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.

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