[박상현의 일상 속 문화사] (29) Is Aladdin Chinese?

Aladdin, a turban-wearing ‘Youth of Arab descent’, made by Hollywood

A Thousand and One Nights in the Middle East ‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’
The real Aladdin in the nuclear power plant is Chinese.
‘Useless lazy boy living in China’ introduction

However, the whole flow of the story other than the intro
Character names and places are all Arabic
‘Unknown World’ with Persian fantasy added
It looks like it was drawn as an Arab in a movie or animation

In the illustrations of Aladdin’s storybook by 19th-century British illustrator Walter Crane, Aladdin is dressed in Chinese or East Asian style clothes.

In 2017, when Disney announced that it was making a live-action version of the 1992 animated hit ‘Aladdin’, people’s attention was focused on who the main character would be. The reason is this. Throughout the 20th century, when the genre of film was born and grew into a huge industry, Hollywood took it for granted that white actors played characters of color. In the movie ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (1961), Mickey Rooney, a white actor who played the role of a Japanese Yui Oshi with a frown on his face and grimacing teeth, is typical, but it is so common that it is difficult to list all cases, so ‘whitewashing’ ‘ was given the name.

It is an excuse to say that the most common and readily available actor is white. It is a multiracial society, and actors of color were readily available, but it is a practice that has continued under the pretext that the audience prefers white actors. However, in the 21st century, critical public opinion about this has grown, and film studios are slowly starting to realize that even though it is still reluctant to make a film starring people of color, at least the characters of color in the movies should use actors of color.

There was a reason for the interest in Aladdin’s live-action film. Aladdin is a well-known character appearing in ‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’ among ‘A Thousand and One Nights’, a collection of stories from the Middle East. In ‘Aladdin and His Lamp’, which was produced in Hollywood in 1952, a white actor named Johnny Sands played the role of Aladdin without any make-up, but since the 1992 work was an animation, the skin color was slightly darkened and it had an Arab feel. I differentiated enough and moved on.

However, in the live-action version, the race of the casting actor is clearly revealed, and public opinion in the 21st century no longer allows whitewashing. In the end, Disney had to save an Arab actor. The actors saved were Mena Massoud (Aladdin), an Egyptian-Canadian actress, and Naomi Scott (Princess Jasmine), an Indian-British actress. But Scott, who plays Jasmine, was a mixed Indian and white actor, so he couldn’t avoid the criticism that “Disney chose the whitest-skinned actress out of all people of color.”

However, whenever there is a story about Aladdin’s race like this, there is a controversy that does not fall out. Is Aladdin really Arab in Thousand and One Nights? To put it bluntly, the answer is ‘no’. People who have seen A Thousand and One Nights in movies or animations think that it is a story of Arab descent or somewhere in the Middle East, but in the book Aladdin is Chinese. At the beginning of ‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’, Aladdin introduces himself as a useless “lazy boy” who lives with his mother in “a city in China”.

In ‘Aladdin and the Lamp’ made in Hollywood in 1952, Aladdin is portrayed as a Muslim, but the actors are all white.

Then, who created the image of Aladdin, the ‘Arab young man’ we know? The easiest ‘culprit’ to find is the figure of an Arab young man wearing a turban in the 1952 movie Hollywood talked about earlier. However, it cannot be said that it is necessarily the fault of the American film. In the Aladdin film made in India in the same year, Aladdin only appears as an Indian or Persian character, which is far from Chinese. Why did this happen?

To know this, it is necessary to look at the literature where the story of Aladdin first appeared. The first person to introduce ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ to the world outside the Middle East was the 17th century French orientalist Antoine Galland. In 1677, while working in the Middle East through the French East India Company, Galang studied the languages ​​and literature of Arab, Turkish, and Persian (now Iran) regions. was first translated into French and introduced to Europe. However, among the stories he introduced as ‘A Thousand and One Nights’, there are also stories that are not included in the Thousand and One Nights in the Middle East. The representative stories he arbitrarily inserted are ‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’ and ‘Alibaba and the 40 Thieves’.

According to Galang’s diary, ‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’ was heard from a storyteller from Syria. This man, Hannah Diyabra, said that while visiting Paris, he met Galang, an oriental scholar (in Europe at the time, the East meant the Middle East and the whole of Asia) and told him a story he knew. appeared as Chinese. And since then, in the illustrations in various editions of ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ published in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, Aladdin is clearly dressed in Chinese clothes and appears in a Chinese-style background. In other words, when Aladdin’s story was first introduced to Europe, he was faithful to the original source, but after that, as it spread to other regions, Aladdin’s nationality changed from China to Arab somewhere.

But there is good reason for that. First of all, the fact that Aladdin is Chinese does not play any role in the development of the story. It is only mentioned in the introduction. In fact, the only place names mentioned in Aladdin’s story are China and the Maghreb of North Africa. It was only that the magician who came to Aladdin came from Maghreb. However, all names and titles appearing throughout the story belong to Arab culture. In China, a king or emperor must appear, but in Aladdin’s story, ‘Sultan’ appears, and Badur Ulvadur, the name of the princess whom Aladdin falls in love with, is also an Arabic name. In cartoons and movies, the familiar name Jasmine appears in the English-speaking world. In the end, it is not an exaggeration to say that the story of Aladdin, which Galang heard from a storyteller from Syria, is a typical Middle Eastern story, except that the main character is from China.

“Then, there are some who hypothesize that Aladdin is not a Hui, a Muslim living in China.” Geographically they are China, but culturally they are Muslims like Arabs, so both conditions are met. However, there is no other reason to believe that Aladdin’s story is the story of the Hui. Rather, it seems more correct to view it as a result of the illusion of the ‘unknown world’ that people had at the time.

Christine M Moon, an American historian, explains that the reason Aladdin was introduced as a character living in Persia in American movies and cartoons was that the region was an ‘unknown world’ that Westerners were not familiar with. However, for the Syrian storyteller Hannah Dyyab, who told Galang the story for the same reason, it is highly likely that such an unknown world was China. At the time when Aladdin was about to say that Aladdin lived in a faraway country, the most unknown world for storytellers in the Middle East to come up with was China.

If this content can be conveyed orally or written in a book, there is no big problem. Start talking Chinese and that’s it. However, movies and cartoons produced in the 20th century are different. You have to give the audience a compelling reason why the Chinese protagonist went to the Middle East and fell in love with the sultan’s daughter, how the language was communicated, how she had to change her dress, and so on. However, in the original work, there is no explanation other than that Aladdin is Chinese, and above all, even the name Aladdin is a typical Arabic name. Then, the question of why it was so hard to make Aladdin Chinese was inevitable, and if he just changed him to a Muslim, all the problems could be solved at once.

[ⓒ 세계일보 & Segye.com, 무단전재 및 재배포 금지]

.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *