Sinorrhea: Why Joss Whedon's Firefly Annoys Me

Make no mistake, I like this show. I really do. I enjoyed it and hope the people responsible for its early cancellation have been ground down into powder by now.

But the cultural narcissism annoys me.

The culture of the sci-fi TV show Firefly's universe is often billed as a "multicultural world" or as "a fusion of Occidental and Chinese cultures." I call bullshit. 

Leaving aside diversionary issues of what "Chinese" should be taken to mean here, there is little which is recognizably Chinese about anything on the show, apart from the superficial shit like the Chinese characters everywhere, a few "Asian" motifs in the art and costume design (as well as the musical score), the people eating sliced tomatoes with chopsticks, and of course the main characters spouting random snippets in barely intelligible, semi-grammatical, bizarrely phrased Mandarin every now and again. 

At least one character (River Tam) does have a Chinese name, i.e. 譚江 - or so the internet tells me. (As, presumably, does her brother Simon Tam though it's never mentioned or written anywhere that I could tell in the series, and the internet oracle knoweth naught thereof.) To the show's credit, the name 江 is real (and yes it does literally mean "River"), as is the family name 譚. Yet the name 譚 when pronounced "Tam" is a Cantonese name. A Mandarin speaker would pronounce this character as Tán. Mandarin phonology, unlike Cantonese, doesn't even allow the sound m at the end of syllables. It would be like an English name beginning with the consonants "vzg" or "pfl" (whereas some languages related to English can easily accomodate such combinations, as is to be seen from German Pflug "plow", Russian взгляд vzglyad "glance"). Since the only Chinese language/dialect which you ever hear on the show is the random Mandarin phrases and imprecations and curses, why does the only main character with a recognizable Chinese family name have a recognizably Non-Mandarin one? C'mon, Joss. At least fucking try here!

If, as the show's backstory maintains, Chinese and "Western" cultures fused in Firefly's universe because China and the US are the two superpowers that made it into space, and the Chinese element was so significant that Mandarin became a widely-used second language, then where's the actual cultural influence? Even those few aspects of Firefly's cultural norms which aren't obviously patterned off of modern America or Western Europe are not particularly prevalent in the 21st century Far East either. To be fair, some Firefly cultural traits, such as the social status of prostitutes, do have partial analogues in earlier periods in the history of different parts of East Asia (in this case the courtesan classes of Imperial China, and especially the Oiran of 19th century Japan) but surely the viewer is not meant to imagine that the Chinese that made it into space were Medieval Chinese. (Though that would make for an unusual show indeed.)

If you're going to pull a Chinese take-out with the pretty Han characters on every goddamn door and container, and afflict the cast with some bizarre form of nearly-coherent Anglo-Sinitic glossolalia, then shouldn't you consider incorporating one or two basic elements of actual Chinese social norms  into the way these people actually relate to each other? You know, just so viewers like me don't get the impression that the show's creator doesn't know jack shit about the Chinese other than that they helped gift the world with chinoiserie, use chopsticks, speak a funny language and have pretty writing. Or shit, at least take some token affirmative action and have a few characters of East Asian descent show up as guest stars? (Not that kind of "Chinese Character", McFly!) The way things went, I started wondering if all the Chinese who came into space with the Americans were all wiped out in an interplanetary genocide or something. Or maybe they all just lost their minds and joined the Reavers, seeing their culture tokenized like this.

I have watched every episode of Firefly, and nearly all of the main characters usually behave as if they were socialized in a recognizably American fashion. One exception is River, who's meant to be crazy.  The other exception is Inara, who is meant to be Buddhist. She even refers to the Buddha during some of her bouts of Chinese tourette's (e.g. the imprecation 仁慈的佛陀 Réncí de fótuó "Merciful Buddha", or at least, that's what I think she meant to say, Firefly Chinese is seldom characterized by especially stellar enunciation), has her shuttle decked out in Buddhacious fashion, evinces a mental universe which lies at a slight remove from the 21st century mainstream America, and is the only main character other than River whose name is not obviously Anglophone. Though her name, bizarrely, is actually Arabic (Ar. إنَارَةٌ Ināra "Enlightenment, Illumination, Shining.") Given that she is Buddhist and her name could mean "Enlightenment", I'm willing to bet that that's not an accident. She was meant to have this Arabic name. (Because, of course, the Arabic language has been important historically both to Buddhists and to the Chinese! *eyeroll*) In any case, the translation is of the English term "Enlightenment", not of any actual Buddhist term in Chinese. The term usually rendered as "Enlightenment" in English and other culturally  and historically kindred languages (Aufklärung, Iluminación, Просветление, etc.) has precious little to do with the romantic notions enshrined in the term as it is normally used today..

