Disney is releasing a live-action version of Aladdin in May with Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Massoud in the main role and Will Smith as the Genie.
From the trailer, it looks like the movie won’t depart much from the original animated film, which takes place in the Middle East and heavily features Islamic motifs.
But Aladdin’s Middle Eastern origin was not always a given. At some point, the story took place in China.
In the original tale, Aladdin is born to a poor tailor “in the capital of one of China’s vast and wealthy kingdoms.”
Most retellings of the story, including Disney’s, have completely written out that aspect, but there have been times when Aladdin’s Chinese elements were amplified, depending on how in vogue Chinese culture was at the time.
In book illustrations from the Victorian era, when the craze for Chinese decor was at its peak, Aladdin sported a pigtail and Chinese slippers. The architecture featured distinctly Chinese pagodas.
“Aladdin is a shape-shifter, a paradox,” says French-Syrian writer Yasmine Seale, whose new translation of the original tale was published last November. “It’s one of the most instantly familiar stories, and also one of the least known. It has survived by changing and reinventing itself.”
The Disney film is just one in a long line of reincarnations that depart quite radically from the original story. In an 1888 Japanese translation, for example, the characters are depicted in European dress.
“Aladdin is Chinese, but the original story is ambivalent about what this means and pokes gentle fun at the desire for cultural authenticity,” Seale wrote in a Twitter post.
In one passage, the princess makes up Chinese customs in order to trick her enemy into drinking a poison cup.
“For all the story’s ethnic stereotypes, there is a central mistrust of the idea of racial or cultural purity,” Seale says.
In search of the authentic Aladdin
What qualifies as the “original” Aladdin is also complicated.
The story was first written down in the 18th century by French writer Antoine Galland, who claimed he heard the tale from a Syrian traveler he met in Paris.
How much the story is a construction of the traveler or reinterpreted by Galland is debated by scholars.
“The text I have translated is the first written version, but even that is a slippery thing,” says Seale. “As a story told by a Syrian to a Frenchman, each of whom was fascinated by the other’s culture, it can’t be pinned down to one language or literary tradition.”
And while the story clearly states the setting is China, Aladdin’s ethnicity is never explicitly mentioned, meaning any visual depictions are purely the creation of their artists.
Krystyn Moon posits in her book Yellowface that the setting might have been created out of narrative convenience because China had a mystical allure in the European imagination.
Other scholars argue that its Chinese setting was merely an ignorant conflation of the country and Asia on part of Galland.
Disney’s animated Aladdin isn’t entirely “authentic,” either. It borrows freely from other Middle Eastern stories in One Thousand and One Nights, the story collection of which Aladdin is a part.
“Apparently, Disney’s Aladdin was also meant to be set in Baghdad,” writes Arafat A. Razzaque, a doctoral candidate of history and Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University. “But as the U.S. was bombing Iraq during the first Gulf War at the time, Disney changed the setting to a fictional city to avoid awkward associations with the Baghdad of Saddam Hussein.”
While the setting of Aladdin has changed over time depending on politics and culture, the core narrative and themes have remained the same. This fluidity reflects the tale’s timelessness.
“I don’t think that readers would interpret or understand the story, and its themes of responsibility and commitment to the ones you love, any differently if it was set elsewhere,” says Wen-chin Ouyang, a professor of Arabic and comparative literature at SOAS, University of London.
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.