Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp

I’ve been interested in Aladdin for many years since I learned working on a Smithsonian project on ethnic imagery in advertising that in the 19th and into the 20th century, he was presented as a Chinese figure. Recently I’ve been working on and off on a piece about Aladdin that I don’t quite know how to finish. Here’s the first part of it:

I’ve always loved to read. When I discovered libraries growing up, I read anything and everything I could find. One of the subjects I devoured was fairy tales and folktales and one of my earliest sources for them were the various colored books of stories collected and published in the late 19th century by Andrew Lang.[1] It was in The Blue Fairy Book that I first encountered the story of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.” At the time, I found the story simple and straightforward, but magical and marvelous nevertheless. As an adult and as a historian, I’ve learned the story of the story is anything but simple.

To understand the issue, consider the question: what does Aladdin look like? For many people, particularly those who have seen Disney’s 1992 motion picture, the answer would seem straightforward. Aladdin, they might tell you, is Arabic or Muslim—they might even refer you to the movie for a fuller visual description that includes his clothing—and his story is part of the folktale tradition, the Thousand and One Nights, or as it is known in Britain, the Arabian Nights. These apparent statements of fact, however, are not born out historically.

The story of Aladdin, or the Wonderful Lamp (histoire d’Aladdin ou la Lampe merveilleuse) first became popular in Europe in the 18th century as a result of Arabist Jean Antoine Galland’s translation of the story tradition, Thousand and One Nights. Comprising twelve volumes published from 1704 to 1717, his French version of the tales was wildly successful and subsequently translated into many languages; the first two volumes were available in an unauthorized English edition as early as 1706 and editions appeared in Hindi, Arabic, and Yiddish. His original became the definitive version known to most readers worldwide.

Subsequent translated editions of the Thousand and One Nights, by Edward Lane (1838-40) and Sir Richard Burton (1885) in English and J. C. Madrus (1898-1904) in French, introduced a host of issues with Galland’s version, each other’s, and the manuscripts from which they worked. Their differences occasioned a delightful 1935 Jorge Luis Borge essay on the Nights and its translators. A more recent translation by N. J. Dawood (1973) and the critical Arabic edition by Muhsin Mahdi (1984, translated into English in 1990 by Husain Haddawy) take up similar issues.

Where these versions include it, the story of Aladdin is set in China and Aladdin (Alaeddin, ’Ala-ed-Din or ’Ala al-Din) a tailor’s son, is presumably Chinese. His father’s name, Mustafa (or Mustapha), which is not always given, and other references suggest, however, that they live within an area with Muslim cultural influence. Illustrations from 18th, 19th, and 20th century literary editions of the story bear out the association, at times showing Aladdin with the shaved head and hair queue mandated by the Qing dynasty, in others in mandarin robes, and in still others, more fanciful, elaborate Chinese regalia. Greeting cards and advertising ephemera in the 19th century similarly and widely depicted Aladdin as Chinese. The first American adaptation of Aladdin for the stage (in 1847) was subtitled, “the Grand Chinese Spectacle.”[2]

It is only in 20th century film adaptions that Aladdin stopped being Chinese. This transformation derives, in part, from early films, notably 1924’s The Thief of Bagdad starring Douglas Fairbanks, that loosely combined elements of the Aladdin story, specifically its magic vessel, with those from other stories within the Thousand and One Nights in an effort to produce a swashbuckling epic set, as its subtitle, An Arabian Nights Fantasy, suggested, in its milieu. The film retained some of the Aladdin story’s (East) Asian association, pitting its heroic thief against a Mongol prince for the hand of the Caliph’s daughter (and introducing Anna May Wong in a supporting role as a Mongol slave). The particulars of the Aladdin character, however, were not detailed in the sweep of its grand spectacle, which did include flying horses, magic carpets, and several ferocious monsters. A 1940 British remake starring Conrad Veidt brought color and sound (it was subtitled An Arabian Fantasy in Technicolor) to the silent, black and white original and re-introduced the figure of the genie, which a magic bottle, replacing the earlier version’s magic urn, summoned. That film, in turn, provided a crucial basis for Disney’s 1992 film adaptation of the original story called simply, Aladdin.

[1] Lang published a total of twelve between 1889 and 1910: Blue (1889), Red (1890), Green (1892), Yellow (1894), Pink (1897), Grey (1900), Violet (1901), Crimson (1903), Brown (1904), Orange (1906), Olive (1907), and Lilac (1910).

[2] Krystyn Moon’s excellent survey of the Chinese in American popular music and performance, Yellowface (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2004), discusses this and other stage adaptations of Aladdin in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.