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Often the English-speaking characters in Firefly speak curses and slang in Chinese because of the mixing of American and Chinese cultures in the universe. Often audio recordings are also said in both English and Chinese.

I am wondering if there is any canon source that says that the English-speaking characters such as the Serenity crew actually know Chinese or if they simply know Chinese curses and slang.

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Yes, they can all speak Chinese (Mandarin, in fact).

Per this cast/crew featurette with Joss Whedon:

"The idea was that your most basic white-trash person can speak Chinese. The person with no education who y'know was the last person you'd expect, speaks Chinese off the bat."

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    Interestingly, no one on the show ever actually spoke Chinese (Mandarin) well, so I guess the white trash descriptor was accurate. – James Sheridan Dec 2 '14 at 3:00
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    @jamessheridan - Inara ' s pronunciation was supposedly excellent but that was more down to the actress. – Valorum Dec 2 '14 at 9:47
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    And makes sense, given her position closer to high-society when compared to the others (other than Simon) – Zibbobz Dec 2 '14 at 14:32
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    @Zibbobz - According to interviews, Simon's Chinese was absysmal. Again (out of universe) that wasn't a deliberate plan, it was just down to the actor. – Valorum Dec 2 '14 at 14:33

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