The Nerd Side Of Life

Two Minute History: Aladdin is Chinese

Lots of folks are, well, less than impressed about the beloved Middle Eastern fairy tale Aladdin being adapted from the beloved animated film into a so-so looking live action film. People are upset about casting – are actors too white? Should they be only from certain areas of the middle east? – and the not-so-blue genie, Will Smith. But you’re all wrong…


Aladdin is the story of a poor Chinese kid with a family as written down by a French person based on a story that they may or may not have ever read as a Middle Eastern fairy tale. It was also never part of the original Arabian Nights (One Thousand and One Nights) but added to it by said French person. Oh, and Jasmine didn’t exist, nor was the story anywhere in the Middle East.


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The actual story of Aladdin as we know it is about a Chinese boy living in a Chinese city, a sorcerer from Northwestern Africa, and a magic lamp. The story has no known authentic Arabian or Islamic source, which could explain why the French writer added a lot of Islamic traditions to a Chinese city. Aladdin first appeared in the first European translation of Arabian Nights, as translated by Frenchman Antoine Galland, essentially added to the original Arabian fairy tale collection as a “bonus story”. 

For much of Europe at the time – the late 1600’s to early 1700’s – the most fanciful and exotic places they could think of were China and the Americas, so a lot of stories ended up in those two locations. However, for much of Europe they also didn’t really know anything about China. Due to the crusades and trade, though, most well-read and educated Europeans DID know about the Islamic world. Places like Turkey, Persia, and Egypt were well known to French folks. There’s seemingly a good chance, scholarly speaking, that Aladdin was a real story but that either the original claimed teller of the story to a European – Syrian Hanna Diyab –  heard the story through the city of Aleppo as a possibly Chinese fairy tale that was retold for generations in the Middle Eastern cultures OR that Galland kind of made it up based on bits and pieces of real fairy tales and his own ideas. Aleppo would’ve been akin to a New York or a Tokyo at the time, a worldly place with a mix of culture. There’s good reason to think that Chinese people and stories passed through Aleppo and other big Middle Eastern cities. 

And That’s how we get from the strange story of a poor Chinese kid and a sorcerer to an Arabian orphan who wanted to be a prince to win the hand of a princess. 

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