The Kingdom of Shangri-La

At the beginning of Cinderella Moon, its orphaned heroine Mei Mei asks why it’s not possible for heaven to be on earth as it was when she was a child and her mother was still alive. Taking a look at her childhood home in northern Yunnan province, more mythically known as “Shangri-La,” or paradise on earth, it’s understandable that childhood seemed that much like heaven to her.

Shangri-La is a natural setting for the film’s fairytale world, and it also happens to be where the original Cinderella story is said to have been written in 768 AD.

THE TEA HORSE TRAIL

There’s speculation that the original Chinese Cinderella story may have gotten its start migrating to Europe and morphing into its more familiar European Cinderellas via the famous Tea Horse Trail, the ancient southern route — its counterpart was the Silk Road route in the north — where China and Tibet exchanged tea and horses. Time, the elements, and Chinese efforts to pave over the Tea Horse Trail have eroded it, but its legend lives on.

Cinderella Moon’s Full Moon Dance was shot on location in an ancient town in Yunnan called Shaxi. An UNESCO-protected historical site, Shaxi is an old tea-horse town with a Wild West feel. If speculation about the original Cinderella story heading west along the Tea Horse Trail is true, it probably made a stop in Shaxi along the way. Until modern times, horses were the only way to cross the rugged mountains, and some of their descendents live on in Shangri-La and are still used to this day for local portage. Descendents of Tea Horse Trail horses even helped transport some of the film equipment to rugged locations for Cinderella Moon!

Shangri-La has always been a real place, but its rugged remoteness and cultural independence from China proper — the locals even had their own pictographic language — have always cloaked it in the mystery of a “lost kingdom.”

SHANGRI-LA’S EXPLORER: JOSEPH ROCK

Shangri-La remained largely hidden from outsiders until it was “discovered” by the west in the 1930s by intrepid self-taught botanist, cartographer, linguist and explorer Joseph Rock (1884 – 1962). His writings for National Geographic and Harvard intrigued westerners who knew little about southwest China or the borderlands of Tibet. His photographs of Yunnan ethnic tribes, scenic splendor and hidden monasteries even inspired literature.

SHANGRI-LA’S MYTHMAKER: JAMES HILTON

In Lost Horizon, (1933), James Hilton tells the story of Hugh Conway and a fictional monastery he’s taken to after his plane crashes in Tibet. Called “Shangri-La
in the novel, the hidden monastery is a utopian place cut off from the rest of the world that’s so beautiful it seems to describe paradise on earth. There, its inhabitants live peaceful, seemingly eternal lives. To people who were repudiating the ugliness of the 20th century, the idea of an earthly paradise high in the mountains where people live peacefully proved to be irresistible.

RETURN TO SHANGRI-LA: CINDERELLA MOON

By filming Cinderella Moon in Yunnan province, Richard Bowen returned to Shangri-La both geographically and culturally to explore the birthplace of the Cinderella fairytale and to see what it still has to teach us. It was in Yunnan that he found the perfect location for the magic realism style he was going for.

“Aside from northern Yunnan’s beauty,” says director Richard Bowen, “it’s also an area of China that has largely escaped the ravages of modern development, so that it was possible, using a number of locations in that area, to stitch together a believable world from long ago.” In Shangri-La, there’s a sense of magic in the air everywhere you go…what better place for a fairy tale?

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.