Children's Literature, fantasy, History, Literature, Stories

Surprising Facts about Aladdin and the Arabian Nights

The story of Aladdin is one of the most familiar narratives in all of literature, a classic ‘rags to riches’ tale featuring a young hero who has to learn an important lesson; an exotic setting; a good healthy dose of magic; a beautiful heroine; and an evil villain (or two, depending on which version of the story you follow).

AladdinThere’s much about the Aladdin story that is universally known. The story is part of the Arabian Nights, or the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ told by Scheherazade, the woman who effectively invented the cliffhanger: the story goes that she was one of the sultan’s concubines, and the sultan, after taking his pleasure with a woman, would have her killed. Scheherazade, in a cunning move devised to save her life, decided to start telling the sultan a story, but each night would break off in the middle of the narrative … so the sultan would keep her alive until the next night, when he would find out what happened at the end of the story. Hence the title, One Thousand and One Nights. The tale of Aladdin, along with the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, is one of the most famous tales Scheherazade told.

Or is it? Is this true, or is this – as is so often the case here at Interesting Literature – actually only what we think is true?

For starters, where does Aladdin live? Not in the Middle East. In the earliest version of the story we have, Aladdin is a poor youth living on the streets of China. And he’s no foreigner abroad either: he’s a native Chinese boy, not an Arabian youth who’s ended up in China. (Nor is he an orphan: in the earliest versions of the story, Aladdin is not an orphaned street urchin but a lazy boy living at home with his mother.) As Krystyn R. Moon notes in Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s (Rutgers University Press, 2005):

Aladdin, which most people today associate with Persia and the Middle East thanks to films such as The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and Disney’s Aladdin (1992), was one of the more popular nineteenth-century productions set in China because of its romantic and moralistic storyline and its potential as a spectacle.

Moon goes on to note that when the story of Aladdin first appeared in the Arabian Nights, it was set in ‘western China’, with some scenes in North Africa (though that’s not where Aladdin lives). She observes:

Composers and librettists sometimes chose Persia as the setting for the tale because One Hundred and One Arabian Nights was from that region of the world and, like China, was a popular imaginative space for Americans and Europeans.

Many people doubtless know this fact concerning Aladdin’s origins already – anyone who’s read the story of Aladdin will know it – but the point is worth making because the popular Disney animated film of 1992 makes Aladdin an Arabian boy and gives the impression that it was always thus.

Okay, so where does Aladdin (that is, the story) come from? Not from the One Thousand and One Nights. Or at least, not really. We associate it with that collection because the story has been added to the Nights in translation as a sort of honorary extra tale (or ‘orphan tale’, to use an apt phrase). The Aladdin story was added to the collection by a French translator, Antoine Galland, in the early eighteenth century. Although Galland heard the tale from an Arabian storyteller, the Aladdin story is firmly set in China (so not the Middle East at all, but the Far East). The tale had nothing to do with the original One Thousand and One Nights tales, and doesn’t appear in any of the manuscripts. But, since Galland added it to his version, it has become arguably the most famous story (not) in the Arabian Nights.

The reason we think of the story as one of the true-born Arabian Nights is that many of the characters in the tale of Aladdin are Arabian Muslims with Arabic names. But Aladdin is Chinese … at least, he is if you go back to the known origins of the story. Jasmine, Aladdin’s girlfriend, was an invention of the Disney film – at least, the name was. In the original story, Aladdin’s love-interest is called Badroulbadour (the name means ‘full moon of full moons’ in Arabic).

If you think that’s odd, then the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the story of the seven voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, are also not from the Arabian Nights, but were later additions by Galland, not found in the original manuscript. None of the three most famous stories from the Arabian Nights are actually, strictly speaking, from the Arabian Nights.

