The Orientalist Riff is an example of white culture and tradition.

The typical white liberal assumes that non-white people have more “culture” than white people, and may express “envy” as an attempted compliment. Given that white liberals feel that they are denied access to the non-white culture which they “envy”, it is likely that their “envy” is directed at the imagined culture of non-whites, rather than culture (or loss of culture due to white cultural imperialism) as experienced by non-white people.

One example of the white-imagined culture of people of colour is the Oriental Riff, or rather, the Orientalist Riff:

AAAA, G-G, E-E, G.

This riff (click on the above image to play the sound file) appears in orientalist American and British pop songs like “Kung Fu Fighting” (1974) and “Turning Japanese” (1980). However, the “proto-cliché” or rhythmic pattern of “da-da-da-da, da da, da da, daaah!” originated in the 1800s, and has since been ubiquitous in pop culture to signify (and other) Asian culture or Asian people. Martin Nilsson has dedicated an entire website to the history of this rhythmic pattern, The Musical Cliché Figure Signifying The Far East: Whence, Wherefore, Whither?, and defines what he calls the “the Far East Proto-Cliché” as the following:

Four staccato sixteenth notes of the same tone, two staccato eighth notes, two staccato eighth notes, one quarter note.

In other words, the “proto-cliché” is a riff with the rhythm of “da-da-da-da, da da, da da, daaah!” with varying tones, where the first four notes have identical tones, and the bracketed first six notes are obligatory. Additionally, “the instrumentation and general context should be meant to suggest the Orient in order for this pattern to actually be the Far East Proto-Cliché”. Nilsson’s website tracks this “proto-cliché” and provides ninety-seven examples of it from 1847 to 2001.

The painful irony of white people envying Asian people for our “culture” is that what white people perceive as cultural unattainability is actually our perceived cultural otherness. The otherness-disguised-as-unattainability evoked by the ubiquitous “proto-cliché” is a white construction of Asian identity, and this white construction of Asian identity is what they envy and already own without realizing it.

The “proto-cliché” and the most offensive instantiation of it—the Orientalist Riff itself—are used to dehumanize Asians. Kai Chang describes the Orientalist Riff as Musical Yellowface and writes:

Having grown up in a music-loving household filled with both Chinese and Western classical music, this little melody has always annoyed me. It’s basically what white folks play every time Orientalism is invoked in a TV show, movie, or pop song. It’s so prevalent that I honestly suspect that many white folks unconsciously hear this ditty when they see me walk into the room.

Funny thing is, it’s neither Chinese nor even representative of Chinese music. It’s a white supremacist construction whose artistic purpose is to caricaturize, mock, and dehumanize Asians.

Racialicious commenter Elton writes (17 Dec 2009):

Just yesterday, I was at Walmart, shopping for Christmas, when a kid walking by gave me a suspicious look and, as he walked away, sang what I call the “Chinese Stereotype Melody.” I have no idea where it came from, but Asian Americans probably know what I’m talking about. It goes something like, “da-da-da-da duh duh, duh duh, da” and has been used in countless shows and movies (often accompanied by fake martial arts, a gong sound, bowing, fake Chinese words, and just all around mockery of Chinese people, and, by extension, all Asians).


Anyway, even though this melody probably had the original intention of cheap laughs for people who think Orientalizing, exoticizing, and marginalizing people who are perceived to be perpetual foreigners is funny and entertaining and safe because they’ve never had to confront their own racism, it has the effect, over generations, of making millions of people victims of taunting, bullying, concentration camps, anti-immigration laws, colonization, fetishizing, rape, terror, torture, and socioeconomic inequality. We call this racism.

“It’s just a stupid melody,” you might be saying to yourself. “It’s just a stupid gesture.” And you would be right–it is stupid. It’s something that I would have hoped to leave on the playground 20 years ago. But the persistence of mockery of Asians, particularly the extent to which it’s accepted as innocuous, represents a growing trend that racism against Asians is not only acceptable, but doesn’t even exist.

Not only is the Orientalist Riff racist, but the similarly racist and orientalist “proto-cliché” is a long-standing tradition in the music culture of white-majority societies, even older than classic music genres that defined American music. A blogger puts the ditty into historical perspective:

The thing’s been around longer than jazz, longer than rock, and depending on how you measure these things, longer than the blues, which is where jazz and rock came from. It’s older than the Chinese Exclusion Act. It’s been around at least since 1847, in a melody in The Grand Chinese Spectacle of Aladdin or The Wonderful Lamp.


