Frameworks of Orientalism in the Pandemic Culture

© Copyright 2021 Kathryn Joy Sevilla, Ryerson University.

The Culture of the Pandemic

The coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, is reportedly born last year in 2020 in Wuhan, China, then spread worldwide. The virus robbed many people’s financial income, businesses, education, and lives. However, fingers point to people of Asian ethnicity to blame for these tragedies. Evidence of this blame is composed in viral videos and images of elderly men and women (both young and old) receiving physical and sexual assault on social media platforms via Instagram and Twitter. Moreover, the coronavirus (COVID-19) culture has become especially violent against Asian people in America–if not worldwide. As Simeon Man notes in the abstract of his “Anti-Asian Violence and US Imperialism,” the result of the frequent anti-Asian hate crimes are due to President Donald Trump’s racist remark calling the virus the ‘Chinese virus’ (Man, 24). Since Trump’s rhetoric, the aspect of the ‘glare’ points toward Asian ethnicities, including people of Chinese, Korean, Laotian, Filipino, Thai, and Vietnamese backgrounds.

Fig. 1. Keo, Mike. “#IAmNotAVirus.” 26 May 2020. Photograph. Mike Keo, [Accessed 20 April 2021].
Furthermore, as the anti-Asian hate violence becomes more frequent, an urgency to spread awareness has become crucial. In turn, social media developers make protest posters (see Fig. 1) and web pages that oddly implement the art style of Orientalism as a tool to share awareness. From reviewing artists and old propaganda, the elements of Orientalism and spectatorship–the ‘glare’–are tools to use as scare tactics such as ‘othering’ and present false portrayals of the Middle East and Asia. Considering the topics of spectatorship and Orientalism in understanding the culture of the pandemic, the posters seem to use these tools in their favour to effect change on how the world views Asian people during the pandemic. Ultimately, the question that arises is: how does the combination of Orientalism and the ‘glare’ in the form of protest posters comment on the culture of the pandemic revolving anti-Asian hate violence.

What is Orientalism?

Painting of green woman
Fig. 2. A picture of Vladimir Tretchikoff’s 1952 painting, “Chinese Girl.” Picture from: Rohrer, Finlo. “Gaze of the Green Lady.” BBC News Magazine. 2006.

Visual representations of other cultures by other cultures can be eschewed and inaccurate. Some visuals such as paintings, propaganda, statues, and film productions may be, in fact, harmful and spread a different light about what the culture is and who the people are. For instance, Orientalism, discovered through the eighteenth and nineteenth century, is an approach that applies both in art and literature and carries the purpose of German philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel’s concept of ‘othering’ (Sturken and Cartwright, 113). The term ‘othering’ is a concept of distinguishing the personal identity of self from an ‘other’ creating a “‘we/us versus they’ dichotomy of the social divide” (Banerjee, S103). In other words, ‘othering’ is separating the self from what the socio-politically identified ‘other’. Correspondingly, cultural theorist Edward Said describes Orientalism as “a European style in which fantasies of ‘the Orient’ [including South Asia, East Asian, and the Middle East] are given a special place in European Western literature and art” (Sturken and Cartwright, 113). Said’s description of Orientalism is evident that ‘the Orient’ is merely an exposition to feed European and Westerners’ entertainment and imagination of inaccurately explored cultures. Also, Said emphasizes that “‘The Orient’ is not a place or culture in itself, but rather a European colonial-era construction” (113). Recalling the Orient as a European colonial-era construction suggests that the cultural representation of the Orient, that being, South Asia, East Asia, and the Middle East are valid only if it is coming from the eyes of the European imagination.