So, what stories were actually in the original One Thousand and One Nights? One notable tale is ‘The Three Apples’, which has been called one of the first detective stories – but, if anything, it’s more of an anti-detective story. In the tale, the body of a mutilated woman turns up in a wooden chest, and the sultan’s vizier is charged with solving the crime in three days, or he himself will be executed. The vizier fails to work out ‘whodunnit’, and makes little attempt to crack the case (hence the story’s status as an ‘anti-detective’ story), but the hapless vizier is saved from death when the real murderer shows up at the last minute and confesses.

The most famous – or perhaps that should be infamous – English translation of the Arabian Nights is undoubtedly that by Richard Burton – that is, Sir Richard Francis Burton, the nineteenth-century explorer. Far from toning down the sexual suggestiveness of the Nights for his Victorian readers, Burton actually added information, including footnotes explaining Oriental sexual customs for his readers (fittingly, Burton also translated the Kama Sutra into English). As a result, his translation had to be privately printed for paying subscribers, rather than published in the conventional manner. Burton was also purportedly the inspiration for Dr Henry Jones Sr, played by Sean Connery, in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy our interesting facts about Robin Hood, our analysis of the meaning of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, and our fascinating Harry Potter facts.

We’re delighted to learn that Penguin Classics have published an English translation of the complete Arabian Nights in three volumes, beginning with The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights: Volume 1 (Penguin Classics). It’s a fantastic edition and well worth investing in, as a way of discovering some of the many other captivating tales of magic and adventure contained within the 1,001 Nights.

Our new book, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, is out now, published by John Murray. More about the book can be found here.

Image: Aladdin and Jasmine by bubba-courtlz, on deviantart.com.

99 Comments

  1. Cool! I was never particularly taken by the tales of Aladdin & co. but the backstory you’ve revealed to us is really fascinating! Once again, thanks for all this insight into the history behind the story. That’s probably why I studied history and not literature!

  2. Thanks for such fascinating articles each time! Do you know when the Aladdin story was told and by whom? That question may be a dead end, folk stories’ origins aren’t always the most specific are they? :)

    • That’s a very good question, and, alas, one we cannot answer… The most we know is that Antoine Galland claims he heard the tale of Aladdin from an Arabian storyteller during the early eighteenth century. But as for its origins prior to this, I’m afraid, indeed, we’ve hit a cul-de-sac… But would love to hear from anyone in the comments below who has any thoughts!

    • it s arabic , but many persian / arabian tales set in China or in India , in Asia , because they had a lot of ( early ) commercial relations with them
      For example , the man who allegedly have been in America centuries before Christopher Colombus is a muslim chinese , Zheng He .

  3. Nice post, IL. always interesting how good stories travel great distances and change in the process. We have a way of making them our own – and changing and the setting is often essential, particularly if the tale is commissioned by someone who doesn’t want to hear some story set in China, for example. Plus, I imagine the stories were famous so if someone asking for a tale from the Arabian Nights and you’ve run out – I guess you could make another one fit the formula! Glad you found a way to incorporate Arabian Nights – or, rather, a “non”-Arabian Night!

    • Good point! It’s true of so much literature: Shakespeare, for instance, who drew on Italian tales (Romeo and Juliet), Danish chronicles (Hamlet), and the Roman writer Plutarch (Antony and Cleopatra), among many other sources, but now we cannot hear ‘Hamlet’ without thinking of Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Olivier, and so on. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Yes! You caught my attention again. Thoughtout time so much has been distorted. Sometimes it is challenging to discover truths. Great detective work. Thank you.

  5. What? Disney did not have it right? I also wondered how Richard Burton could write so well between acting jobs and bouts of drinking! Thank you so much for the truth-be-told re Aladdin & The Arabian Nights.

  6. All school kids know Aladdin was Chinese … and his mother was Widow Twanky. Or have I gone off on one again …

    P.S. Do Americans understand panto, do you think, IL?

