In honor of the Firefly Ten Year Reuninon at Comicon, let’s take a look at show in terms of the Chinese used with video to boot.
Now, I’ve seen really crappy Chinese in movies but this show is in a class all unto itself. The first time I watched it with Lorraine (my wife) and Kaye (my daughter) they asked me what in the world the actor’s were saying. They didn’t believe me when I said it was Mandarin Chinese as they both speak Chinese with native fluency and they didn’t catch it. I played the bit again and eventually had to tell them what was being said. I used to play a game with my students at the university to see who could identify the phrase first. In brief, the actors on Firefly spoke pretty shitty Chinese.
Years earlier, Lorraine and I were watching a John Wayne movie set in China in which the Duke is guiding a bunch of refugees safely to Hong Kong out of the clutches of the Evil Communists. When he spoke Chinese, I could understand him but Lorraine had no clue. This is in part because I’ve a very liberal ear and am used to hearing dialect and very pronounced (sometimes butchered) accents.
Now, I don’t blame the cast from Firefly for their shitty Chinese, I blame their Chinese coach (yes they had a coach who helped them with pronunciation). These folks are professional actors and I’ve seen many of them do roles that required finesse. Tell them what to say and teach them how to say it and they should be able to ape the accent whether or not they actually speak the words. When I performed in a university production of Children of a Lesser God most attendees – including the deaf folks especially invited to the performance – assumed I was deaf and fluent in sign language but when I was approached by native speakers of ASL I was at a loss as I could not converse in that I only knew my lines, as substantial as they were for the role in that production (I played Orin, a substantial role in the play but gutted for the movie so William Hurt could eat more screen).
One problem with Firefly is that the actors are incredibly off the mark on their pronunciation and they don’t seem to realize that Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language that by shifting tones one changes meaning. Had they had the concept more rigorously spelled out perhaps they would have done better at least at mimicking. Then again, maybe not. If you are told and believe it’s a difficult language then you may have issues (hint, Chinese is very difficult in terms of written language but it’s fairly easy for most folks in terms of spoken).
In any case, here’s a lesson in Firefly Chinese in video form:
If you don’t speak Chinese, you are likely not going to get the nuance of this video or fully comprehend its awesomousity. Chinese speakers are currently scratching their heads and mouthing “What the Fuck?!?”
Want more Chinese from the show, the folks at Topless Robot have a list of Firefly’s 15 Best Chinese Curses (and How to Say Them) that’s very very good fun. Seriously, you’ll love it.
You can get more Firefly Chinese goodness from the folks at the Firefly Chinese educational site.
Despite the state of the Chinese in the show, I love Firefly and was really bummed when Fox gutted it to punish Josh Whedon for one presumed sleight or another. It was a wonderful show and I still hope it gets another movie (it had one, Serenity, but we can always dream of more).
The ten year reunion thing was just held at Comic Con and they intend to broadcast a television special on it in November. Good stuff.
Here’s Joss Whedon’s final speech:
Oh, if only we could be there for the whole thing and if only we didn’t have to wait until November for more.
All the best,