Ancient Orient of the Roman Empire and its ecclesiastical order after the Council of Chalcedon, 451

The Orient is a term for the East, traditionally comprising anything that belongs to the Eastern world, in relation to Europe. It is the antonym of Occident, the Western World. In English, it is largely a metonym for, and coterminous with, the continent of Asia, loosely classified into the Near East, Middle East and Far East: the geographical and ethno-cultural regions now known as West Asia, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. Originally, the term Orient was used to designate the Near East, and later its meaning evolved and expanded, designating also the Middle East or the Far East.

The term oriental is often used to describe objects from the Orient, however it can be considered an offensive term by some when used to refer to people of East Asian[1][2] and South East Asian descent.[3][4] [5]

It can also refer to the inhabitants of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay, the term oriental refers to the geographic location of the country, east of the Uruguay River.


Administrative Dioceses of the Roman Empire, c. 300, including the original Diocese of the Orient

The term "Orient" derives from the Latin word oriens meaning "east" (lit. "rising" < orior " rise"). The use of the word for "rising" to refer to the east (where the sun rises) has analogs from many languages: compare the terms "Arevelk" in Armenian: Արեւելք (Armenian Arevelk means "East" or "Sunrise"), "Levant" (< French levant "rising"), "Vostok" Russian: Восток (< Russian voskhod Russian: восход "sunrise"), "Anatolia" (< Greek anatole), "mizrahi" in Hebrew ("zriha" meaning sunrise), "sharq" Arabic: شرق‎ (< Arabic yashriq يشرق "rise", shurūq Arabic: شروق‎ "rising"), "shygys" Kazakh: шығыс (< Kazakh shygu Kazakh: шығу "come out"), Turkish: doğu (< Turkish doğmak to be born; to rise), "xavar" Persian: خاور‎ (meaning east), Chinese: (pinyin: dōng, a pictograph of the sun rising behind a tree[6]) and "The Land of the Rising Sun" to refer to Japan. Also, many ancient temples, including pagan temples and the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, were built with their main entrances facing the East. This tradition was carried on in Christian churches. To situate them in such a manner was to "orient" them in the proper direction. When something was facing the correct direction, it was said to be in the proper orientation.[citation needed]

Another explanation of the term stems from Rome during the Roman Empire, specifically the Eastern Roman Empire, or the "Roman Orient", during the Byzantine Empire. Although the original East-West (or Orient-Occident) line was the Italian Peninsula's East Coast, around 600 AD this would shift to the City of Rome. Any area below the City of Rome was considered the Orient, as well as the ethnicities inhabiting the land, such as Dalmatian Italians, (modern Neapolitans along with Sicilians, Libyans, Moroccans, Greeks, etc.), as well as everything East of Southern Italy, hence the Italian name "Italia nord-orientale" (in English Northeast Italy) for Le Tre Venezie (the 3 Venices) located above the Roman latitude line separating it from modern Abruzzo; the beginning of the Orient in the East, while Lazio is its beginning in the West of the Italian Peninsula.[citation needed]

The opposite term "Occident" derives from the Latin word occidens, meaning west (lit. setting < occido fall/set). This term meant the west (where the sun sets) but has fallen into disuse in English, in favor of "Western world".

History of the term

Late Roman Diocese of the Orient, c. 400

Territorialization of the Roman term Orient occurred during the reign of emperor Diocletian (284–305), when the Diocese of the Orient (Latin: Dioecesis Orientis) was formed. Later in the 4th century, the Praetorian prefecture of the Orient (Latin: Praefectura Praetorio Orientis) was also formed, including most of the Eastern Roman Empire, from the Thrace eastwards; its easternmost part was the original Diocese of the Orient, corresponding roughly to the region of Syria.

Over time, the common understanding of "the Orient" has continually shifted eastwards, as European people traveled farther into Asia. It finally reached the Pacific Ocean, in what Westerners came to call "the Far East". These shifts in time and identification sometimes confuse the scope (historical and geographic) of Oriental Studies. Yet there remain contexts where "the Orient" and "Oriental" have kept their older meanings (e.g., "Oriental spices" typically are from the regions extending from the Middle East to sub-continental India to Indo-China). Travelers may again take the Orient Express train from Paris to its terminus in the European part of Istanbul, a route established in the early 20th century.

In European historiography, the meaning of "the Orient" changed in scope several times. Originally, the term referred to Egypt, the Levant, and adjoining areas.[7] as far west as Morocco. During the 1800s, India, and to a lesser extent China, began to displace the Levant as the primary subject of Orientalist research, while the term also appears in mid-century works to describe an appearance or perceived similarity to "Oriental" government or culture, such as in Tolstoy's 1869 novel War and Peace, in which Napoleon, upon seeing the "oriental beauty" of Moscow, calls it "That Asiatic city of the innumerable churches, holy Moscow!",[8] while in 1843 the American historian William Prescott uses the phrase "barbaric pomp, truly Oriental" to describe the court life of Aztec nobility in his history of the conquest of Mexico.[9] As late as 1957 Karl Wittfogel included Rome and the Incan Empire in his study of what he called Oriental Despotism, demonstrating the term still carries a meaning in Western thought that transcends geography. By the mid-20th century, Western scholars generally considered "the Orient" as just East Asia, Southeast Asia, and eastern Central Asia.[7] As recently as the early 20th century, the term "Orient" often continued to be used in ways that included North Africa. Today, the term primarily evokes images of China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Mongolia, and peninsular Southeast Asia.[7] "The Orient" being largely a cultural term, large parts of Asia—Siberia most notably—were excluded from the scholarly notion of "the Orient".[7]

Equally valid terms for the Orient still exist in the English language in such collocations as Oriental studies (now Asian Studies in some countries).

