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


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

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

  5. 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.

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

  7. Very cool. Thanks for stopping by~ Sea

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

  9. This post is really a nice one it helps new internet visitors, who are wishing in favor of blogging.

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

  11. Oh, and thanks for the follow–I’m following you, too.

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

  16. 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.

  17. 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!

  18. Very interesting…. Loved it!

  19. 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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  22. 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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  25. Fascinating! I’ve learnt something today! Thanks.