In the Firefly-verse, Western and Eastern cultures are mixed and many people inject Chinese into their speaking habits, usually to swear (a la frakking and frelling).

Can anyone with knowledge of Chinese speak to the accuracy? Are the actors basically cussing in Mandarin or is it a case of them making sounds that are simply a close facsimile?

2 Answers 2


Your mileage may vary. For the most part the words themselves are used correctly but the pronunciation by certain characters (especially Malcolm Reynolds and Jayne) can be very choppy. By comparison, whenever Mandarin is used by Inara it's usually quite well executed.

Also, several of the phrases are more "compound" sentences rather than something that would actually make sense in contemporary Chinese.

This would be a perfect example; Jayne says 'Wǒ de mā' which (literally) means "mother of god". Although the wording is broadly correct, his pronunciation would be far more consistent with "what the hell?" which means that it's a total mismatch.

You can find an extensive list of Chinese phrases used in Firefly, their meanings and the competence of their pronunciations here

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    That actually makes sense foj the characters to have different levels of proficiency in Chinese.
    – AncientSwordRage
    Commented Mar 8, 2014 at 23:08
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    Indeed it does, though I doubt it was intentional. They are supposed to be from an entirely bilingual culture, are they not? Commented Mar 8, 2014 at 23:17
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    @JamesSheridan - Actually from the website listed, Simon's pronunciation is terrible, as is River's. They're both supposedly geniuses.
    – Valorum
    Commented Mar 8, 2014 at 23:41
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    Although also the two most closed / least worldly. Perhaps the Core doesn't speak Chinese as often or as well? It seems the "tongue of the common man" in the show, since it is usually reserved for swearing or exclamation.
    – joshbirk
    Commented Mar 8, 2014 at 23:46
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    Correct pronunciation is more likely to come with use than with book-learnin'. I'd expect this goes especially for a complex language like Chinese. Inara has had cause to speak lots of Chinese, while Simon and River haven't. Very believable for those characters and their history. Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 1:25

It's mostly terrible. Mimicking phrases in a language you can't speak is incredibly difficult—especially if it's a language with a completely different set of phonemes and tonal qualities than what you're used to.

It's similar to when you hear non-English speakers singing English songs. Because you don't know what you're saying, even if you have the phonetic spelling written down as a reference, you're likely to screw it up when you try to deliver it naturally. You have the choice of, either:

  1. pronouncing it slowly, deliberately and accurately, or
  2. mumble through the line quickly to give a phonetic facsimile that has the appearance of fluency, but utterly butchering the actual words

For the most part, the actors seem to go with the second option, which is understandable given the context. Most of the phrases aren't meant to be understood by anyone. They just add color to the dialog.

But, yea, it's really, really bad, and most of the actors seem to know it. The intonation always feels slightly off, which is predictable since that's the hardest part for Westerners to adapt to.

It would have been nice if they'd received Mandarin lessons and shot part of the series in Taiwan, where they'd be interacting with Mandarin-speakers daily and hearing it regularly. Or, at the very least, it would've helped if they'd learned the Chinese phonetic alphabet. It'd have reduced the feeling that they were doing linguistic yellow-face.

But you really can't expect that much from an American TV show. At the very least, Whedon tried an interesting idea, and his Mandarin is reasonably accurate when he speaks it.

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    I downvoted because of "linguistic yellowface". Your views on the portrayal of other cultures in sci fi doesn't add to the usefulness of the answer.
    – Valorum
    Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 20:05
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    @Richard: Umm... that phrase describes the superficial execution of the Chinese spoken on the show. I.e. it's enough to present the "appearance" of being Chinese to non-Chinese speakers, but they're actually butchering the words with their wildly inaccurate pronunciation. This is something the cast more or less admit to in interviews, since their objective isn't to present accurate Chinese, just to add an exotic Chinese flavor. Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 21:14
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    Even so, to throw around accusations of racism is pretty unimpressive imho
    – Valorum
    Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 22:06
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    @Richard: It's not an accusation of racism or any kind of value judgment. It's a descriptive shorthand for a particular approach to cultural mimicry that is superficial in nature. I don't know why you're so hung up on that phrase. Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 6:37
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    @Richard: If I were to say that Madama Butterfly is an example of Orientalism, that is not a subjective value judgment but the use of a well established term in literary criticism. Whether other people find Orientalism offensive or not, the term is ultimately descriptive, not prescriptive or judgmental. If you find superficial portrayals of other cultures offensive, fine. But I think it's pretty clear from my answer that I don't think the actors did anything morally wrong. In an ideal world, I'd love for them to speak perfect Mandarin, but that doesn't mean I'm calling them racist. Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 7:17

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