Updated: 2018-11-04.
oriental vs asian vs eastern differences betweenWelcome to another instance of our “Versus” or “What’s the Difference?” series, where we explore commonly-confused and inappropriately-used words, terms, phrases, concepts, and ideas. The topic today is: Oriental vs Asian vs Eastern.

Let’s jump straight into it and begin by looking at the meanings of these terms:

Asian

Asian means a person, place, or thing which comes from, or is associated with, the Asian continent and region.

Asian is the standard, accepted term these days, while some of its synonyms (other names to call Asians) have become archaic and/or offensive, but we’ll go into detail on these in just a bit.

If you’re interested, check out the different countries in our Asian travel guides.

Oriental: What Does Oriental Mean?

Oriental is an older term that has been used to describe people, places, and things from Asia.

Oriental comes from the Latin word oriens meaning “east, literally “rising,” coming from the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. The opposite word would be Occident, which comes from the Latin word occidens, meaning “west,” literally “setting.”

The use of Oriental in English, as well as in many other languages, is discouraged as it is considered to be offensive.

Why is the term Oriental offensive?

Oriental is offensive mainly because it has a Eurocentric origin – Asians are east of European countries. In the past, the Orient was Asia, for the most part. Some people still accept more the term Oriental for Asian things, but it’s probably better to skip it altogether – Asian is better and it’s even a syllable shorter!

Frank Wu, a law professor at Howard University, told the NY Times, “The word ‘Oriental’ is not inherently negative. It’s associated with a time period when Asians had a subordinate status. ‘Oriental’ is like the word ‘negro.’ It conjures up an era. For many Asian Americans, it’s not just this term; it’s about much more. It’s about your legitimacy to be here.”

Don’t use Oriental to refer to Asians!

Eastern

Eastern is another term used to refer to people of Asian origin, similar to Oriental. And just like with Oriental, it can be taken offensively for its Eurocentric roots – Asia is only east in relation to Europe. While it is not as bad as Oriental, choose Asian instead.

Bonus Terms

Here’re a few bonus terms to add confusion (and relevant knowledge!) to the mix:

Asiatic

Asiatic refers to Asian people, places, or things. It is essentially synonymous with the term Asian, but has an outdated, slightly-negative connotation these days. Use Asian, instead.

ASEAN

ASEAN is an acronym which stands for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN is a regional intergovernmental organization made up of ten Southeast Asian countries and helps promote intergovernmental and cultural cooperation amongst themselves.

I added ASEAN here as its spelling as a single word looks and sounds like “Asian.” ASEAN is pronounced AH-see-ahn. All ASEAN countries are Asian countries, but not all Asian countries are ASEAN countries.

Yellow

Yellow has been used for quite some time as a derogatory reference to Asian people, specifically East Asians. While it has almost been banished from the English language, it still manages to survive.

Why is yellow offensive to refer to Asian people?

Yellow is an offensive word for Asians because it’s a label that has been rejected by most Asians as hurtful. If that’s not enough, it is also not accurate; as the world’s largest continent, Asia has almost all human skin tones within its boundaries – from the light shades in eastern Russia to the dark ones in Papua New Guinea. And, unlike white for Europeans and black for Africans, it has not been embraced by Asians positively.

Which Term is Best to Refer to Asian Peoples?

The best word to use to describe Asian people is simply Asian. Asian is purely grouping by the continent of Asia, but without the politically-incorrect and/or hurtful historical background as Oriental or Eastern (or yellow!). However, when you can, it would be even better to use their national demonyms (e.g., Vietnamese, Indonesian, Japanese).

Well, what did you think? I hoped this article was able to help you as much as researching for writing it has helped me. If you have anything to ask or mention about this article, I’d love to hear it in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

For more like this, check out these articles:

Ethnicity vs Race | Great Britain vs UK | Arab vs Persian | Embassy vs Consulate | Hispanic vs Latino | Saint Martin vs Sint Maarten | Tempeh vs Tofu

7 COMMENTS

  1. Asia (the word from which Asian is derived) was the name given to the area east of the Mediterranean by the Greeks over 2000 years ago. It is every bit as if not substantially more eurocentric than Oriental, its the word used by the Greeks, Romans and most of the western world for over 2000 years of history and most of that was spent referring to areas of what in the modern world is considered the middle east.

