Firefly – Entertaining Chinese Lessons

I stumbled across a show last night that is just fan-frigin’-tastic. Now, like a lot of things, I have a feeling I’m coming late to the game with this and am generally braced for a bunch of “get with the program, Firefly is SOOOO three years ago” comments … but here we go.

I remember back in my pre-China days seeing advertisements for the latest in a long line of ‘boot around space and avoid the bad guys with interesting life lessons along the way’ sci-fi shows. And when Maggie brought home the movie Serenity that touted “Based On The Popular Firefly TV Series” several months ago, some of this touched on familiar with me.

I liked the film, and when I was DVD shopping shortly before I left for Canada I grabbed the first season of Firefly. Having finished Season 2 of Lost, Maggie and I were looking for something to watch over hot pot last night (have I mentioned how much I missed Chinese food?) and so I popped it in. We then spent the next four or five hours watching a good chunk of the season with compulsion.

The show follows the crew of a Firefly-class transport/smuggling ship called Serenity as they boot around the outer reaches of the galaxy. The production value is pretty high, and the storylines are fun and funny with a healthy amount of violence and sexiness.

I’m not ALL that surprised that I’m hooked on it, I dig such things. But I was a bit stunned that Maggie loves it too. The thing is, it’s a sci-fi show that plays like a Western (as in cowboys, not McDonalds) cum sit-com. The kicker though, at least for us with interests in the Middle Kingdom, is there’s a shitload of Chinese spattered throughout.

I can’t imagine what it would be like watching the show with no Chinese language learning and having the characters shoutout random things in Chinese. Well, I guess most Western viewers (not you fans of course, just the plebs, please don’t crucify me) just assume it’s some futuristic language mumbo jumbo. That’s funny. Anyway, it’s a great resource for all sorts of Chinese expressions, that are generally NOT in your text books.

Random things heard last night (my translations are rough, as is my Chinese):
ta1 ma de! (他妈的) = ah crap! (lit. his/her mother’s)
zhen1 niu2 bi! (真牛屄)= awesome! (lit. real cow vagina)
tian1 ne! (天哪) = my god!
hun2 dan4 (浑蛋) = jerk/bastard (lit. stupid egg)
jian4 ta1 ma de gui3 (见他妈的鬼) = nonsense/bullshit (lit. see his/her mother’s ghost)
fei1 hua4 (非话) = nonsense/bullshit (lit. non-speech)

Maggie had more problems understanding their Chinese than I for the simple reason that she, like most of her compatriots, is hung up on the whole “tones” thing. The crew of the Firefly, much like myself, have a blatant disregard for the tonal component of this language.

On top of the Mandarin dialog in the script, there are also numerous written and cultural references to China. Even if you are absolutely anti sci-fi, but you have a passing interest in things Chinese, I suggest giving the show a watch.

As I said, I know I’m late to the game with this observation, and as such here are some links, found at’s cool wiki, that contain more information about the show and its Chinese content: Forum
Firefly-Serenity Chinese Pinyinary – Dialog by Episode
Firefly Talk Podcast website
The Signal – many episodes have a “How to Speak Chinese” segment and they have a nice page on “Firefly Chinese” replete with accompanying audio file examples! region Firefly.

10 Responses

  1. Went looking for this today. It looks like Dalian finally decided to crack down on all of the DVD pirates, and there wasn’t any to be found. 🙁

  2. @Lorcan/Meg: Yeah – it rocks. We’re about a disc away from finishing the first series. Wow, did that in under a week.

    @Steve: I’ve heard that they’re closed at the moment. I wouldn’t sweat it – it happens every couple of months; usually tied in to WTO officials visiting Beijing.

  3. I was one of those people who actually watched Firefly when it was on TV. I love Joss Whedon. I highly recommend Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Mal” plays a villain in the Season 7) as well as Angel (“Zoe” plays a villain in Season 4). Anyway, I always loved how they used a lot of Chinese phrases in that show. It’s kind of a nod to the fact that that Chinese, as well as English, is a dominant language that will no doubt be around for a long time. The movie Blade Runner kind of does the same thing (with the whole language thing, I mean).

    Ryan, you said you were almost finished with “the first series”. You do know that there’s no second series (or season as we say in the U.S.), don’t you?

    Also, why is “real cow vagina” awesome?

  4. @Stu: Yeah… I know 🙁

    As for NiuB … I just have no idea. Why do we say “that’s the cat’s ass” or “that’s the dog’s bollocks”… apparently each culture seems to focus on a different animal’s naughty bits for greatness.

  5. Yeah, I guess so. Of course, we “Yanks” don’t say either of those other things either. Although, we do say (maybe not me, but some people), “That’s the sh*t” meaning something that’s good.

  6. As far as I know (what I picked up while I was growing up in south-east asia), ta1 ma1 de4 does not mean “ah crap”. Its pretty close to the english expression “your mom”, but in this case, it refers obliquely to “your mom’s genitals”.

    It’s a lot more vulgar than “ah crap”.

  7. Hey JP – if you were saying “你妈的/nǐ mā de” you’d be right. This means “your mom’s…” which can imply any of a number of things about the persons mother (fucking her, her naughty bits, just referring to her negatively in general)… however, 他妈的/tāmāde is a bit different. Only slightly, but that’s all that matters really.

    Here are a couple sample statements using it:

    Car swerves in front of you and cuts you off:
    Boss tells you you’re fired:
    Boss tells you you’re fired from a job you hate and want to leave:
    “没他妈的问题/méi tāmāde wèntí” – basically meaning, “no fucking problem.”

    Though you may be right in that it’s a bit more vulgar than ‘ah crap’ – it’s often used, and in casual conversation with friends, quite common.

  8. Pingback: Moving Beyond CCTV9 | A China Blog on Suzhou Expat Life | The Humanaught

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