For instance, Vladimir Tretchikoff’s 1952 painting “Chinese Girl” (see fig. 2) is an example of orientalism in Victorian artwork. The woman’s skin is a dark green colour, and besides the bright yellow designs of her dress, her dress remains quite bland and is the same colour as the background. With minimal detailing of the painting, the colour of her skin is very much emphasized. According to Sturken and Cartwright, Tretchikoff’s painting “reflects an Orientalist stereotyping of Asians that can be traced back to the Swiss naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who described Asians as “fiscus” (dark) but later modified the term to “luridus” (connoting yellow, lurid, and ghastly) (Sturken and Cartwright 114). From a modern perspective, the decision to keep the woman’s dress and background the same colour is to purposely emphasize the woman’s dark green face. Also, the dark green colour of the woman’s skin characterizes similar to the stereotypical alien featured in film productions. With this intention, to paint the woman dark green suggests an abnormal and crude characteristic for Asian representation, hence alienating or, in fact, ‘othering’ the Asian culture. Another aspect of the painting is the woman’s glare facing away from the painter and to the side. Assuming this painting is a portrait of an actual woman, her looking away suggests submission while the painter/audience takes the privilege to freely spectate the object of the portrait.

Orientalism In Pandemic History

In the same fashion, the power of orientalism is not just found in eighteenth and nineteenth-century art and literature. As previously mentioned, anti-Asian hate violence became more frequent since Trump’s rhetoric of calling the virus the ‘Chinese virus.’ Not only does he use this term during press conferences, but he also uses it on social media platforms–Twitter being the most frequent. Trump’s actions of isolating the Asian community by calling the coronavirus the ‘Chinese virus’ falls similar to Charles Dicken’s rhetoric in his Our Mutual Friend (Hu 2020). In “Orientalism, Redux” by Jane Hu, she uncovers Charles Dicken’s racist rhetoric comparing the character Mrs. Boffin’s actions, ‘beating,’ ‘clapping,’ and ‘bobbing’ to a “demented member of some Mandarin’s family” (Hu, 461). Although Hu discloses that Dickens intends to compare Mrs. Boffin to popularized Chinese mandarin figurines, associating the adjective “demented”–referring to a person’s psychological disturbance rather than physical– with Mandarin distorts the representation of Chinese Mandarin people. Hu’s argument especially trances back to the Victorian British imagination of Asian people. In like manner, both Dickens and Trump’s actions isolate the Asian community by affiliating the culture with negative terms such as ‘demented’ and ‘virus,’ thus presenting a stigma that the Asian community is something to avoid and hate.

Equally important, “The ‘Othering’ in Pandemics: Prejudice and Orientalism in COVID-19” by Debanjan Banerjee, Roy Kallivayalil, and T. Sathyanarayana Rao share insights and research on the concepts of ‘othering’ specifically in pandemics throughout history. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are guidelines to naming an infectious disease. The most highlighted one being, “it needs to have generic terms, irrespective of the origin and people affected” (Banerjee et al., S104). Trump’s rhetoric is a clear violation of WHO’s guidelines and is an example of “epidemic orientalism.” The concept of epidemic orientalism is not visible to the COVID-19 pandemic alone but to many other infectious diseases and viruses. This includes one of the world’s stigmatized diseases, immunodeficiency syndrome–Aids. During the 1980s, people called this sexually transmitted disease the “Gay Plague” (S104). Uniquely enough, there is a virus named after a single person called “Typhoid Mary” (Banerjee et al., S103).

To put it differently, Simeon Man quotes the co-organizer of Stop AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Hate, Russell Jeung, on the matters of the recent anti-Asian hate violence. He quotes, “We have seen time and again how dangerous it is when leaders scapegoat for political gain and use inflammatory rhetoric to stir up both interpersonal violence and racist policies” (Russell Jeung in Man, 25). Since Trump’s constant rhetoric, the term ‘Chinese virus’ has become a weaponized justification for the recent anti-Asian violence. In essence, Trump’s presidential power and orientalist rhetoric not only categorize the Asian community as the ‘other’ but reopen a social stigma.