Now, I'm not saying Buddhism can't have evolved over 600 years, but Inara's Buddhism seems to have less in common with any of the actual Buddhist traditions of the Far East than it does with American New Age Buddhist confections (or, as a friend of mine once put it, "Buddhism for White Leftists.") It gets pretty funny sometimes, what with the way Buddhist art is deployed in her shuttle, for example. But what's fucked up about Inara, the Oriental with an E(x/r)otic religion and an Oriental name, is that she really does seem like she's based on a composite stereotype (albeit a rather sophisticated one) of the feminine East: the bejeweled woman in veils, who is trained in all the arts of civilization, including blowjobs. Even the pentatonic music that accompanies her plays into this. Her "Eastern" feminine persona meshes quite nicely with prostitution and naughty sex in the imaginarium of American cultural tropes. She is most strongly reminiscent of the 19th century Japanese Oiran (kind of like a geisha, only with sex actually included.) Leaving aside that this is supposed to be the future, not the past, and that China is not Japan, I wonder how Joss's ostensible cultural sensitivity could possibly be expressing itself here. Now, Inara isn't just a composite stereotype. She is her own person, a complex and well-written character, and her actions are not wholly beholden to orient-fetishism. In fact, her presence on a sci-fi show is in many ways to be welcomed. It's nice, for example, to see a sex-worker on TV who isn't scarred-for-life, actually likes her job and doesn't take kindly to people who disrespect her on account of the fact that she workfucks for a living. In terms of cultural representation, though, she is nonetheless clearly inspired not by the realities of Chinese, or even East Asian, cultures and histories, but by popular American fantasies about "The East." Joss in general seems a lot more enlightened when it comes to sex and gender than he is when it comes to culture.

Even those cultural aspects of the show's universe that aren't mere occidentalisms telescoped into the distant future do not actually employ non-western cultural phenomena, but rather American re-imaginings thereof. And Whedon didn't put the least amount of thought into any of this, of how even a slightly clued-in non-expert such as yours truly might respond to what he's doing. He'd never dare do something like this with gender.

It's shallow. Joss was either going for the lowest common American denominator here, or just didn't know any better.

Shit, why give him that much credit? It's probably a hefty dose of both. And the result has given Joss a severe case of Sinorrhea and Chinoisea. 


  1. Very interesting post! I appreciate your background and perspective.

  2. I agree with this overall, and it is much better than I could have put it. I do have to say, though, that the thread of your argument exemplified by "but surely the viewer is not meant to imagine that the Chinese that made it into space were Medieval Chinese...." is not exactly fair: the Americans who made it into space weren't from the 19th century frontier either.

    1. Sure. And of course one could things like ask: Why do they still use revolvers in the 26th century? We have handguns TODAY with higher ammunition capacities, much shorter reload times and lower jamming-rates. Firefly's universe has interplanetary travel, volumetric holographic displays, artificial gravity, and a method of propulsion that miraculously doesn't cause the crew to fly against the back of the ship every time it flies off into the sunset. Were physicists and engineers so busy mastering quantum gravity and the laws of inertia that the ancient secret of the detachable magazine and semi-automatic pistol was lost in the mists of time?

      But, aside from things like the music and the accents and scenery and some of the stock characters, and possibly some aspects of prostitution that I didn't go into here, the main Old West thing that drives Firefly is the frontierism, and in such a way that it is not specific to the old west, really. Honor-culture, vagueness of legality, society held together in questionable and dangerous ways etc. These are as much a feature of the american westward expansion as of Russia's eastward expansion.

      The values expressed by most characters are recognizably quite modernly American. And not only American, but from a very specific subset of middle-upper class America. (Consider how the men treat the women on the show.) Many of the working-class characters one finds are either (a) idealizations of what middle-upper class white America wishes the working classes would be or pretends it is, or (b) stereotypes of the working class by upper-middle class Americans. Jayne, Kaylee, Badger are cases in point.

  3. Thank you for that. It was a very interesting read. I found the "medieval people in space" thing rather jarring at first, but kind of reconciled it with "if cowboys made it to space, why not?"

    A real world explanation for a lot of the cultural issues with Firefly could probably be put down to a lack of resources. The cast probably didn't have the time or linguistic background to learn how to speak their lines correctly, the writers and translators on the show might not have been familiar enough with Putonghua, and instead of making new costumes and and props they seemed to just work with whatever they could source cheaply and easily. It is no coincidence that the Feds looked like they were wearing uniforms from Starship Troopers, because that is exactly what they were wearing.

    I did find myself forgiving Joss for a lot of Firefly's "cultural" content though. The surname Tam is not that much of an issue. The romanisation of Chinese surnames often tells you something about a person's ancestry. Here in Hong Kong, if someone has the surname Chan (陳) but it is romanised as Chen or Tan the implication is that they or their father or grandfather are from Mainland China or Taiwan (for Chan) and from Singapore or perhaps Malaysia (for Tan).

    Surnames can survive many generations too. The Tams do not look Chinese or speak it that well, but they could easily have had a Cantonese great-great grandfather. Indeed, one might assume from my surname (Kelly) that I were Irish, but the vast majority of my ancestors that I know of are English and Dutch, and I have grown up surrounded by English, Dutch and Chinese culture. Irish culture, on the other hand, is quite alien to me.

