During the 1990s Disney was going through its Renaissance, making their best-known animated classics, one of them was Aladdin. It is a story of a pure heart “street rat” who finds a magical lamp with a Genie, who makes all his wishes come true. In this article, we are going to explore the origin of Aladdin and answer the one-thousand and one-night-old question, was he Indian, Arab or Chinese?
Aladdin is Chinese. This answer may shock you, but when analyzing his literary origin, he is described as a boy from one of the cities in China. Even though this is a very straightforward answer regarding his geographical origin, some experts argue that his cultural origin is in fact rooted in Arab culture and the world.
From the first time I watched Aladdin I was fascinated with the world, he lived in. It was exotic, mysterious, and just on the edge of realism. When I started exploring his origin, I was shocked at how old the story is and how different it is from the Disney classic I remember. So I first looked at Aladdin as a literary character rooted in Middle Eastern culture, and then I explored the creative brilliance behind Disney’s take on Aladdin. And of course, we have to talk about the live-action remake that caused controversies even before its release.
Disney’s take on Aladdin is the most famous telling of the story right now. But its true origin can be found in a story appearing in a famous collection of Middle Eastern folk tales, One Thousand and One Nights, dating back to the Islamic Golden Age (between the 8th and 13th century). These folk tales have their roots in Arabic, Mesopotamian, Jewish, Persian and Egyptian literature. The collection of tales was translated into English, 400 years after it was written, with a new name- Arabian Nights. The story about Aladdin and the Genie wasn’t originally a part of One Thousand and One Nights. It was added by French translator Antoine Galland in 1710 under the name Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp. According to Galland, this is a story he heard from a Syrian storyteller Hanna Diyab and surprisingly at first, it has nothing to do with the Arabian culture.
Galland’s tale talks about Aladdin who lives in one of the cities in China. In this story he is not an orphan, who is fighting for his survival, he is a son of a tailor and lives with his mother. An evil sorcerer, who is from Nort Africa, convinces him to retrieve the lamp from a magical cave. The sorcerer gives Aladdin a magical ring, which summons a Genie and the Genie helps him escape from the cave with the lamp. After some time, his mother tries to clean the lamp, and a second, more powerful Genie appears. The lamp Genie helps Aladdin to wed the sultan’s daughter, Princess Badroulbador, and makes him a beautiful palace.
The evil sorcerer retunes later to kidnap the princess and steal the lamp. With the help of the ring Genie, Aladdin is able to defeat the sorcerer for good. In some versions, Aladdin even becomes a sultan in the end. This all sounds very similar to the Disney retelling.
Another aspect of this story is very interesting when analyzing Aladdin’s literary origins. In the tale Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp even though it is set in China, all the names have a Muslim origin, and the characters’ conversations are filled with Muslim platitudes. Also, in the story, the city’s ruler is referred to as sultan, not emperor which was common for Chinese rulers.
Some experts claim that in early Arabic folk tales, China was not used to tell of someone’s geographical position, but to express that the story takes place in an exotic, far away land. This argument can be used to argue that the origin of Aladdin is truly rooted in the Middle Eastern culture, but the straightforward answer is that he is indeed Chinese.
When we turn our attention to the most famous modern retelling of Aladdin, there are more things the be said about the origin of this version of Aladdin. If we go a little bit back in history, in early European adaptations, Aladdin was depicted as a Chinese man. Plus, illustrations from that time period show Aladdin again as Chinese. Then in 1940, the film The Thief of Bagdad was made and there Aladdin was moved back to the Middle East. This exact movie was the inspiration for the aesthetic for the 1992 aminated movie we all know and love.
So where does Aladdin take place? The designers behind Disney’s Aladdin based the breathtaking city of Agrabah on the real-life city of Bagdad in Iraq. On the other hand, the model used to create the stunning sultan’s palace was the Taj Mahal in India. Also, princess Jasmine has a pet tiger Rajah which would be more typical for a story-taking palace in India. These are just two examples of design choices that lead people to believe that maybe the story takes place in India, a problem more prominent in Ritchie’s live-action retelling.
When watching the animated movie, everything from the score to the letters in the credits showcases again Middle Eastern, Arab culture. For more scenery design, inspiration was found in 19th century Orientalist paintings and photographs of the Arab world. One of the producing designers that worked on the animation said that even the outlines of characters were based on flowing and swooping lines typical for Arabic calligraphy. Animated Aladdin, deviates from his origin but is definitely more loyal to the spirit of Arab culture that is depicted in the original Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp.
Lastly, we have to discuss the impact that Guy Ritchie’s 2019 interpretation had on how we perceive Aladdin’s origin and culture. Even before the movie came out, there were controversies regarding casting. The actress cast as Jasmin is half Indian and half Caucasian and a lot of people felt that this movie was a chance for actors of Middle Eastern descent to represent their heritage on the big screen. Earlier, I said that a lot of people thought that Aladdin takes place in India, because of the creative choices made for this adaptation.
One example is that princess Jasmine wears a sari, which is not typical for Arab culture but is for Indian culture. This time around, the city of Agrabah better represents the aesthetic of ancient Indian cities, which doesn’t go very well with the opening song Arabian Nights.
In the end, Aladdin is neither Indian nor Arab, he is Chinese. Although it can be argued that character actually represents the spirit and aesthetic of Middle Eastern culture and world.