Academic Spotlight
Faculty Research, Performance and Exhibitions

Examining 18th Century Views of Non-Western Ethnicity


Story posted August 28, 2007

In the latter half of the 18th century, as printing and book illustration became less expensive and education more widespread, a diverse European book market emerged. Public libraries were established, reference tomes such as encyclopedias became commonplace, and families began their own libraries.

It was an age of exploration in Europe and in the panoply of travel literature, dramatic fiction, popular journals and scientific medical works that emerged, cultural beliefs and stereotypes were born. Scholars often divide this literature into two categories: works dealing with European culture — which were generally represented as the "center" of learning — and the blanket "otherness" of non-Western cultures.


It may not be all that simple, argues Associate Professor of German Birgit Tautz. In her recent book, Reading and Seeing Ethnic Differences in the Enlightenment, From China to Africa, (Palgrave Macmillan 2007) Tautz investigates the contested ways in which 18th century German philosophers, scientists, poets, and dramatists perceived and represented China and Africa from 1680 to 1830.

"I was trying to debunk the myth that every non-European culture in the 18th century is represented according to one scheme," notes Tautz. "I argue that there are differences in nuance and images associated with different regions."

She studied German-language conceptions of the Orient, particularly China, and found that texts and imagery emphasized contemplation, philosophical space, and a kind of ordered reason that could bridge Western and non-Western differences. By contrast, she says, portrayals of Africa were dominated by imagery of the body different, associations that "connected the blackness of skin with exoticism and danger and a sexually seductive culture."

Painting Detail
Detail of an oil painting by 'Orientaliste' artist Jacques Vigoreux-Duplessis (French, ca. 1700-1730). Courtesy of

Tautz believes many of these perceived cultural nuances persist in contemporary German literature. "As I have prepared for courses I have found it interesting to see that many of these contradictions still exist," she says. "In fact, it was through this preparation that I became interested in seeing the moment of their historical origins. So many ideas from contemporary German literature and culture can be traced back to the 18th century."

Interestingly, she notes, the origins of much of this thinking is not purely German. "Germany did not exist as a national power in the 18th century," she says. "While there were German aristocratic and merchant families that traveled, the nation as a whole did not sponsor major exploration or colonization trips. German text often claims to be translations from the French and English and many of the images in travel literature are actually mediated through other cultures."

Tautz says that she hopes the book will prompt scholars to "think in more nuanced ways about the historical origin of the categories of scholarship that we see today, considering the ways they are shaped by where they have come from."

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