    • Good point about the pantomimes – there again, the pantos tend to play rather fast and loose with ethnicity/setting at the best of times (often the pantomime is set in London!), and given the tale’s association with the Arabian Nights, the abundance of characters in the tale who are Middle Eastern, and the Disney film, we thought it worth mentioning Aladdin’s Chinese origins…

      As for whether Americans understand the strange phenomenon of panto, I leave it open to our transatlantic comrades to answer… (The comments floor is yours, American cousins!)

  7. As usual, fascinating. I had no idea Aladdin was Chinese…

  8. Cool. One question, what’s the real or original name of the Chinese Aladdin’s tale?

    • Good question – first we know about it is the oral tale which Antoine Galland heard from an Arabian storyteller in the early eighteenth century. Will scout around and see if we can find out anything further, though…

  9. Fascinating post!

  10. Your Aladdin post reminded me of something I remember reading in Graham Anderson’s excellent ‘Fairytale in the Ancient World’ (Routledge 2000). While acknowledging that Galland added this tale to the original Arabian Nights collection, Anderson points out that some of the folktale motifs in the story have been around in European tradition for many centuries.

    For example, the ring of invisibility recovered from under the ground and the defeat of the rival suitor for the hand of the royal female are told about Gyges of Lydia by no less than Plato himself (for the ring element) as well as by Nicolaus of Damascus (for the rival suitor motif). If you can obtain the study, Anderson’s discussion is mainly on pages 105-7; I can certainly recommend the whole book itself for interesting discussion, loads of examples and convincing conclusions.

    Another great post, I should add!

  11. Great results from your investigating work. I do like the Arabian Nights. And now you have made it a great topic for discussion. Thanks

  12. Thanks. Great stuff. I love The Arabian Nights, and have a gorgeous copy on my shelves that I was talking to the kids about the other day. And of course I told them the stories of Sinbad, Aladdin and Ali Baba were from it! Now I find I was wrong. I recently read multi-award winning Bill Willingham’s graphic novel version – a different take again, and not a bad one if you enjoy graphic novels. http://www.amazon.com/Fables-Arabian-Nights-Bill-Willingham/dp/1845762789

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  14. Thanks for the follow. This was a very interesting post! :)

  15. Love this post! Thanks for following my blog and I’ll be doing the same :)

  16. I love the Arabian Nights stories but more than the stories I love the music and art inspired by them. Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade is one of my favouite collections of musical works and if you don’t know the Itialian artist Sergio Toppie’s representation of some of the stories, try and find a copy of his ‘Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights’ published by Archaia, you really wont regret it!

  17. Very interesting and fascinating story! Thanks for sharing!
    And at the same time TA for stopping by my blog..

  18. Fascinating insights. How do you find your sources when sleuthing out your posts? When I am researching I sometimes find it difficult to find primary sources. I was writing a collection of kite tales and finding the original source often proved tedious.

  19. Reblogged this on One reader A thousand lives and commented:
    This article brought back some childhood memories and to think I never knew these things about Aladdin

  20. I’ve read the thousand and one nights and also have the Burton copy. I didn’t know all the facts however. Thanks for the insight!

  21. Well, you must admit Badroulbadour is a dreadful name. It sounds like I’m talking with mashed potatoes in my mouth.

  22. Not long after I read this I was in a second-hand shop in Ely, NV and found a copy of 1001 nights from 1932. I wanted to get it so bad, but a) I was worried it would get ruined during our journey and b) we’re on a shoestring budget, and even the $10 seemed not to be a reasonable expenditure. But I wanted to let you know that your post has ignited my curiosity. Thanks for checking out the Library-A-Thon!

