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Was Cinderella Chinese Before She was French?



Was Cinderella Chinese Before She was French?
Image credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Last night, after watching the official Cinderella (2015) trailer on, something prompted me to scroll down the page and read the comments. The first one questioned why all the characters are white — again. There were dozens of replies ranging from the seemingly obvious (the setting is Europe, naturally, the characters are white) to the racist and sarcastic (why don’t you produce your own movie with an all-black cast?). The word “Negro” was bandied around cruelly and I was at that point again when I was telling myself that, with most people’s inability to discuss an issue without throwing personal attacks, the human race is doomed.

I had read more than two dozen comments when I came across one posted by a lady with a very Chinese surname. Addressing the multiple comments about how the story happened in Europe, she pointed out that there are many versions of the same basic story and the oldest seems to be the Chinese tale about a girl called Ye Xian (also, Yeh-Shen or Yeh Hsien). The tale was first published in the 9th century, pre-dating the oldest European Cinderella (Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon) by about 800 years.

Another commenter picked up the thread and said it is totally possible that the tale did originate in China and reached Europe via the Silk Road, the name given to the routes taken by Chinese merchants to sell their silk to Europe, which has been in use since 206 BC.

From Cinderella: A Cross-cultural Story:

The fact that over 900 versions have been written is a testament to the “potent” power of this story. Almost every culture seems to have its own version. Anna Rooth discovered the wide dissemination of the story, beyond the European realm. She published her research in The Cinderella Cycle. Cinderella stories date back as early as 850 A.D. with the first written version of the Chinese tale Yeh-Shen. The most popular, modern version was written and published by Charles Perrault of France in 1697. The Disney version is based on Perrault’s story. Even though each version differs in characters, plot, use of magic, and other details, a common theme binds them all. They each tell the story of a young girl or boy who is mistreated by family or community but is eventually recognized and rewarded for goodness and virtue. Most versions include an ineffective father, the absence of a mother figure, some sort of gathering such as a ball or festival, mutual attraction with a person of high status, a lost article, and a search that ends with success.

Further reading:

Multicultural Cinderella Stories (a list of various versions of Cinderella by continent and country)
Asian Origins of Cinderella: The Zhuang Storyteller of Guangxi
Cinderella, a Casebook