Written for Steampunk Magazine's blog, released here as in conjunction with Beyond Victoriana's own addressing of Victorientalism (far more comprehensive this this post; treat this essay as a 101-level article as you will).
ETA: I'm getting a lot of comments on cultural appropriation here. This blog isn't really the space I use to discuss cultural appropriation, although it does play into steampunk as well. I have more general conversations on it at my main blog, Intersectionality Dreaming, and have specific posts on the topic. I'd prefer it if ya'll took that conversation that side. Thanks.
There is a fairly recent term that has sprung in the annals of steampunk: Victorientalism. It is used to refer to steampunk that is inspired by the Orient, the vague, large region that was strange and new to Western explorers back in the day when there was no Internet and travelling took many months of dangerous journeying.
It's a pretty-sounding term, often used by well-meaning white people who don't have any clue just how racist the term is.
I want to nip this in the bud before it takes any more traction and people start using it for Asian steampunk by Asians, because Victorientalism, created by Occidentals, does not truly describe Asian-inspired steampunk, much less steampunk participation by Asians.
Breaking Down Victorientalism
To understand why Victorientalism is inaccurate as a label for Asian steampunk, first we must investigate what the roots of the terms are. It is the mixture of two words: Victorian and Orientalism.
Victorian as an adjective, describes things related to the reign of Queen Victoria. It is often used to refer to the entire time period of her reign, too.
Orientalism was the study of "The Orient". The term "Orient" referred initially to the Middle-East, and gradually spread out to encompass all of Asia. Orientalism was the study of the Orient, by Europeans. "The Orient", Edward Said explains to us, "is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe's greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other."
However, while the British Empire did extend very far, its reign was not absolute, nor did it encompass all of Asia. 19th century Asia had its own aesthetic, however pillaged and plundered by the Europeans it was. There were other European powers in play besides the British.
Orientalism as a study was deeply flawed, being based on ideas that Europeans had about the East. Orientalism as a fashion is not only flawed, but deeply racist, as it depended on Europe's position of power to appropriate without complaint from the actual inhabitants of "the East". Orientalism as an idea is really about what Europe thinks about the East, which really means, it's all about Europe, not about Asia.
Orientalism, Racism, Story Cont'd
In the Gatehouse Gazette's description of Victorientalism, there is an assertion that "we can safely recreate the Orient as it was described and depicted by nineteenth century authors and artists who might never have actually seen it."
Anyone who has ever engaged in examining the hubris of their own privilege will be able to see, straight off, the trainwreck that this quote leads to.
To begin with, we must assert the reality of this statement: the Orient has already been re-shaped by the very real colonialist politics of history. The effects of colonization have been devastating: Western economies benefitted from the colonies, and continues to do so even after withdrawing from their shores; the imposition of European culture on the East has caused cultural evolutions and revolutions as some countries struggle to re-shape their identities, in ways that are fraught; the Asian identity has been devalued, relegated to being objects of curiousity and exoticism, instead of being respected for being what it is.
Due to the power invested in Westerners today, borne from the history of colonization, there is no way to safely recreate the Orient, without yet creating more assumptions of stereotypes, without imposition of these stereotypes on actual people. This practice has precedent in the term "The Orient" alone: once a simple term to describe "the East", it has over time become loaded with immediate association to the exotic, the opposite, the Other.
Today, Westerners continue to consume cultural artifacts from other cultures, many of whom unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge, that cultures are not meant for decoration, nor do they exist for the entertainment of the current hegemony, much like Europeans from the 19th century buying porcelain and silk.
To many, steampunk is associated with Victorian Britain. There are some who assert that steampunk stems from Victorian Britain - and end the argument there, leaving behind the implication that steampunk is *only* based in Victorian Britain.
Exactly why would anybody want to limit steampunk, which is, after all, yet another avenue to exercise the imagination? If a person is referring to their own form of steampunk, of course, one would want to have limits for what one will do. However, it is not only obnoxious, but arrogant to assert that this must be the case for all participants.
After all, life did not end with Britain in the 19th century. Asian and African peoples lived their own lives in their own continents, minding their own business the best they would while dealing with the colonizers. Their lives are as valid as those of 19th century Europeans. They, too, deserve to be recognized; their descendants, too, deserve to the chance to assert this history of theirs which is so often ignored in history books.
Victorientalism, by its very name, centers around a very specific experience, a very specific history, a very specific idea. That idea is the imposition of a Victorian Orientalist's vision of what Asia should look like. And we all know what a Victorian Orientalist would be in the first place.
Laying Victorientalism to Rest
The Orient was always meant to provide a foil to the Occident. These two terms, go together, like East and West.
However, few use the term Occident anymore (the few who do use the term unironically have questionable agendas). We use the term Orient because it has specific ideals attached to it that allows us to continue Other-ing the East. It may not be as loaded as the N-word, but for the Asian community, the stereotypes that the term reinforces are exoticising, and the results are the same: the exclusion of Asian people from being counted as default human beings.
In steampunk, many participants claim that they want to claim all that was good of the age, while leaving out the bad. This is rather disingenuous, since many exclusionary attitudes and behaviours today that people are not conscious of stem from that time period. However, we must give participants benefit of doubt, and I will do so through the following suggestion.
The term "Orient", being exclusionary to actual people of colour, should be resigned. And with it, the term Orientalism, which leaves the term Victorientalism toothless. One might give a concession to the Victorientalists, and allow the term to mean "what Victorians think Asian materials look like". But this is a dangerous game - the term Oriental was so pervasive, not only the colonizers used it, but over time, the colonized took on the term in the auto-exoticism process. The same can all too easily happen with "Victorientalist", as privilege systems are still very much the same and favour the descendants of the colonizers.
There is nothing to redeem in these terms, when there are perfectly good terms available - why call someone an Oriental when they are Asian? Or one can be more specific and go right down to country of origin, or ethnicity. Why use a term so fraught with a history of Other-ing, or rendering real peoples invisible and not-quite-human?
To insist on using the term is to maintain the status quo that continues to marginalize some peoples to the benefit of others.
VictOrientalism continues the racist tradition of Orientalism that has historically marginalized those recognized as Easterners. It maintains the East-West dichotomous construct that Others cultures.
As steampunk grows, so will the variety of people who wish to participate. Steampunk would be all the poorer if it were limited to an Eurocentric focus (and poorer still if we must insist solely on Victorian England). With the benefit of hindsight, we have the opportunity to address the injustices of the past and promote a diverse environment wherein marginalized groups can express themselves.
The world is more than what a single group thinks it to be. In confrontation with injustice, honesty can be found. In honest communication between groups and individuals, differences are discovered. In the chaos filled with differences, understanding is achieved. With understanding, creativity is unfettered.