Frank S. Hong | Orientalism and Asian Diseases

By Frank S. Hong*


“Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the programs are as follows:


If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. [72 percent];

If Program B is adopted, there is 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and 2/3 probability that no people will be saved. [28 percent]


Which of the two programs would you favor?”


This was a hypothetical question posed to human subjects (students at Stanford University and the University of British Columbia) by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and his co-author Amos Tversky in one of their seminal studies from 1981 that laid the foundations for Behavioral Economics. [1] The researchers asked subjects to act as if they were making public health decisions with life or death consequences. That they chose “an Asian disease” for their hypothetical, twenty years before SARs and forty years before Coronavirus, attests to the continued relevance of Edward Said’s Orientalism.


Orientalism was first published in 1978, and its detailed analysis of a vast body of Orientalist literature is truly overwhelming. Fortunately, Said made it clear how we should read the book as a critical text. “Orientalism is a partisan book, not a theoretical machine,” Said declared. (349) He was not building a system. He unmasked one. He did not mean to affirm any identity or essence. (330-333; 338) In fact, he was blunt in criticizing the Arab region for failing to make progress towards democracy. He did not aim to lead any intellectual or social movement in the Arab world. Rather, he encouraged readers in any region or field to produce their own work with inspirations from his. (349)


Said did not intend the Orientalists as his principal audience. (340) “I had in mind casting some light on their practices so as to make other humanists aware of one field’s particular procedures and genealogy.” (340) As a self-declared partisan doing a critical project, Said should not have been indifferent to the end result of his enterprise. Yet, he explicitly depicted his approach as merely “making other humanists aware of” Orientalism’s procedures and genealogy. Was Said modest or tactical here?


I venture that he was both modest and tactical. He was modest because he acknowledged his intellectual debts to Foucault, Gramsci and Nietzsche. (7; 23; 25) He must have known that to the extent his book delivered a major punch at Orientalism, it represented but one battle in a larger war. As he repeatedly reminded his readers, Orientalism was fundamentally a political enterprise. (12; 203; 204) But as a critical project, its goal was not to land a fatal blow to the Orientalists, but rather to make other humanists aware of the genealogy and procedures underlying Orientalism. The dinosaurs were not annihilated by another species. They disappeared when their ecosystem had changed, and that is precisely what Said managed to do: change the intellectual climate in a wide range of disciplines.


We should not be surprised by Said’s tactical acumen. After all, he was the one who had documented how Orientalism “has been a sort of consensus: certain things, certain types of statements, certain type of work have seemed for the Orientalist correct.” (202; Italics mine.) It was simply natural to make up an Asian disease. It was simply natural to name a virus after its location of origin so long as the origins were not American or British. Citations of this classic study keep growing, and the seeming naturalness continues to harden as a result. Similarly, reporters of leading American papers sense that their headlines will generate more clicks if the virus is named after an Asian locale. But such naturalness would not fool Nietzsche, as seen in this passage that Said quotes (203):


 A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms – in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are.


Said backed away from Nietzsche’s nihilism, (203) but his version of speaking truth to power was thoroughly influenced by Nietzsche. For Said, an American or European studying the Orient, “he comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second. And to be a European or American in such a situation is by no means an inert fact. It meant and means being aware, however dimly, that one belongs to a power with definite interests in the Orient, and more important, that one belongs to a part of the earth with a definite history of involvement in the Orient almost since the time of Homer.” (11)


Said approached texts as being “worldly and circumstantial.” (23) In his painstakingly detailed tracing of the formation of Orientalism discourse, he parted company with Foucault in his methodology of textual analysis. For Foucault, according to Said, the individual text or author did not count much. In contrast, Said tried to reveal “the dialectic between the individual text or writer and the complex collective formation to which his work is a contribution.” (24) It is certainly very challenging to read the detailed textual analysis in Orientalism without sufficient background knowledge of the historical periods or genres involved.


Said used a cluster of concepts to present the Orientalist in action. When an Orientalist poet or scholar writes about the Orientals, or makes the Orientals speak, “by virtue of the fact it is written or said, the Orientalist is always outside of the Oriental.” (21) Said emphasized this “exteriority” as both “an existential and a moral fact.” (21) I would add that this exteriority is the defining perspective from which the intellectual products flow. The product, according to Said, is “representation.” It is obvious that representation is never designed to be objectively truthful. As Said put it, “Indeed, my real argument is that Orientalism … has less to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our’ world.” (12; 336) One part of “our” world is the consumer of Orientalism. The Orient is “corrected,” “penalized,” or “Orientalized”—“a process that forces the uninitiated Western reader to accept Orientalist codifications as the true Orient.” (67) The Orientalists never had any interest in a dialogue with the Orientals. (33; 336) The Orientals are “problems to be analyzed, solved or confined.” (207)


Alas, this attitude persists. As the Coronavirus continues to ravage China, George Russel Mead of the Wall Street Journal jumped at the opportunity with an article entitled “China is the real sick man of Asia.” [5] He could hardly hide his glee in seeing China’s trouble. His article included neither new facts nor real insights, not to mention any compassion for the people suffering from the virus.


Said would not have been surprised by Mead’s obnoxious manner. For Said, the nexus of knowledge and power creating “the Oriental” was not “an exclusive academic matter.” (27) The creating process “obliterated” the Oriental as a human being for the purpose of fulfilling the sense of superiority. When physical domination is no longer possible, moral superiority becomes all the more essential. “The Oriental existed for the West, or so it seemed to countless Orientalists, whose attitude to what they worked on was either paternalistic or candidly ‘condescending’.” (204)


What is the answer to the Orientalism and its latest transmutations? Fighting with every Mead is entirely unnecessary. Nor is “Occidentalism” the right answer. Said reminded us that “no former Oriental will be comforted by the thought that having been an Oriental himself he is likely— too likely— to study new “Orientals”—or “Occidentals” —of his own making. If the knowledge of Orientalism has any meaning, it is in being a reminder of the seductive degradation of knowledge, of any knowledge, anywhere, at any time.” (328)



Frank S. Hong, LLM Candidate 2020, Columbia University






[1] Amos Tversky; Daniel Kahneman, The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choices, Science, New Series, Vol. 211, No. 4481. (Jan. 30, 1981), pp. 453-458.


[2] The experimental findings indicate that human subjects react to these two programs differently despite that the two programs are actually the same. Framing of choices have impacts on decision makings. This study and a line of research initiated by Tversky & Kahneman challenged the expected utility model that had been the mainstream in economics.


[3] a couple of samples of mainstream media reporting:

Christian Caryl, What Iowa Disaster and Wuhan Virus Have in Common;

Dan Werb, To Understand the Wuhan Coronavirus, Look to the Epidemic Triangle, New York Times, January 30, 2020.

[4] Edward W. Said, Orientalism, (Vintage Books, New York) (25th Anniversary Edition, 2003.)


[5] George Russel Mead, China is the real sick man of Asia,

In contrast, U. S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had victims in his heart. “Well, first of all, every American’s heart has to go out to the victims of the coronavirus,” but his mind was on the business competition as he continued, “So, I don’t want to talk about a victory lap over a very unfortunate, very malignant disease. But the fact is, it does give businesses yet another thing to consider when they go through their review of their supply chain.” He added that the virus would “help accelerate the return of jobs” to North America. His comments were rebuked by the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal. Cf. Wuhan Wilbur Ross, the Wall Street Journal, appeared in print edition of February 1, 2020.