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Sinorrhea and the Strumpet: 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, and some of the subtle sexism is hard to overlook. 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. ...