Personal Thoughts on Edward Said’s Orientalism

The author struggles with the identity of her own as a person in terms of culture. Born an American, yet Asian in blood and in education. It seems more fitting for her to pour her thoughts on Edward Said’s Orientalism.

Like this author, he too has his fair share of identity problems. He studied in the West, yet he was Asian, or Arabic. He used much of his personal experiences as the basis of the essay. While it was criticized for not putting much emphasis in other Asian nations (like India) and it being strangely forgiving to French Orientalist writers, it’s safe to say that it can be applied to other countries (in real life or in media). He deals with the concept of the Other, and how the West tries to make a distinction among them and the East (which could help them to take over the world (in some ways)), despite the fact the East also have their way of labeling others. Still, this issue lingers in people’s minds, regardless of where they are from.

The author found this a very personal thing in her part. Growing up seeing Western products come and go and living in a Third-World country (now a Tiger Cub Economy), she sometimes wonders where her nationalistic alliance lies with, nevertheless, she’ll be a Filipino no matter what happens, despite her American birth, and her Chinese blood. Like Said, she too is a product of Orientalism, except she’s West in birth, Asian in blood. This is a theory she finds the most intriguing in terms of personal experiences. One might say, Who am I?

That, some will never know, depending how long the problem lasts in a person’s mind. Regardless, this essay has helped her understand her condition as an Asian-American living in a Third-World, Tiger Cub nation. It makes her understand her stand in life, and her identity as a foreign-born Asian. This author will not be deter in her life, as she explores the world around her. No matter whatever people will say or think, she’ll always be Asian in mind, heart and soul.

 

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Correct Story, Wrong Interpretation: Applying ‘Orientalism’ in the Ballad of Magellan

Wonder if they really learn that pre-Hispanic Filipinos don’t look like cavemen & only wore vests or sleeveless jackets & g-strings (men), and baros and sayas (Filipinas) back then…

Animaniacs featured the story of the first circumnavigation of the world, through the eyes of Ferdinand Magellan, in a form of a ballad. However, near the end of the song, the last segment depicted a bad image of pre-Hispanic Filipinos as stereotypical savages. For this application, the author will use some aspects of Edward Said‘s ‘Orientalism‘. While Said uses his personal life as the main basis for the essay, it is safe to say that it can be also applied to any country (even Asian nations).

As all is concerned, Spain used to rule over the Philippines for 333 years, ending with the Philippine Revolution, Philippine Independence, & the coming of the new enemy: The United States of America. Now prior to the formal colonization of the country in 1565, the Spanish have went through at least 4 to 5 explorations. Magellan started his voyage on August 10, 1519 in Spain. With him are five ships, only one returned after almost 3 years of sailing.

While it is unknown if the animators and writers of the Steven Spielberg-sponsored animated cartoon show had done their research, it’s undeniable that they unintentionally exoticied the Philippines’ pre-Hispanic times very horribly. Tragic, isn’t it? They looked like cavemen in cartoons these days (not counting the Flintstones and their spin-offs). Back then, Filipinos weren’t like this. Men then wore a collarless, sleeveless vest or jacket that reach down to the waist and a cloth-like g-string called the bahag. Women, on other hand, had sleeved jackets called baros and long skirts sayas, accompanied by a waist cloth called a tapis. The color and/ or pattern of the cloth around a man’s forehead (putong) and jacket indicate their status and/ or deed(s), e.g. a red putong states that this man killed someone in war. Also noteworthy is their penchant for accessories and jewelry. They were adorned with necklaces, bracelets, etc. Even the men wore these during the pre-colonial times in the Philippines.

Said mentions about the concept of the Other. East and West are made by the latter to separate one from other, like labels in a can. In this case, the people behind this segment has just done that, despite the fact the Filipinos back then are not savages: they were as highly-civilized, though not as prominent as China, India, Egypt, Greece or Rome in those days. And also very ironic due to the fact that the Philippines had been free from Spain after more than a century, with sudden interruptions from the US and Japan respectively. That could have tarnished the Philippines’ image as a country, and its history in jeopardy.

Now if only they had hired a historian specialized in Philippine History in the first place of how the pre-colonial Filipinos were like or how they look like, it didn’t have so horrible. Worse, however, is how Magellan died. The cartoon claimed he was speared to death; but according to one of the men who participated the Battle of Mactan, Antonio Pigafetta, it is more unfamily friendly than what the Warners have observed: He died in the hands of the country’s first hero against foreign intruders: Datu Lapu-Lapu of Mactan, though it was shown as a bothersome for him since he had a feud with another Chieftain at the time. This is from the excerpt of his account of the circumnavigation of the world on the Battle of Mactan:

“When morning came, forty-nine of us leaped into the water up to our thighs, and walked through water for more than two cross-bow flights before we could reach the shore. The boats could not approach nearer because of certain rocks in the water. The other eleven men remained behind to guard the boats. When we reached land, those men had formed in three divisions to the number of more than one thousand five hundred persons. When they saw us, they charged down upon us with exceeding loud cries, two divisions on our flanks and the other on our front.