It really kicks into first gear, though, in the 1880s, which is about when the blues properly started up (which is where pentatonic scales started taking over Western music), and when… let’s call it “social tensions” began building up, as expressed in the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Clearly, the Orientalist Riff and the equally-orientalist “proto-cliché” originated from historical, anti-Asian sentiment in white-majority countries. Yet even today, the “proto-cliché” (or the riff itself) is being perpetuated in television and film, as if the rhythmic pattern is a natural representation of Asian culture instead of the obvious manifestation of white racism that it is. For example, in Karl Lagerfeld’s Paris-Shanghai: A Fantasy (2009), which debuted just this month (December), the “proto-cliché” appears in the second video (part 2) at about 6:06.

To expand on Nilsson’s fascinating research, I will be saving to Delicious instances I find of the “proto-cliché” (which includes the Orientalist Riff itself) and tagging them with the tag protocliche. If you find other contemporary examples of it and you use Delicious, please tag them with “protocliche” as well. If you are not a Delicious user, you can post links to “proto-cliché” examples in the comments of this post.

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25 Responses to “The Orientalist Riff is an example of white culture and tradition.”

  1. gooblyglob Says:

    you know what… it is weird! I can not think of ONE traditional East Asian song that I know of using this tune… or even a tune similar in construction to this one (but then I am no musical expert so this is just what I *think*)

  2. Lxy Says:

    Good post. Very informative.

    In America particularly, this kind of racist Orientalism is normalized. It’s an unquestioned and indeed celebrated part of this country’s racist culture.

    Reading some of the anecdotes on that Racialicious thread really makes this kind of racism hit home.

    And as one commentor named Simon put it, “the reason its always open season on Asians is because we are seen as willing to take it and not make a fuss. Simple as that.”

    That situation needs to end.

  3. Manju Says:

    I’d just like to point out that white liberals do view some whites as having culture, namely European and various American white ethnics (jews, irish, italians) who’ve maintained their old world identity partially because they were historically denied access to “cultureless” American experiment.

    so the roots of this cultureless vs cultured binary is really an american vs european thing, going back to the American revolution and the enlightenment…projects designed to liberate peoples from (european) culture and its myths (theocracy, the divine right of kings, etc) and create a society around universal principles rooted in a common human nature. so, for example, while religion is a cultural construct, freedom of religion is universal truth to the classical liberal. a nation founded on the latter is therefore cultureless.

  4. Restructure! Says:

    Yet white Americans do not consider the parts of European culture that are also part of American culture to be “cultural”. They don’t think that using knives and forks to eat are cultural, for example. Most white Americans don’t think that bagels are cultural (even though they have a European Jewish origin), unless they think about it.

  5. Manju Says:

    True restructure, Americans aren’t completely cultureless and failure to see your customs as a culture is itself part of culture: ie all cultures exhib ethoncentism, thinking their ways are right and normal when in fact they are just random preferences with no basis in nature.

    but still thats not much of a culture. that’s why Europeans, de gaulle and Solzhenitsyn come to mind, mock edAmerica as a cultural wasteland.

  6. Restructure! Says:

    But is their definition of “culture” the older definition, as in the words “cultured” and “uncultured”? If so, they probably wouldn’t think Native Americans had a culture (because that older definition is Eurocentric).

  7. Sandy Says:

    Hi there, I hope you won’t mind me commenting on your blog. I found you from Reappropriate’s blog when you commented there and I am always looking to read more on Third Wave feminism with a focus on Asian culture/identity/etc.

    I found this post intriguing because growing up, I’ve always heard that stupid melody over and over again whenever commercials came on for fast food like, “McDonald’s Asian Thai Salad!” *cue da-da-da-da music* AND I WOULD NOT EVEN QUESTION IT. That’s how fucking de-sensitized I am! Obviously, I know better now and it just makes me cringe every time advertisements try to play up the “Asian theme” through that type of music, karate noises, the whole bow-ing thing, etc. Like, HELLO? As if the Asian identity has not evolved with the times and we’re still stuck behind decades and decades ago.

  8. BooDoo Says:

    I am shocked anyone sees this tune as a representation of Asian/Chinese culture at all in this day & age.

    The opposite of Sandy above, when I hear this ‘riff’ I hear it as a reference to the misunderstanding of Chinese/Asian people (including ‘all Asians = Chinese’) from an earlier time. I hear it as self-parody.

    Since I was about 10 (and I am white) I have known this tune to be a hold-over from pre-integrated racial relations; not a reference to or parody of Asian culture or peoples, but a reference to a time when Asian people were an unknown ‘other’ to the xenophobic and sheltered earlier generations. If I knew the concept at the time, I would have thought it a very post-modern device.

    This article (and comments) give me a new outlook on that. It clearly is assimilated in different ways, and is more damaging than I had thought previously.

