Creating the Orient

I’ve been teaching a class for over two months now titled “Creating the Orient.” The idea behind the class is to look at historical examples of Westerners creating their own depictions of East Asian societies and cultures from Marco Polo’s admiration for Genghis Khan and dutiful listing of religious affiliations of each community he encountered to Sixteen Candles’ rather questionable incarnation of Long Duk Dong. It’s been a lot of fun and, as with any good upper division class, we’ve been learning together along the way.

I chose the title carefully; I wanted something that would grab potential students but that also clearly evoked the central idea of the course, that this concept of an “orient” was something created rather than discovered, that it was a historical process. It’s been challenging and informative and funny, not least because we’ve been able to watch clips of Western takes on Asian culture: Long Duk Dong performing what passed for comedy in a mid-1980s America firmly occupied with the creeping realization that Japanese corporations would own every living American by 1993; Chuck Heston intoning (as only Chuck could intone) “take my hand” as he reached down to take a Chinese girl with him to safety away from the Boxer Rebellion and its travails for the foreigners of 1963’s 55 Days at Peking; Marlon Brando in an eerie and troubling performance as Sakini, Japanese comic relief in 1956’s The Teahouse of the August Moon. We have of course been busy reading, too: Marco Polo’s The Travels, directly, and selections of various Western glimpses of Asia contained in Jonathan Spence’s The Chan’s Great Continent and Yoko Kawaguchi’s Butterfly’s Sisters from the missives of ambitious priests and merchants of the sixteenth century to the novels and opera of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that celebrated and reinforced contrasting stereotypes of the alluring, threatening, loyal and distrustful Asian woman.

I think a lot about that word: “orient.” So, I was a little disappointed when I saw some coverage for a promising new video game entitled “Oriental Empires.” The name itself is disappointingly generic given the rich material it supposedly covers over three thousand years. The concept is extremely exciting: a strategy game based on conflicts in imperial China up until the early Qing period. I will have to wait and see how that periodization works, as I would think modelling units and factions over such a long period of Chinese history would be a phenomenal challenge. Meanwhile, I’m left with this title and I wonder if I’ll be bringing this game up in the next iteration of the course.

What is an “oriental” empire? Is the title intended to evoke inscrutable emperors, faceless troops and beautiful mountain scenes? Or does it just mean “East Asian”, but with more flair, more of a stylistic flourish in tone? The issue here is not that the title of the game is racist,[ref]It’s not, at least not in any overt way that could immediately reflect poorly on the game’s creators.[/ref] but that it plays into centuries of Western oversimplification of Asian societies and an inclination towards presentation of generic monolithic tendencies. Obviously as both an historian of China and a grown man who spends too much time playing video games, I am excited about the game while also anticipating disappointment. To be fair, Iceberg Interactive cannot win with me. My expectations will be enormous.

That’s the issue, though; the game is most likely going to reserve its depth for the gameplay and tactics with the historical treatment left at a surface level. That isn’t the end of the world by any means, and there is a wealth of discussion to be had about the extent to which games set in historical settings should do so. Perhaps my main complaint comes back to that title, and the connections it immediately raises within my mind to an established western habit of reveling in an ill-defined and limiting exoticism informed broadly by fleeting investigations of Chinese history and culture. I’m happy to wait and see what comes of the project, as there are clearly some very talented people involved. I do wonder, though, what the conversation about this game may be like in a classroom two years from now.