When the captain saw that, he formed us into two divisions, and thus did we begin to fight. The musketeers and crossbow-men shot from a distance for about a half-hour, but uselessly; for the shots only passed through the shields which were made of thin wood and the arms [of the bearers]. The captain cried to them, “Cease firing cease firing!” but his order was not at all heeded. When the natives saw that we were shooting our muskets to no purpose, crying out they determined to stand firm, but they redoubled their shouts. When our muskets were discharged, the natives would never stand still, but leaped hither and thither, covering themselves with their shields. They shot so many arrows at us and hurled so many bamboo spears (some of them tipped with iron) at the captain-general, besides pointed stakes hardened with fire, stones, and mud, that we could scarcely defend ourselves.

Seeing that, the captain-general sent some men to burn their houses in order to terrify them. When they saw their houses burning, they were roused to greater fury. Two of our men were killed near the houses, while we burned twenty or thirty houses. So many of them charged down upon us that they shot the captain through the right leg with a poisoned arrow. On that account, he ordered us to retire slowly, but the men took to fight, except six or eight of us who remained with the captain.

The natives shot only at our legs, for the latter were bare; and so many were the spears and stones that they hurled at us, that we could offer no resistance. The mortars in the boats could not aid us as they were too far away.

So we continued to retire for more than a good crossbow flight from the shore always fighting up to our knees in the water. The natives continued to pursue us, and picking up the same spear four or six times, hurled it at us again and again. Recognizing the captain, so many turned upon him that they knocked his helmet off his head twice, but he always stood firmly like a good knight, together with some others. Thus did we fight for more than one hour, refusing to retire farther. An Indian hurled a bamboo spear into the captain’s face, but the latter immediately killed him with his lance, which he left in the Indian’s body. Then, trying to lay hand on sword, he could draw it out but halfway, because he had been wounded in the arm with a bamboo spear. When the natives saw that, they all hurled themselves upon him. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only being larger. That caused the captain to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide. When they wounded him, he turned back many times to see whether we were all in the boats. Thereupon, beholding him dead, we, wounded, retreated, as best we could, to the boats, which were already pulling off.”

Too bad, for the lack of full research that was done. If only they knew better then…

Here is the cartoon of mention: Animaniacs – The Ballad of Magellan

Sources:

Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York City, New York, United States of America: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.
http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/magellan.htm

http://hist1upoufinalproject.blogspot.com/

Thou Shall Not Harm the Royal (Thai) Family: When The King & I meets Edward Said’s Orientalism

Last May 2013, the Resorts World Manila run of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s The King & I ended with great success. What not many play-goers know this is that the play have made fatal errors in portraying King Mongkut (the King in the story) in a bad light, leading to a ban on this play in Siam/ Thailand, even until now. Why, you may ask? That’s because of the lese majeste law in Thailand that no one shouldn’t insult the Royal Thai Family, whether intentional or not and regardless of what method or source of outlet is used. But it also unintentionally committed another foul: it’s an ironic example of Orientalism.

The top row consists of the original play, the 1990's cartoon film, the 1956 live-action film & the 2012-2013 Resorts World Manila run of The King and I. The bottom row has the real King Mongkut & Anna Leonowens. What do they have in common? They're all victims of Orientalism.

The top row consists of the original play, the 1990’s cartoon film, the 1956 live-action film & the 2012-2013 Resorts World Manila run of The King and I.
The bottom row has the real King Mongkut & Anna Leonowens.
What do they have in common? They’re all victims of Orientalism.

For this analysis, the author will use some elements found in Edward Said‘s Orientalism, which paved the background for Post-Colonialism. The background on this essay is that Said is Arabic (Palestinian) but was educated in the United States for his higher education & taught comparative literature at Columbia University until his death in 2003. Said mentioned about Arabs much in the essay due to his personal background but rarely mentioned India (one of the most diverse in culture, but one of most baldy-portrayed & criticized of all nations) & left out East Asia (particularly China and Japan), and Southeast Asia (but it doesn’t mean that anyone can apply it to these other forgotten places even when in need, too). Another fallacy he unintentionally made was that the essay assumes that all harmful political actions are done by the West onto the East, while in reality, all Asians also do this onto each other & also to the West, and it was strangely forgiving to French Orientalist writers. Yet, one point is clear though, the reason why the West made a distinction between the Orient & the Occident is one, they want to control the East, and, ironically, two, the West lacked an identity, a cultural identity. The East has a lot of cultural identity (from the Great Wall of China, to pogodas in Myanmar to the Banaue Rice Terraces of Benguet), deeply rooted in the past, even until today; the West, on the other hand, is too future-oriented, they were too busy competing against each other & building empires, until they’re reduced into social climbers, power hungry mongrels & economic clogs. Not to say that all Westerners are like this, though, but it’s in a historical sense.