    1. In all honesty I was a bit unfairly harsh in talking about the actors' pronunciation. It's something of a commonplace cliché, whenever actors are faced with the task of speaking loads of lines in a language completely unfamiliar with them, for viewers who actually know something of the language to have a snarkfest at their expense. If I tried to pronounce Cantonese or Shanghainese I would probably sound just as ridiculous.

      That said, it *is* possible for actors with no linguistic background in a language to be coached into producing at least passable pronunciation in it. A good example is Heroes where loads of western characters are supposed to be fully proficient in Japanese. Lots of the actors know no japanese, yet manage to at least sound the way you might expect someone to sound if they're a native English-speaker who has learned Japanese. Clearly they were coached well. The result is that the show was believable to Japanese-speaking viewers.

      I one case (in Serenity) Tamara Taylor in her minor role as the teacher in River's dream clearly did make an effort to make her one line of Chinese sound presentable. It showed. She even made an attempt at getting the tones right. None of the regulars seems to have made that effort.

      Also, I don't work in the film industry, it doesn't seem like it would take a lot of resources to just find somebody with native or native-like knowledge of standard mandarin and run the chinese lines by him or her. For a few hundred bucks, several dozen of my sinophone friends would gladly have taken up the task. And finding a translation-proofreader who is a native Chinese speaker is not at all hard. The ones I know personally charge around 9 cents a word.

      At the end of the day, with the linguistic issue, it seems like they just didn't give all that much of a shit. They didn't give a shit about making the show's universe seem even a little bit plausible to people who speak Chinese or even who know a thing or two about China. It's saying "hey, we're going to incorporate all kinds of Chinese stuff into the show. But we don't care what actual Chinese people think about it. Screw them." I see this kind of thing all the time in depictions of Arabs on American TV and it's really irritating.

      But if they seriously didn't have the resources to incorporate chinese cultural and linguistic phenomena into the show in a way that shows some actual familiarity with, or at least concern for, the actual peoples and societies involved, my opinion is that that was a sign they should've seriously re-considered the whole project's realization. It wouldn't have taken much of a change in the backstory either. Just leave China out of it.

      Fair enough about surnames, but then why does River have a name that is an English loan-translation of the name 江? (Which - come to think of it - is usually a surname rather than a given name, isn't it?) I just don't see a way to explain it plausibly.

      Also, the character of Kaylee was originally supposed to be Asian, as revealed by Joss in the Firefly Companion, but I maybe they weren't too concerned with actually having any actual Asians in their universe where China was supposedly a major contributor of population and culture. I suppose it's also possible that they just couldn't find an Asian actor right for the part they had in mind. Still all seems so implausible. And having seen a lot of American movies from the 40s set in a Washington DC - the blackest city in America - whose streets appear to be populated exclusively by white people, it all leaves a pretty bad taste on my brain.

  4. It's not easy to establish an alien universe "in a galaxy far away" or wherever. It would take a great deal of imagination on the part of the writers and producers and then an even greater effort on the part of the audience (Americans and other English speakers in the main) to get their heads around it all. In short it would take too much effort and wouldn't work anyway. So you have to be clever, you have to use symbolism and easily understood stereotypes. If the Outer Planets are going to be in general terms not unlike the Wild West, then the narrative short-cut is to actually use all the familiar WW stereotypes, already familiar to the viewer, and by using this familiar symbolism much of the burden of exposition is removed. Leaving time for the important stuff, establishing the characters, relationships, situations etc. that are the meat of the narrative. Of course it couldn't *really* be just like that, it's all just a story, the 'reality' is at a deeper level, everything you see is a symbol.

    As for the Eastern elements, well of course it wasn't made for sinophiles or Mandarin speakers even. It was made for Americans and the Eastern element is no more 'real' than the Wild West. It too is symbolic --- or "the other". The idea that there are other world views, philosophies and languages out there and that they have impinged on the lives and outlook of even the anglicised characters. And for me, and I imagine most of the intended audience, this worked really well. At least it was a breath of fresh air compared to the usual space opera where even the three-eyed insects of Planet Zog speak perfect modern American English.

    In other words the 'Chinese' was just as symbolic as the six-shooters. Do you really think that in some far off future far away they'd actually speak modern mainland Mandarin? Given all the diversity of Chinese over time and space? Would the 'Western' characters be speaking (for the most part) modern American English? (Or in Badger's case a sort of Hollywood Cockney?) Course not, it's symbolic, a "narrative necessity" to get the show on the road.

    Imagine for a moment that the show had been made in China or Japan maybe. Assuming for the moment that the overall theme would have been of interest, that I can't judge. All the main characters would be Oriental and speak Mandarin or whatever, with a few hairy foreign devils in the background to give colour and suggest diversity and 'otherness'. The Wild West would be replaced with, what? Outer Mongolia maybe? It would all make sense to their viewers, who would recognise and 'read' all the symbols, but to a Western audience it would be largely incomprehensible, even with subtitles.

    Of course both the Chinese and the Western representation would be equally improbable in a distant future space colony. But at the end of the day everything is just a symbol, you're watching actors dressed up and reading their lines. Do classicists complain because the actors in Roman Holywood epics speak English not Latin? I don't think so, but I could be wrong.