On China, and Filipino Orientalism
In “Orientalism,” arguably one of the greatest works of the 20th century, the late Edward Said warned about the embedded prejudices that poison not only mass media’s coverage, but also the academic canons.
Drawing on the works of French philosopher Michel Foucault, he meticulously analyzed how imperial exigencies (power) constituted the foundation of modern social sciences (knowledge), especially the study of the postcolonial, non-Western world.
He called this embedded bias as “Orientalism,” the essentialist reduction of the non-European races into monolithic masses bereft of individuality, dynamism and existential reflexivity. In contrast, the West, the “Occident,” is represented as the civilization of dynamic individuals, who are the ultimate torchbearers of history.
Said lamented how, in contemporary public discourse, “one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself,” but instead depend on Western or Western-trained “experts” to decipher their essence and attitudes.
Notice how delighted some Filipinos are when a Western commentator or random tourist says something nice or makes a flattering video about our own country, as if we never knew about our best traits?
Palestinian in origin, Said was concerned, though never exclusively, with the “Orientalization” of his fellow Arab peoples. He analyzed how Arabs “are thought of as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose undeserved wealth is an affront to real civilization,” when in fact the “Arab world” is a diverse collection of many cultures, landscapes and historical legacies, from the picturesque deserts of Morocco to the lush and fertile landscapes of Lebanon and Syria.
Analyzing news coverage of the Arab world, he observed how in “newsreels or news-photos, the Arab is always shown in large numbers,” where there is no trace of “individuality, no personal characteristics or experiences.” Have you noticed, for instance, how our Moro brothers and sisters are portrayed in contemporary discourse?
The implied message in this one-dimensional, refracted representation of Arab peoples is the “fear that the Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world.” The upshot is that we end up “disregarding, essentializing, denuding the humanity of another culture, people, or geographical region.”
Perhaps the most devastating implication of Said’s work is that we often rely on Orientalist depictions to understand not only ourselves, but also our fellow non-Western societies. In short, we tend to “Self-Orientalize” and Orientalize each other. And here lies our current predicament vis-à-vis China.
While we should, as patriotic Filipinos, rally the nation to defend our legitimate and lawful rights in the West Philippine Sea, there is absolutely no excuse for the essentialist categorization of a whole group of people into a single monolith.
Our problems in the West Philippine Sea are primarily with certain policies of the Chinese regime in Beijing, and not with the Chinese people in the People’s Republic of China or Republic of China (Taiwan), not with folks of Chinese descent across Southeast Asia and beyond, and, above all, not with our fellow Filipinos of Chinese descent as a whole.
As a diverse group of colleagues, from Leloy Claudio to Caroline Hau, has pointed out, what is a “Filipino,” anyway? It’s not a race, especially given the diversity of our ethnic, cultural backgrounds. This includes yours truly, who was born and raised in the Philippines, with an Ilocano, Spanish and Middle Eastern background.
What makes all of us “Filipinos” is our loyalty to our country; our collective memories and traditions; our shared pains, hopes and aspirations; and our dedication to the betterment of our national life. More than just an “imagined community,” we are an objective nation with a geopolitical reality.
By fanning the flames of prejudice and by Orientalizing people of Chinese descent as one monolithic mass distinct from supposedly “true Filipinos,” we do a disservice to our country, our history and our national heroes, including Jose Rizal, who was partly of Chinese descent.
Moreover, by succumbing to, if not propagating, gross anti-China sentiments, we run the risk of ignoring China as a
millennia-old geographical reality that can’t be wished away, not to mention the opportunity for us to benefit enormously from having a constructive and mutually beneficial relationship with Asia’s most powerful nation. Yes to Filipino patriotism, no to anti-China Orientalism.
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