top of page

Is The Term Oriental Rug Offensive To Asians People?

Updated: Feb 16

We have all heard the term oriental rug as an oriental area rug made from natural materials, durable construction with unique and intricate patterns gracing American living rooms and dining rooms, but what is the deal with oriental when referring to people? What is the term Oriental, and when is it appropriate, derogatory, or disrespectful to people from Asia? Should we refer to oriental rugs as Asian rugs or Asian carpets instead? Well, read on, dear friends, read on......

“Orient” comes from the Latin Oriens or Orientalis, meaning the East. You have probably heard of the "Orient Express", a train route that ran from Paris to Istanbul or the "Orient." Inversely, the term Occidentalis or Occidental means west.

These terms were first used during the Roman Empire under the rule of Emperor Diocletian (284–305) when the Diocese of the Orient was formed.  Terms were used to divide the Roman Empire into the East, Occidental, and West Orientalis; it was never intended to refer to a specific race of people People.

This was created as an organizational term for the governance of the Roman Empire at one time. Parts of Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Egypt, Lybia, and Ukraine were all part of the Orient, and their people were then oriental. In short, Referring to people of Asian descent as Oriental is not an accurate use of the word. 

Old roman empire map
Divide between the Occidentalis and Orientalis in the Roman empire

Over time, the geographic location of "the Orient" gradually shifted eastwards, and the term Oriental stuck, while the term Occidental meaning of the East, not so much. Oriental continually shifted east until It finally reached the Pacific Ocean, in what Westerners came to call "the Far East." Go far enough east, and you hit the shore of America; perhaps we all live in the Orient and are all oriental? Eventually, the classic Roman area of Orientalis became known as the Levant, and Oriental moved eastward. Today, we think of Orientalis or orientals as a central Asian area.

Commonly referenced as countries of China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mongolia, and Laos. While excluding classic countries in the Orient such as Iran, Armenian, Turkey, Egypt, and Greece

Is the term Oriental derogatory or offensive?

First, It's not descriptive of people; it's a vague geographic term, and even then, it’s not very accurate or precise. The classic Orient is a vast and subjective geographical area, and its people, White, Black, Brown, Asian, and islanders, encompass many religions: Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hindu, Buddhist, Agnostic, and Atheist.

We don't refer to Europeans or their descendants as Occidentals for the same reason the term is too vague and unspecific; it's fallen out of favor since it's not specific to race, location or to describe accurately the diverse cultures that make Occidental or Oriental.

Referring to Asian Americans as oriental isn't accurate, but is calling them Oriental an insult? Some people may be offended. I asked a friend of Japanese descent, and he was indifferent to being called Asian or Oriental and followed up by saying I'm American.

For me, I don't use the term to describe people or even the places they come from; it's too vague and inaccurate, and the term just doesn't fit people. While the term has a long history of use, it's outdated. I still use the term when talking about rugs; why?

Oriental Rugs

The term Occidental Rugs was used briefly in the rug trade, but since the bulk of rug weaving happens in the classic area of the Oriens, the term stuck. Their unique patterns became popular in home decor, and Oriental area rugs became popular in American homes because of their durable construction and intricate designs. Consumers soon realized that Oriental rugs were good-wearing, and they became popular by the 1930s; the classic American living room and dining room had an oriental rug.

Today, the term Oriental rugs has become a blanket term for hand-woven rugs or modern oriental rugs made in the rug weaving belt with natural materials of wool, cotton, and silk. Morrocan rugs are made in N. Africa and are technically occidental rugs, but we call them oriental rugs; why? The modern rug world Oriental area rug transcends geography, ethnicity, religion, gender, and politics; it's become its own thing. Today, the Oriental rug is a way to categorize a large group of hand-woven rugs made in a vast area from Morroco to China, and nothing more. The term does not reference people who weave rugs; it's a floor-covering category, meaning a hand-woven rug; it's a thing.

old rug book
Vintage rug book Oriental & Occidental rugs
What about Persian rugs?

In 1935, Persia changed its name to Iran. From a technical standpoint, a Persian rug is an Iranian rug made before 1935.

However, people still use the term Persian for newer Iranian rugs. Iran's dominance in rug weaving and history as the top rug-weaving export country for centuries is well noted. Because of this, some classify Perian or Iranian rugs as separate from oriental rugs.

The thing to remember is that all Persian rugs are oriental rugs, but not all oriental rugs are Persian rugs. To be a Persian rug, it must be woven in modern-day Iran.

Are Kilim Rugs Oriental Rugs?

Kilim rugs are a type of oriental rug woven in a weft or slit tapestry weave; Turkey is well known for their Turkish rugs made in Kilim weave. Due to their weave structure being less durable than pile orientals, these rugs are better in lower traffic environments and fit bedroom décor or under a coffee table. Chairs sliding across a kilim, such as under a dining room table, can quickly damage a kilim. The perfect rug for a dining room is a thick dense rug.

old map of the orient
17th century map of the Orient

What’s Not an Oriental Rug?

Our "new" modern interpretation of the Oriental rug is a type of rug construction made on a warped loom with hand-tied knots. What isn’t an Oriental rug hand-tufted, hand-loomed, machine-made, or rug, regardless of where it is made outside the rug weaving belt from Morrcco to China? For example, there is rug weaving in Mexico around the town of Temoaya, near Mexico City It is not an Oriental rug because it's not woven in the classic area it's Meso America weaving.

The term Oriental rug has specific structural requirements to be an oriental rug but is irrelevant to the ethnicity of those who make oriental rugs.

142 views0 comments


bottom of page