Modern Orientalism is not a brainchild of nineteenth-century
European imperialists and colonialists, but, as Urs App
demonstrates, was born in the eighteenth century after a very long
gestation period defined less by economic or political motives than
by religious ideology.
Based on sources from a dozen languages, many unavailable in
English, The Birth of Orientalism presents a completely
new picture of this protracted genesis, its underlying dynamics,
and the Western discovery of Asian religions from the sixteenth to
the nineteenth century. App documents the immense influence of
Japan and China and describes how the Near Eastern cradle of
civilization moved toward mother India. Moreover, he shows that
some of India's purportedly oldest texts were products of
eighteenth-century European authors.
Though Western engagement with non-Abrahamic Asian religions
reaches back to antiquity and can without exaggeration be called
the largest-scale religiocultural encounter in history, it has so
far received surprisingly little attention-which is why some of its
major features and their role in the birth of modern Orientalism
are described here for the first time. The study of Asian documents
had a profound impact on Europe's intellectual makeup. Suddenly the
Bible had much older competitors from China and India, Sanskrit
threatened to replace Hebrew as the world's oldest language, and
Judeo-Christianity appeared as a local phenomenon on a dramatically
expanded, worldwide canvas of religions and mythologies.
Orientalists were called upon as arbiters in a clash that involved
neither gold and spices nor colonialism and imperialism but,
rather, such fundamental questions as where we come from and who we
are: questions of identity that demanded new answers as biblical
authority dramatically waned.
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