 2016.

[iv] Following the instructive feedback of an anonymous reviewer, some scholars may find this article’s mix of Orientalist discourses (in their considerable ambivalence, complexity, and contradiction) and those of “savages” somewhat odd. However, as this reviewer convincingly notes, invoking Rousseau is adequate to signal the considerable complexity and confusion on how to make sense of these seemingly incompatible discourses. Likewise (and, again, noted by the reviewer), I agree that this article may elide a simple, but significant, analytic divide: how nineteenth century European thinkers tended to make sharp divisions between literate civilizations (most obviously, China) and non-literate ones (what this article might refer to as those of “savages”). Finally, although beyond the scope of this article, I agree with the reviewer that an approach based on comparative geography and history would better emphasize how no continent was fully colonized (and not just East Asia). Furthermore, following this careful observation, Asia as a unit crystallized only in the 1950s, this being largely the work of John K. Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer, and their Harvard underlings.

[v] A vast body of interdisciplinary literature debates different forms and functions of this hegemonic presence within fields like Asian studies (Blum 2010; Sum 2010); cultural studies (Chakravartty, Paula and Yuezhi Zhao 2008; Ben-Ari and Otmazgin 2012); education (Lo 2011; You 2020); political science (Beeson 2007); and international relations (Posen 2006). Mindful of the sovereignty and agency of East Asia and its diverse people, my intention is less to overstate the hegemonic influence of the West (and its myriad expressions) in the region than to bring attention to Western imperialism’s persistent omission from more orthodox anthropological scholarship. Correspondingly, as a minoritized agent of the Imperial U.S., I recognize my own fraught positionality vis-à-vis my “foreign” objects of study (see Lee 2018).

[vi] Worth noting is the complex history behind anthropology and “the savage.” To be sure, early use of the term (specifically in English) adhered to the connotation of people less advanced on an imagined scale of human development. Yet, as Claude Lévi-Strauss made famous in his seminal work, The Savage Mind (1962), the original title, Pensée Sauvage, was meant as a pun. Unhappy with the title of the book—he would have preferred “Pansies for Thought”—Levi-Strauss noted the double meaning of the word, both as “wild thought” or “wild pansies” (Savage Minds 2020). 

[vii] Perhaps the most famous symbol of this criticism in the West is the ongoing controversy between Japan and South Korea over the installation of “comfort women” statues in select Western cities. Less momentous, though no less contentious, are other “controversies” that regularly emerge, often around popular culture dynamics. A recent example occurred on September 5, 2020 when Filipina American TikTok personality Bella Poarch posted a video of herself dancing with a tattoo depicting Japan’s rising sun flag. Triggered by its violent symbolism of Japanese imperialism, many South Koreans voiced their outrage through stereotypically “racist” remarks towards their Southeast Asian neighbor. These comments were directed not only against Poarch (who later apologized) but also the Philippines as a “[p]oor country [of] non-educated short people” [sic] (The Korea Herald/Asia News Network 2020). Many online Filipina/os promptly reacted with anti-South Korea messages, adopting Facebook and Twitter hashtag like #CancelKorea and #CancelToxicKoreans (ibid). South Korean pop icon ambassadors like the Bulletproof Boy Scouts, aka BTS (Bangtan Sonyeondan), have not been immune to similar intraregional accusations. In a show of symbolic filial devotion to the West, BTS lead singer Kim Nam-joon (aka RM) vowed to “remember the history of pain that [the U.S. and South Korea] shared together and the sacrifice of countless men and women” (Dong 2020). Kim’s English words to U.S.-based nonprofit organization, the Korea Society on October 7, 2020 spurred online outrage among many Chinese claiming “humiliation” at the perceived national slight. So impactful was the incident that the Chinese foreign ministry felt compelled to reassert that relations between China and South Korea were still “harmonious” (Zhang 2020). Several imperial oversights and ironies are reflected in these everyday examples. First, these everyday controversies over mid-20th century imperial and wartime events typically do not mention Western Powers, chiefly the U.S. For example, media reports around these issues almost always overlook the U.S.’ arbitrary “North”/“South” partitioning of the Korean peninsula (as a “zone for the American occupation,” following the characterization by former U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Rusk) (Lee 37). This factor alone set the stage for the Korean War. Likewise, although regularly heralded as a national savior, U.S. Army General Douglas reportedly considered ending the Korean War by dropping nuclear weapons in China (Weihua 2017). Even without such a devastating outcome, as Bruce Cumings notes, U.S. bombing of the Korean peninsula had already been more destructive and caused more damage than that of Germany and Japan during World War II (Democracy Now 2018). Outside major events like the 2002 Yangju highway incident where a U.S. armored vehicle struck and killed two South Korean schoolgirls, mainstream criticism over the legacy of U.S. war crimes in South Korea (such as the 1950 No Gun Ri massacre, in which countless South Korean refugees were killed) is also less likely to be seen. In a similar vein, decades of hidden violence between the U.S. military and South Korean “camptown” (kijichon) sex workers is seldom referenced outside the most ardent activist-scholar circles (Moon 1997; Yuh 2004). Finally, how these unreconciled national traumas have been projected to “subimperial” (Lee 2010) impulses towards economically subordinate countries like Vietnam and the Philippines remains an unexpressed dynamic of globalizing South Korea.

[viii] Partha Chatterjee supports this contention, offering an even more sobering assessment of the current postcolonial condition: “Faced with the palpable, and often horrendous, failures of the postcolonial state, many have turned to imagining the possibility of a more benign empire where liberal colonized elites might share power with an enlightened imperial authority” (2017: 95).

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