Fetishizing the Orient

Writing as someone who himself wrote an “Oriental Adventures” type book (The Golden Scroll of Justice, which is based on ancient Chinese folklore, mythology, and history, as well as modern Wuxia movies), I find it somewhat personally irksome when I read arguments like these two:

Do We Still Need “Oriental Adventures”?

How Dungeons & Dragons Appropriated the Orient

I realize that these articles aren’t the most recent things (2016 and 2018, respectively), but I came across them recently and thought it was worth exploring their premises.

Both articles (the more recent quotes and leans on the earlier one) make a great deal over the back cover text:

…The mysterious and exotic Orient, land of spices and warlords, has at last opened her gates to the West.

The chief argument is thus:

Although Gary Gygax envisioned a campaign setting that brought a multicultural dimension to Dungeons & Dragons, the reality is that by lumping together Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Philippine, and “Southeast Asian” lore he and co-authors David “Zeb” Cook and Francois Marcela-Froideval actually developed a campaign setting that reinforced western culture’s already racist understanding of the “Orient.”

I’m going to ignore the implication that Western culture’s understanding of non-Western cultures is somehow inherently racist (mainly because I think it’s bullshit). I do want to focus on the notion that:

…it is clear that Oriental Adventures revels in what cultural theorist Edward Said refers to as orientalism—a way of reducing the complexity of eastern culture to a set of problematically racist and sexist stereotypes.

And…

A more generous reading would suggest that a racist and sexist culture of American, Canadian, and British gamers simply wanted to develop a finer sense of appreciation for the another more “exotic” culture.

Yes, the “more generous” reading is that Anglo culture is just racist, period (the “skeptical” reading was that it was deliberately so). So, while a more generous reading of that article would lean one to believe it was just a gratuitous racist hit-piece designed to stoke resentment against people of European descent, I’m actually going to address the question at hand.

What that so-called analysis does is to ignore the obvious fact that D&D as a whole treats Medieval European culture in exactly the same way. That is, the sort of pseudo-Feudal, generic Classical/Medieval culture that is implicit in the 1E books is no less exoticized or fetishized than “the orient” was in Oriental Adventures.

To quote L.P. Hartley,

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Let’s start with the obvious. The original Oriental Adventures book, upon which these criticisms are chiefly based, was not based on “the Orient” in general. It did not lump “together Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Philippine, and “Southeast Asian” lore.” It was almost entirely based on medieval Japan. That’s why there are ninjas and samurai and almost all the monsters come out of Japanese mythology. There might have been a couple of passing references to other east Asian cultures (especially in the Kara-Tur setting it sketches out), but the mechanics contained in the book are almost entirely Japanese. And that’s what most people bought expansion books for back in the 80’s; new classes and spells and monsters.

In fact, that’s one reason I based my own book on Chinese history, folklore, and mythology. Calling it “oriental” and focusing only on Japan seemed wrong to me.

But be that as it may, Asian culture from between 1,000 BCE and 1,500 CE is no more exotic (and no less fetishized) to modern readers than European culture from that same period. Is there a mystique around ninjas in western culture, with their near-supernatural abilities and cunning? Are samurai held up as paragons of both brutality and nobility, with unswerving codes of conduct? Absolutely! We see these things throughout Western culture in television shows and novels from the era like Shōgun, a zillion ninja films (and “how to be a ninja” books from Stephen K. Hayes and Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi), and kaiju movies (“reptilian gargantua” is one of the monsters in the book) have become staples in western culture, too.

And, needless to say, the mystique and exoticization around those cultural elements diverges significantly from reality, even if they have some basis in fact. Except, you know, Godzilla. Maybe Mothra.

But you know what? That is absolutely no different from the mystique around knights in shining armor. Figures from a thousand years ago, built up into a collage of chivalry and warriorship that has very little to do with the reality outside of fictional sagas and ballads; Arthur, Robin Hood, William Tell, Galahad, Rolland, and many more. The ancient wizard, source of wisdom and possessed of hidden magical power, is a trope that goes back into the hoary mists of pre-history, but the one known in the D&D world is firmly in the mold of Merlin, Simon Magus, and Prospero. Hell, the Druids were exoticized by the Romans as early as the 1st century BCE when Julius Caesar wrote his history of the conquest of Gaul.