    This level of historical and anthropological whitewashing is absolutely disgusting.

    The fact that this is all readily explained on the Wikipedia page is appallingly ignorant.

  2. The countries of Asia (aka Orient, Eastern)
    Afghanistan, Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Cyprus, Djibouti, East Timor, Eastern Russia, Egypt, Georgia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Macau, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Mongolia, Morocco, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Northern Cyprus, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Palestinian territories, Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Siberia, Singapore, Somalia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Thailand, the Gaza Strip, The Philippines, Timor-Leste, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Western Sahara, Yemen

  3. The science based, non-biased, objective definition of “Oriental” is in reference to the living organisms and geographical places east of the Himalayan Mountains including the associated islands. This a far more accurate term in relation to people than using Asian, as Asian includes Turks, Jews and Arabs but doesn’t include Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines. I can’t understand what is offensive about the word “oriental” and haven’t seen or heard anyone give a believable reason why it is offensive, the reasons I’ve come accross are usually vague and rely on conjecture. I certainly do not load any baggage on the word and to me it looks like the people who deem it offensive are loading their own baggage on the word when it wasn’t implied or intended by the user of the word.
    My take on it is that academics and activists, who seem all to ready to use their position in higher education to rewrite history and redefine words in an attempt to force the subjective personal views on society are to blame. There isn’t much you can really do with an advanced degree in Ethnic Studies but to write books and give lectures that demonize words. It is a basic rule in the activist playbook, which was written during the early civil rights movement for equality for black people, that control of racials slurs must be controlled. Activists following this playbook are often reflexive in following the rule, and if there isn’t a word to deem offensive, activists will make one up. W. E. B. Dubois wrote about certain activist behavior many years ago, noting that some activist use what they are doing for selfish reason of personal advancement and recognition rather than attempting to help society at large in a humble and giving fashion. My theory is that activists decided to flex their muscles by loading the word “oriental” with baggage, demonizing it and deeming it offensive then using their campaign against the word as publicity in their quest for equality…. But did it with little thought to the accuracy of the word and if the word “asian” had been used, people would now be calling themselves “Oriental” and saying that “Asian” is offensive.
    Of course, Academics are quick to respond and now Japan and Indonesia are now considered Asian by National Geographic and Wikipedia, whose definitions in relation are called uncertain by Wikipedia itself when I have no trouble distinguishing continuous land masses and Islands. Look at the map, Japan is obviously jn the Pacific Ocean and not in Asia.
    I find this degradation of language important because I am a Logical Positivist, and I think that society’s problems are best solved by logic and it is necessary to have clear language in order to make sound propositions that reach valid conclusions. Trying to use the term “asian” in critical thinking to refer to someone living in the orient will often not yield a valid conclusion.
    I can understand the reasons that black people needed to object to the demeaning and disgusting terms racist used, I still use the jazz slang “man” when greeting a person: “Thank you, man!” just pops out without any thought. Unfortunately, it may be to late to rehabilitate the word “oriental” now that politicians are using their fight against the word to gain support from Mongoloid people… Opps! It is OK to say that? Is it possible to be offensive without intent?

  4. I tend to find the term Asian confusing. In the US, people generally mean East Asian whereas in the UK they generally mean South Asian. The term Asian is too broad.

  5. Wait – “oriental” is bad because it means “eastern,” so one should use “asian,” which means “eastern”?

    Somebody start a GoFundMe page to buy djaunter.com a dictionary!

    Meanwhile Prof. Wu has it right – “It conjures up an era.” There’s a strong 20th century tradition in English: periodic updating of the terms for offended groups, to provide a kind of sensitivity index for others.

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