Origins of the Story

Did You Know That Cinderella Was Originally Chinese?

A little over 1200 years ago in the remote mountains of southern China, a merchant named Tuan Cheng Shih set brush to paper and recorded the world’s first known telling of the Cinderella story.

He lived in a wild frontier that today we call Yunnan province, beyond the border of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), in a magical area often described as paradise on earth, or Shangri-La.

The Tang Dynasty existed during China’s Golden Age, a time when its culture reached a pinnacle that many think has never again been matched. Science, art and commerce were flourishing, the empire was expanding, and the capital Xian was the largest city in the world, ruling an empire with a population of 50 million.

But life wasn’t so good for half of that population: women and girls. Society was based around the family, and men ruled their families with an iron hand. Most wives were little more than servants whose main job was to give their husbands sons. Girls were considered of little value.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Cinderella story — about a girl growing up without a family in a family-based society that only valued boys — would remain obscure in the country of its birth. But somehow it survived, and over the next 800 years, it found its way to the west. Many guess that it started that long journey by crossing the Himalayas along the ancient Tea Horse Trail.

Cinderella: From China to Europe to Burbank, California

It eventually arrived in Renaissance Europe, a culture steeped in chivalry and romantic love. After a few hundred years of re-writes, Cinderella became a damsel-in-distress who gets rescued by a prince in a castle after enduring cruelties worthy of the Dark Ages. France, Italy and Germany all claimed the poor orphaned girl as their own and no one had any idea that she was born in the far east.

Fast forward to Burbank, California, 1951, and Cinderella’s western makeover was complete. According to the Hollywood cartoon we grew up with, a girl’s best shot at living a fulfilled life was to attract a handsome and powerful man who’d whisk her into fantasy-land and fulfill all her needs.

Cinderella Moon: It’s Beyond Prince Charming

A half century later, in 2005, veteran Hollywood cinematographer Richard Bowen was living in Beijing with his wife, Jenny, and two adopted daughters. They had moved to China to expand the work of their burgeoning non-profit, Half the Sky, a foundation that helps children living in Chinese orphanages.

When Richard heard that scholars had determined that the first datable Cinderella story was written in China in 768 AD, he was intrigued by the connection between the work with orphans his family was doing in China and the fact that the quintessential orphan story originated there. He tracked down the original text in a dusty antiquities museum in Beijing (you can see the original manuscript above), and pretty soon, he was hard at work adapting a screenplay in the style of magic realism, perfectly suited to its ancient Chinese setting.

By enriching the original ancient tale of a mistreated girl with elements of Chinese cosmology, Cinderella Moon restores this ancient fairy tale to its original Chinese roots. Its story is recognizable but, ironically, more relevant to today’s world than the modern, westernized version most of us know.