    • Thanks, Emma! Glad to have reignited your interest in the 1001 Nights. That 1932 edition sounds fantastic – a Richard Burton translation? Perhaps in the age of internet bookshops it’ll turn up again :)

  23. Nice…
    True the 1001 Nights are very sexual and sensual in nature,
    Note: in Arabic Badroulbadour would be (if pronounced correctly) Badralboudour (first spelling does not mean anything in arabic except for badr wich is moon) and it is full moon of full moons, Badr on its own (Moon) is usually used in Arabic to describe a beautiful woman so Badr Al Boudour actually means “the
    most beautiful of them all” , so when a women is called badr what an arabic speaker thinks about is beautiful and not moon.
    بدر البدور
    And Aladdin would if pronounced correctly it would be Alaa El Din which means the supremacy (closest word i found) of religion (referring here to Islam i suppose, as it is an Islamic name)
    علاء الدين

    Great Blog and Thanks for the visit

    • Ooh that is good – thanks for this! I’d wondered about the Arabic names. Aladdin probably means ‘the supremacy of religion’? I’ll have to make a note of that! A super fact :)

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  25. This is inspiring, you really got to the bottom of childhood stories. :)

  26. Having grown up watching the Disney movies, I guess I had my facts wrong… ;) This post was an eye-opener :)

  27. How interesting! Never knew Aladdin was Chinese. I own a copy of the Arabian Nights gifted to me by my mother when I was 10 years old. My favorite was Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves! Is that an original Arabian Nights story? Anytime I fell sick, this was my “go-to” book, kind of like an old sweater that was comfy. Originally from India, I grew up on a diet of the stories in this book. Your research is amazing and I already know I am a fan of your writing! Look forward to more.

    • Thanks for the lovely comment! And I hope this doesn’t dash any childhood memories for you, but Ali Baba is ALSO not from the Arabian Nights originally – nor is Sinbad the Sailor. Strange that the three most famous tales are all ‘orphan tales’! They’re part of the fabric of the Nights now though, and I agree – they’re great stories. Did you know the young Dickens was also an avid reader of them? Many 19th-century writers were raised on them. It’s superb storytelling.

      I’d be interested to hear what you thought of some of the other Arabian Nights stories (which, as far as I know, are bona fide original 1001 Nights stories!). I’m thinking of writing a follow-up blog post on them and would love to know which ones you’d like me to focus on in particular.

  28. I loved all of the stories and as a kid I took the idea of flight seriously or … magic! A visit here one there like how if you look pyramids look quite similar no matter what country you’re in – love your information, I definitely will be back

    • I agree, there’s something magical about the 1001 Nights stories – I’ll definitely be writing a follow-up post since this one’s proved so popular. Thanks, do drop by the library here again! :)

  29. Very much like your posts…. and especially this one on Aladdin. Thank you.

  30. I love this

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  32. Neat! As a boy, I had a Caedmon record about Scheherezade, and found it fascinating. The story of Maroof was the primary subject, and there was a character named Jasmine in that story, but Princess Badroulbador was mentioned on the record, and Scheherezade ‘s own story was compelling. I am not sure if I knew Aladdin was from the Far East. I was delighted by the tale of Ali Baba. Thanks for this interesting background.

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  35. Wow! I am intrigued to find out so many things are never true as they are told. Is this or could this be about 2 different races being mixed in together like animals are?
    Rodney

  36. The name Alaadin is arabic and so is Ali baba… the tale even if originated somewhere else became arabic once it gained fame by the names chosen. Otherwise if someone were to say… for example Chang Chong and the fourty thieves it wouldn’t ring a bell or mean anything. The concepts of the story is also arabic despite what your article conveys. The Jinn..(genie) the lamp, are all arabian concepts. Additionally none of these concepts exist in China modern or ancient. However the 3 famous stories you mention in the article do exist in the oldest version of the arabic 1001 nights.