The author notes that the problem Thailand has with the play is that at the time the play, or rather, musical was opened, the lese majeste law was already implemented since 1908. According to Dr. Borwornsak Uwanno in his article for Thailand Today called Lese Majeste: A Distinctive Character of Thai Democracy admist the Global Democratic Movement, it mentions about the concept of Deva-rāja (god-king) or Dhamma-rāja (righteous king). The article says that some foreign writers wrote that Thais look at their king as a god-king which is based on the Brahmic concept of deva-raja, despite the fact that most Thais are Buddhists. In the Agganna Sutta, Buddha spoke about that a king is Khattiya or mahāsammata” (“the people’s choice” or one whom the public acclaims as their leader), and also,a “rāja” (one who brings happiness or contentment to others); he went to say that a king attains these qualities through his virtues, not one’s vices. He concludes that ‘the king is best among those who values clans. But who has knowledge and virtue (dhamma) is best among gods and men.’

Now what is lese majeste? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, lese majeste came from the Middle French phrase, which is also derived from the Latin laesa majestas, both meaning injured majesty. It means a crime (as treason) committed or done against a sovereign power, or in this case, royalty.

But the law doesn’t extend to the king alone, it goes out to the rest of the Royal Family. Several travel & tourism (including Thai websites) websites cautions tourists that the monarchy there is still in high reverence (akin to that of any Royal Family in the world), saying that if one commits any insult to the Family (direct or indirect, intentional or unintentional, etc.), they could face imprisonment for a certain number of years with a possible threat of execution. The Thais loved their King so much. Speaking of lese majeste in Thailand, Uwanno also cited other laws in other countries as well, such as Denmark, Norway, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, to name a few. What these all have in common is that a the person of the King/ Queen (or any other member of the (state monarchical country’s name) Royal/Imperial/(or anything that deals with royalty) family is considered sacred, hence one must not question or even accused him/ her/ them of anything whatsoever that is negative. Also, it goes down to culture & politics. Look what happened in the United Kingdom’s history. Sure, they overthrew the Royal Family (which was then the House of Stuart) and replaced it with a Commonwealth at one point of their history, but even now, the Royal British Family (currently the House of Winsdor) is still alive & kicking, still well-loved by their subjects.

Back to the Musical, the problem with it is that it portrayed King Mongkut in a bad, negative light, and made real inaccurate points at its history. The following are taken from the Internet Movie Database’s Goofs & Trivia pages:
The film is riddled with numerous inaccuracies about the biographies of King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn (see trivia), causing the film to be banned and shunned in Thailand/Siam as libelous and slanderous.

In Thailand (previously called Siam) the royal family is held in very high esteem. This film is banned in Thailand due to its real historical inaccuracies and the perceived disrespect to the monarchy. The real Prince Chulalongkorn grew up to be an especially good King Chulalongkorn and led the way for modernization, improved relations with the West, and instituted many important cultural and social reforms in Thailand.

See the points noted. The playwrights have made a terrible mistake that Said would’ve roll his eyes in dismay. Why did they humiliate the Royal Thai Family for the sake of promoting Anna Leonowens as some Mary Sue, and for the sake of entertaining countless people, even until today? The author admits she’s a victim of Orientalism: American by birth, Filipino-Chinese by blood, educated in Philippine schools yet have watched the movie & cartoon versions herself. Looking back, she felt bad for the Royal Thai Family now. The author recommends anyone to do careful research on any historical film before & after watching them. And to all tourists and Thais, please don’t insult the Royal Thai family or any Royal Family at all times, at all costs…

Sources:

* Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York City, New York, United States of America: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

* http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049408/goofs?item=gf1146334

* http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049408/trivia?item=tr0794683
* http://goasia.about.com/od/Customs-and-Traditions/a/Thailand-Etiquette.htm
* http://goseasia.about.com/od/thaipeopleculture/a/lesemajeste.htm

* http://www.horizonmuaythai.com/thai-culture-and-customs5

* http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lèse-majesté
* http://www.thailandtoday.org/monarchy/elibrary/article/200