You want to say that D&D exoticizes and fetishizes Asian culture? It does the exact same thing to European culture. 

Tell me this isn’t exoticising and fetishizing medieval European culture

This is what humans do! We take stories from other people and cultures, and we reintegrate them into our own. That’s not cultural appropriation or some other bullshit – its using something that seems awesome and cool and adapting it in a familiar surrounding.

And that’s exactly what D&D (in this case, AD&D) does. It takes all the tropes of literature, folklore, history, film, and television, and synthesizes them into a standardized form. Not to mention fantasy literature of the early-mid 20th century that in and of itself represents a re-synthesis of these earlier themes, all worked into that form. That form being made up of rules and game mechanics, and presented in such a way as to be comprehensible to the people who are consuming it.

“Dumbing something down” so that a modern audience can comprehend it without a PhD isn’t a bad thing. It’s the road to further understanding! Whether that be medieval Europe or medieval Japan, such syntheses are by their very nature going to be simplifications, distortions, and downright inventions. But that’s not a failure of D&D, it’s a feature. By doing so, D&D opens up the horizons of people who might know a particular subject – whether that subject be ancient druids or martial arts – and might, just might, inspire them to gain a better and fuller understanding.

(A)D&D doesn’t do anything to Oriental cultures that it doesn’t do to Occidental cultures. Or African cultures. Or Mesoamerican cultures. Or completely alien, made-up cultures. Its mission is not to faithfully transmit other cultures in a way that is academically and politically correct. It’s mission is to mine every culture on the planet – including Western culture – to produce a game that is approachable, enjoyable, and maybe, just maybe, inspires its players to obtain further knowledge. In that respect, (A)D&D is an equal opportunity exploiter, blind to race or religion or any other identitarian label you might want to come up with. It’s all grist for the mill.

There’s nothing wrong when D&D does it to medieval Europe, and there’s nothing wrong when D&D does it to medieval Japan. Or China. Or Africa. Or Arabia. Or anywhere.

To be honest, it seems that the authors’ only real gripe is that the instrument that performs that mission – the Dungeons & Dragons game – was created by old white men. I doubt they’d blink an eye of the original Oriental Adventures book was written by a Japanese author instead of European authors. In fact, there’s a word that describes treating people differently because of their race. If only I could remember it…

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

8 thoughts on “Fetishizing the Orient

  1. Something else that needs to be taken into account is that when OA was written the authors didn’t have access to the Internet, 100’s of cable channels, and 24 hour news cycle. There was still some mystery to foreign cultures…actually, scratch that, there still is or pinheads wouldn’t take the time to criticize a 30 year on book with rules for playing Make-Believe.

  2. As when the US teenager wore a cheongsam to her prom, most of this outrage comes from privileged white Americans. In the case of the prom dress, the Chinese people who were interviewed had no problem with “cultural appropriation.” I’ll play characters who are from fantasy Japan, or Celts, or Greeks. Or orcs! These idiots should mind their own business.

  3. Very good post, Mr. Bloch-I thought the same thing about applying the same “D&D logic”, for lack of a better term, to non-European cultures. In fact, I’d take it a step further and try and imagine how such cultures would interact with the demihuman and humanoid races. It’s an interesting thought experiment to consider how the peoples of the Celestial Imperium, Hepmonaland or the western Baklunish Basin interact with their dwarven, elven and orc neighbours.

    Many of the commenters on the 2016 article also pointed out the author’s sloppiness and logic leaps. You have to wonder if he even read Oriental Adventures given his claim that it centred around Occidental characters raiding the Orient to plunder it…even though the book’s actual classes include the likes of samurai, ninja and yakuza. How many of those characters would even come from a Western background? (I also had a look at this guy’s other articles-their writing is almost stereotypically academic and painful to read, and he comes across as insufferably pretentious.)

    That said, I’d be interested in your (Mr. Bloch’s) take on this guy’s article:
    https://pocgamer.com/2018/01/15/celebrating-subjugation-the-maztican-tragedy/

    Not only is his writing so much clearer and more straightforward, he lays out his specific problems with the development of FR’s Maztica setting. Everything from inactive native gods to a lack of magic and monsters among the Mazticans until the Amnites arrived, not to mention how the subjugations of the Mazticans is presented.

    If nothing else, I find him a lot more credible than the author of the 2016 article.

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