Fighting Fire with Fire

Poster of asian woman
Fig. 3. Doan, Dennis. “Stand Up Against AAPI Hate Crimes.” [Illustration] Zzeal Media LLC, [Accessed 20 April 2021].
In the current event of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is previously mentioned that epidemic orientalism has become the root cause of anti-Asian hate violence. The results of epidemic orientalism during the pandemic created a need to make protesting as effective as possible. The image by Dennis Doan (see Fig. 3) is an illustration for the campaign #HateIsAVirus. The details of the image display a drawing of an ambiguous Asian woman with a Chinese-style tattoo and is wearing a rice patty hat held with an American flag in the image. The foreground of the image displays Japanese-stylized clouds and cherry blossom flowers. In addition to the art style of choice, the striking element is the woman’s glare and her mask written, “HATE IS A VIRUS.”

For a closer analysis, adding stereotypical Asian-associated items such as the dragon tattoo, cherry blossoms, and rice patty hat suggest that Doan intends to ensure that the audience knows that the poster is about the Asian community in the only way ‘Westerners’ would understand. The addition of the American flag, however, holds a more political aspect of the image. Since most anti-Asian hate crimes are reportedly in the United States of America, it would make sense to use the American flag instead of any other flag. However, the use of the American flag to hold the rice patty hat may symbolize something much deeper. Having the American flag tied to the rice patty hat may imply a sense of unity or, in fact,  requesting to tie a bond between the Asian community and the rest of America in hopes to end the anti-Asian hate violence. Nonetheless, unlike Vladimir Tretchikoff’s painting “Chinese Girl,” the woman in Doan’s illustration seems to be looking directly at the audience. Although COVID-19 made Asian people the spectacle of the pandemic, the woman’s glare suggests a turning point of attention towards the audience instead of the Asian demographic.

Aside from adding Asian-associated items, another protest image is Mike Keo’s #IAmNotAVirus poster captioned “Let’s attack the virus, not our neighbors” (see Fig. 1). The photograph exhibits an Asian woman with her mask lowered, exposing cuts and bruises on her face, and is also starring directly at the camera. For a closer analysis, the purpose of the mask is for protection to prevent the spreading of the coronavirus. However, the image can suggest that the acts of orientalism through anti-Asian hate violence are being “covered up” and justified by the severity of the coronavirus and that it is far less important. Moreover, the white background can imply that these hate crimes can occur anywhere. Similar to Doan’s, the woman stares back at the audience. However, revealing her cuts and bruises can express a request for humanity, making the audience empathize and stand with the Asian community.

Conclusion: What Being an Asian Person Looks Like During the Pandemic

Being an Asian person during the COVID-19 pandemic is frightening. Although there are not many cases concerning anti-Asian hate violence in Canada, there is never a time where you cannot be overly prepared. From first-hand experience, my sister and I went to a restaurant near our house that we would go to since elementary school. A man (not sure if he was an employee or a customer) swung open the doors and said, “Hey Chinawoman! I’m watching you” while gesturing his two fingers to his eyes and then to us. To conclude, being an Asian person during the pandemic looks like endless people staring at you while you live your mundane life. Being an Asian person working in retail looks like not having commission because people do not want to receive help from a ‘Kung flu’ carrier. Being an Asian child looks like teaching them how to call 9-11 when mom and/or dad are hurt. Being an Asian person looks like ignoring other people pulling their eyes back while saying gibberish they think sounds Chinese. Being an Asian person looks like not knowing whether you will reach home safely at the end of the day.

Images in this online exhibition are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

Work Cited

Banerjee, Debanjan, Roy Kallivayalil, and T. Sathanarayana Rao. “The ‘Othering’ in Pandemics: Prejudice and Orientalism in COVID-19.” Indian Journal of Social Psychiatry: Official Publication of Indian Association for Social Psychiatry, vol. 36, no. 5, 2020, pp. 102-106.

Hu, Jane. “Orientalism, Redux.” Victorian Studies, vol. 62, no. 3, 2020, pp. 460-473.

Keo, Mike. #IAmNotAVirus.” Not in Our Town, Accessed 20 April 2021.

Man, Simeon. “Anti-Asian Violence and US Imperialism.” Race & Class, vol. 62, no. 2, 2020, pp. 24-33.

Sturken, Marita and Liza Cartwright. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Third edition, Oxford University Press, 2018. pp. 103-133