    • Our sources for this are impeccable, Ali: see John Payne, Alaeddin and the Enchanted Lamp and Other Stories (London 1901), which gives details of French translator Antoine Galland’s encounter with Syrian merchant ‘Hanna’ in 1709 and of the discovery in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris of two Arabic manuscripts containing Aladdin and two more of the added tales (Ali Baba and Sinbad the Sailor being the two in question). You’re right that Aladdin (and these two others) are Middle Eastern folk tales, but that doesn’t alter the fact that they were later additions to the 1,001 Nights, first included in a French translation, Les Mille et une nuits, by Galland in the early eighteenth century (1704-17), or that Aladdin is a Chinese character living in China. (The fact that Aladdin, and many of the other character names in the tale, are Arabic is simply proof that the tale was developed in the Middle East; it doesn’t prove that it was meant to be set there, not that it was included in the original manuscripts of the Arabian Nights.) See also Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nights: A Companion (London: Tauris, 2005), p. 17; and Robert Stableford’s The A to Z of Fantasy Literature (Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, 2005), entry for ‘Antoine Galland’, pp. 163-4. As Robert L. Mack puts it in his ‘Introduction’ to the OUP edition of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995; repr. 2009), ‘the most frequently reprinted tales in the West’s Arabian Nights traditions may well not have been part of the East’s Alf Laylawa Layla at all’ (p. xv). Mack mentions Aladdin and Ali Baba specifically here.

      Best, OMT

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  39. In school (as a boy) we knew it as a story with Far East origins; it is somewhat disappointing yet not surprising that with time and Hollywood fervor the truth would reinvent itself. I’m happy to see your crew taking time and effort to throw some facts back in the fray. Cheers.

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  50. This is fascinating! I need to spend this evening creeping through all your posts….

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  52. hey thanks for following me and liking some of my work, its really appreciated

  53. Disney, like almost every movie adaptation – takes liberties with any book or story. Sometimes, to advance the narrative. Disney, as always, wisely tries to avoid controversy and politics. That was Walt Disney’s legacy. He wanted very much to spread joy and peace. His background dates back to silent films where the goal was to spread a universal language, where music married film. As Lillian Gish put it: Film is the universal language. No barriers with talking, or dialogue. So why should Disney interject Muslim, protestant, Catholic or anything else into good story telling. If you want that, READ the book. Since film began, anyone and everyone always agreed: The book is better than the movie. Think about War and Peace. How could that entire book be translated into a two hour movie. Film was created to entertain. It evolved into enlightenment, documentaries, etc. There is indeed, a rhyme to every reason.

  54. This post is awesome. Aladdin has always been my favourite Disney movie and I did not know the Chinese origins of it! Very cool!

  55. Very cool. Thanks for stopping by~ Sea

  56. I had no idea they weren’t part of the Tales! Very informative!

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  58. Very interesting–and I loved your description of Scheherazade as the woman who effectively invented the cliffhanger!

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  63. wow, I didn’t know about that, I am shocked.

  64. It’s funny how people work so hard to make arabs have no culture.
    And they wants any small thing to destroy our image and even our culture and stories.
    My name is alaa i’m arab .. “Alaadin” is arabian name not indian or Chinese.
    On thousands night and one night is arabian tales all of its are arabian not persian or Chinese or Indian.
    India have it’s own stories and persia is the same.
    Don’t steal our stories just because they are better than the rest.
    Aladdin, Alibaba, Jasmine and Genes all are arabians stories and names.
    And this stories takes place in Baghdad in Abbasid era. Islamic Golden age.

    • Perhaps you are correct. However, there is an entire region in China called XinJiang, where the environment is much like the Middle East. Their script, names, architecture, appearance, language, culture and religion are very similar to the Arabs. People speculate that the character Aladdin might’ve come from this region of China. :)
      No one is trying to steal the story, no one said that the story is from China, they just meant the character “Aladdin” and the story is set in China. :D

    • Look it’s an angry Arab nationalists who is butt hurt because he found out that Aladdin is not about an Arab boy written by an Arab. You write in English, so therefore you must be English not Arab.