The adjectival term Oriental has been used by the West to mean cultures, peoples, countries, Asian rugs, and goods from the Orient. "Oriental" means generally "eastern". It is a traditional designation (especially when capitalized) for anything belonging to the Orient or "East" (for Asia), and especially of its Eastern culture. It indicated the eastern direction in historical astronomy, often abbreviated "Ori".[10] In contemporary American English, Oriental usually refers to things from the parts of East Asia traditionally occupied by East Asians and most Central Asians and Southeast Asians racially categorized as "Mongoloid". This excludes Jews, Indians, Arabs, and most other South or West Asian peoples. Because of historical discrimination against Chinese, Korean and Japanese, in some parts of the United States, some people consider the term derogatory. For example, Washington state prohibits the word "Oriental" in legislation and government documents, preferring the word "Asian" instead.[11]

In more local uses, "oriental" is also used for eastern parts of countries, for example Morocco's Oriental Region. Oriental may also be used as an synonym of "eastern", especially in Romance languages. Examples include the "oriental" and "occidental" provinces of Mindoro and Negros in the Philippines, and the French département of Pyrénées-Orientales.

Since the 19th century, "orientalist" has been the traditional term for a scholar of Oriental studies; however, the use in English of "Orientalism" to describe academic "Oriental studies" is rare: the Oxford English Dictionary cites only one such usage, by Lord Byron in 1812. Orientalism is more widely used to refer to the works of the many 19th-century artists who specialized in "Oriental" subjects, often drawing on their travels to North Africa and Western Asia. Artists as well as scholars were already described as "Orientalists" in the 19th century. In 1978, Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said published his influential and controversial book, Orientalism; he used the term to describe a pervasive Western tradition, both academic and artistic, of prejudiced outsider interpretations of the Arab and Muslim worlds, shaped by the attitudes of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries.[12]

Current usage

British English

In British English, the term Oriental is sometimes still used to refer to people from East and Southeast Asia (such as those from China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mongolia and Laos).[13]

"Asian" in Great Britain generally refers to people who come from South Asia (in particular Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives), since British Asians make up approximately 6.9% of the population within the United Kingdom.[14] "Orientals" refers exclusively to people of East and Southeast Asian origin, who comprise 0.7% of the UK population as a whole, and 5.3% of the non-European population. Of these, the majority are of Chinese descent.[15] Orient is also a word for the lustre of a fine pearl.[16] Hong Kong, a former British colony, has been called "Pearl of the Orient" along with Shanghai.

American English

Harem Pool by the Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme c. 1876; nude women in harem or bathing settings are a staple of much Orientalist painting

The term Oriental is considered a pejorative and disparaging term when used to describe an East Asian person when following social norms of the United States.[1] John Kuo Wei Tchen, director of the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute at New York University, said the basic criticism of the term began in the U.S. during a cultural shift in the 1970s. He has said: "With the U.S.A. anti-war movement in the '60s and early '70s, many Asian Americans identified the term 'Oriental' with a Western process of racializing Asians as forever opposite 'others'",[17] by making a distinction between "Western" and "Eastern" ancestral origins.

This is particularly relevant when referring to lands and peoples not associated with the historic "Orient": outside of the former Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire and Sasanian Empire (Persia), including the former Diocese of the Orient, as well as others lands sharing cultural legacies with the Oriental Orthodox churches and Oriental Catholic Churches. In contrast, regions of Asia further East, outside of the cultural domination of Abrahamic religions, do not share these same historical associations, giving way for the term "oriental" to have different connotations.

In 2016, President Obama signed New York Congresswoman Grace Meng's legislation H.R. 4238 replacing the word with Asian American in federal law.[18][19]

Australian English

In Australian English, the term Asian generally refers to people of East Asian or Southeast Asian descent, such as those of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, or Filipino background. Persons of Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and most other South Asian descent are referred to by their respective demonym, but without explicit knowledge, those people are indeterminately inferred as "Indian".


The official name of Uruguay is Oriental Republic of Uruguay, the adjective Oriental refers to the geographic location of the country, east of the Uruguay River.

The term Oriental is also used as Uruguay's demonym, usually with a formal or solemn connotation. The word also has a deep historical meaning as a result of its prolonged use in the region, since the 18th century it was used in reference to the inhabitants of the Banda Oriental, the historical name of the territories that now comprise the modern nation of Uruguay.


In German, Orient is usually used synonymously with the area between the Near East and East Asia, including Israel, the Arab world, and Greater Persia.

The term Asiaten (English: Asians) means Asian people in general. Another word for Orient in German is Morgenland (now mainly poetic), which literally translates as "morning land". The antonym "Abendland" (rarely: "Okzident") is also mainly poetic, and refers to (Western) Europe.

See also