  9. Ching Chong Beautiful Exposes Racism in Video Game Design | The Border House Says:

    […] The only thing missing was the orientalist riff. […]

  10. links for 2010-01-02 « The Mustard Seed Says:

    […] The Orientalist Riff is an example of white culture and tradition … "Clearly, the Orientalist Riff and the equally-orientalist “proto-cliché” originated from historical, anti-Asian sentiment in white-majority countries. Yet even today, the “proto-cliché” (or the riff itself) is being perpetuated in television and film, as if the rhythmic pattern is a natural representation of Asian culture instead of the obvious manifestation of white racism that it is. For example, in Karl Lagerfeld’s Paris-Shanghai: A Fantasy (2009), which debuted just this month (December), the “proto-cliché” appears in the second video (part 2) at about 6:06." (tags: blog northamerica race history imperialism) […]

  11. vivek Says:

    A superb post pointing out the ubiquity of whining about racism. White devil very evil. I feel raped. Can I have my PhD now?

  12. Mike Says:

    Interesting topic.
    Think of all the music used to interpret Native American culture.The music used in movies to “new age” Native American music its all about whiteness.
    When I think of white culture in America I think of “Don’t tread on me”.Like the original sin of man pretending to be God Whites reinterpret culture in their own image…

  13. Aidan Says:

    Interesting post about the music. I hadn’t even thought about that.

    >The typical white liberal assumes that non-white people have more “culture” than white people

    I don’t think this is particularly related to white liberals. I think it’s more a case that a lot of people don’t find what they grow up with as very interesting. “Exotic” stuff is unknown and more interesting.
    It’s the same in Japan for example. The “typical” young Japanese isn’t as interested in temples and shrines and thinks Mickey Mouse and Disneyland are the pinnacles of cool.

  14. White people have deeper family roots than ethnic minorities. « Restructure! Says:

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  15. Robert Wiblin Says:

    It never occurred to me that this riff is insulting in some way rather than just a convenient shorthand for ‘Asia’. Maybe it’s annoying to be typecast, but at least in Australia as many Asian stereotypes are positive as negative so I think I would be indifferent between white and Asian typecasting.

  16. Robert Wiblin Says:

    Unless accurate, a racial stereotype depicting one group as ‘smart’ (or any other good trait) is clearly inefficient, but almost certainly beneficial to that group.

    If there were a stereotype in my culture that people with my colour eyes were all geniuses, I think I would be better off for it, even though this would lead to misallocation of education and professions from a social point of view.

  17. Restructure! Says:

    So if you don’t succeed, it must mean that you’re lazy. Teachers are not going to help you, because it’s really your fault in the end.

    Sound good?

    At the same time, you will be ostracized for being a nerd.

    Also, some people will be convinced that anyone with your eye colour is involved in a world-wide conspiracy, since you people are so crafty and sneaky. If your country goes to war with a country of people of your eye colour, you people will be under police surveillance, arrested and detained indefinitely without due process, and possibly put into internment camps.

  18. Robert Wiblin Says:

    I appreciate that there can be downsides to being seen as more intelligent (especially when it’s combined with people already disliking you for other reasons), but most of the time in a modern society intelligence is a desirable trait that most people would like to be associated with.

    I wasn’t saying it’s good in every possible situation, just the ones I’m familiar with.

  19. Lxy Says:

    @ Robert Wiblin

    Well, I see the White “progressives” are crawling out of the woodwork to dismiss the issue of Orientalist racism with their disingenous but oh-so-learned alibis.

    This problem with this song isn’t just about “stereotypes,” whether positive or negative. White apologists may try to limit issues of racism to one of stereotypes, but they avoid the more fundamental reality: White racial denigration and subordination of non-White cultures.

    This song is related to the proud tradition of Blackface, Minstrelsy, Yellowface, and many other forms of White cultural racism that is a normalized part of Anglophone “civilization.”

    This is one of the definiting attributes of Orientalism, as Edward Said famously described. And it goes well beyond “stereotyping.” It is the racist culture of Western imperialism and its pathological need to denigrate the non-White Other.

  20. DaisyDeadhead Says:

    I was reading back through your blog and found this fabulous post, and just have to say so.

    As a music-lover, I have always wondered where this couple of bars of music came from. My grandmother had an old music box (with a “China doll” that spun around and around; I loved playing with it!) and it played a whole song to go with along with these few bars, so I had always believed it was from a real song… maybe a Chinese nursery rhyme or equivalent, since it sounds like that to me. I never realized it was a Western invention, and thank you for telling me!

    Also used in “The World of Suzie Wong”–highly flawed film of course, but marked the first time many of us in the West understood the glamorization/fetishization of the Asian passive-female stereotype to white men (William Holden!)…

  21. Commercials conflate whiteness with modernity. « Restructure! Says:

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  22. numol Says:

    Great post as usual. It’s a pity about the two whitey-apologists who showed up (Wiblin and vivek), but at least this time there were only two. (BTW I won’t get huffy if you decide this comment is troll-baiting and delete it.)

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