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Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture

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by Jane Naomi Iwamura

Oxford University Press

Saffron-robed monks and long-haired gurus have become familiar characters on the American popular culture scene. This book examines the contemporary fascination with Eastern spirituality and provides a cultural history of the representation of Asian religions in American mass media. Initial engagements with Asian spiritual heritages were mediated by monks, gurus, bhikkhus, sages, sifus, healers, and masters from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and religious traditions. Virtual Orientalism shows the evolution of these interactions, from direct engagements with specific individuals, to mediated relations with a conventionalized icon. Visually and psychically compelling, the Oriental Monk becomes for Americans a “figure of translation” - a convenient symbol for alternative spiritualities and modes of being. Through the figure of the solitary Monk, who generously and purposefully shares his wisdom with the West, Asian religiosity is made manageable — psychologically, socially, and politically — for popular culture consumption. On an historical level, the books argues that American mass awareness of Asian religions coincides with the advent of visually-oriented media (magazines, television, and film) and examines how technological transformations ushered in a new form of Orientalism — virtual Orientalism — prevalent since the late 1950s. Although popular engagement with Asian religions in the U.S. has increased, the fact that much of this has taken virtual form makes stereotypical constructions of “the spiritual East” obdurate and especially difficult to challenge. Representational moments in Virtual Orientalism’s development that are examined include: D.T. Suzuki and the 1950s Zen Boom; the Maharishi Mahesh and his celebrity followers in the 1960s and; Kwai Chang Caine in the popular 1970 television series, Kung Fu.