    • Indignant person

      Well as a Chinese person I could say

      (Speak the following aloud in the voice of a ignorant bigot)
      Look at this Arab trying to steal credit for a Chinese story
      Our rich culture will never be understood by all these ignorants
      Before you speak you should do your research
      But it’s too late you’ve already offended all these people

      Because the thing is its NOT a Chinese story.
      In the original story it was just set in China. In the original story there once was a evil guy who wanted a magical lamp, and he wanted it so badly, that he went all the way from Africa to China. At the time, if the narrator did not know about the New World, then China would’ve been the Utter East and Africa the Utter West, so literally, the ends of the world. This would be one of those exaggerated features for the readers to marvel at. The narrator probably had no idea what he was talking about though, or at least couldn’t think up Chinese names, that’s why he gave them Arabian names. So don’t be all angry over something you interpreted wrongly. Aladdin was a Chinese boy with an Arabian name. The story was meant to be set in China but the narrator, who probably never set foot in China, just regarded China as you know, one of those countries no one knows about except from wild and probably fake stories so I can convieniently use this in my story. If anything I’m supposed to be the one that’s all butthurt here.

      And also “don’t steal our stories because they are better than the rest”

      Arguably I could say that Chinese stories are the best, but I doubt that anyone has had a reason to read extensively on Chinese stories unless they are Chinese themselves. As you said yourself, you are an Arab. You know your stories and folktales. But have you read ours?

      China has folktales and stories too, but I doubt that you have read any of them. We have a story behind every proverb, the four great novels of ancient China, million tales of Qing Shi Huang’s exploits, the one about the first female emperor, the foolish government official who wanted to fly to the moon by tying rockets to his chair, the folk doctor, the serpents of the snake, the Art of War, until you’ve read all these and more, even then, you still can’t say that. Then go read up on the rest of the world. We’ll see, if reading all these stories from diverse cultures won’t open your mind, then you have no hope.

  65. This is a terrific article, but I do want to point out two things: Disney did not “invent” Jasmine as Aladdin’s girlfriend. The pattern in the movie is almost the same as the pattern in The One Thousand And One Nights. He falls for the princess, he wants to marry her, he uses the genie to make it happen. The methods are different but both Aladdin’s goals are the same (at least in the beginning of the story).

    Also, Disney did not give the princess the name “Jasmine”. There are versions of Aladdin that predate Disney’s film that give her that name. This is because in earlier works, the princess is described to give off the scent of jasmine. Disney just ran with it, and this is the kind of thing that happens when stories this old are retold, (not stolen, Alaa, retold). And in retelling, things are often changed to reflect the time and audience of the period in which it is being told. There are many, many versions of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Mulan, Hercules, Robin Hood, Aladdin etc. The gist is the same in each version, but they are different enough to set each one apart. Disney’s Aladdin is just another of many versions.

    If you want to see where Disney got most of their ideas for Aladdin from, watch “The Thief and the Cobbler” (the re cobbled cut), and “The Thief of Bagdhad”. And if it matters to you to know the original Aladdin story, like Brian said, read it. Disney didn’t steal anything, and those stories still exist, and with a tool like the internet they are not hard to find. Thanks for the great article. :D

    • Thanks for the wonderfully detailed and useful comment, Paul – much appreciated. I’ll have a look for ‘The Thief and the Cobbler’ and ‘The Thief of Baghdad’ and amend/expand the post accordingly re the Disney link. I wasn’t aware Jasmine existed in earlier tellings, so this information is fantastic – the story of Aladdin has even more interesting twists and turns than we first thought!

  66. Very interesting…. Loved it!

  67. My personal favourite part of the Burton translation is the 7th footnote into Volume 1, The Story Of King Shahryar and His Brother:
    ‘Debauched women prefer negroes on account of the size of their parts. I measured one man in Somali-land who, when quiescent, numbered nearly six inches.’
    The scene of the Victorian explorer, the African tribesman, and the imperial measuring tape is quite irresistible.

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  70. islam and christanity are the real monsters..they are ruling the world and they keep hiding truth..and they misleading the world about history and religion…for more information read the books written by author p.n.oak…surely you will be shocked

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  73. Fascinating! I’ve learnt something today! Thanks.