Firefly‘s ill-advised Chinoiserie

I hate to do this (it’s so introductory composition), but this word is just too apt, and yet it begs clarification. From the New Oxford American Dictionary:

chinoiserie |ˌ sh ēnˌwäz(ə)ˈrē; ˌ sh ēnˈwäzərē|
noun ( pl. -ries)
the imitation or evocation of Chinese motifs and techniques in Western art, furniture, and architecture, esp. in the 18th century.
• objects or decorations in this style : a piece of chinoiserie | one room has red velvet and chinoiseries.

Well, I should have known. Almost half of the comments on my earlier post went immediately to the heart of one of the “problematic” (as my 19th century women’s literature instructor loved to say) aspects of Firefly, which is the way Joss Whedon makes use (that’s really the best way to put it) of Chinese culture, and, primarily language.

It has become popular lately for sci-fi shows to mine imaginary alien languages for censor-proof profanities (before “frak” in Battlestar Gallactica, there was “frell” in the underrated Farscape). Of course, Joss Whedon hates aliens, as he’ll tell you several times on his DVD commentaries, perhaps specifically because he had enough of the vampires and demons he’d populated his two previous shows with. Unlike those other shows, Whedon preferred to derive his futuristic words from existing ones, so when it came to profanity, he decided to use a real “alien” language instead.

When you think about it that way, what happened is scarcely surprising at all. Now, let’s not be too surprised that the actors can’t pronounce the Mandarin Chinese well (or at all). I’m sure they didn’t get the prep time they needed, and even if they did, it’s so far from easy to do (believe me, I’ve been trying to learn it lately). But of course, it doesn’t help that none of the actors are of Chinese descent (not that there aren’t also Chinese American actors with zero proficiency in Chinese, of course).

I watched the show very carefully this time and can confidently report that at no point whatsoever does any actor of apparent East Asian extraction utter a word on the show (in any language). There are, however, more Asian extras than you usually see, perhaps in every third episode or so (this is a very general approximation). They are used as human background, accompaniments to the Chinese-themed sets and props and Chinese language signs. That’s right: the Asian actors are the Mos Eisley aliens, blending in with the Chinoiserie of the set decor.

There is, apparently, some background to this, but it’s never clearly articulated in the show. We always hear the back-story that Mal Reynolds, the main character, fought on the side of the Independents against the Alliance, and it is the Alliance (which acts like a debased versions of the heroic Federation of Star Trek, and looks like a toned-down version of the the evil Galactic Empire from Star Wars) that continues to hound him in his second life as a smuggler.

However, ancillary materials such as the DVD/Blu-Ray special features or the book The Firefly Companion clarify that the full name of the Alliance is the Sino-American Alliance, by which we are to understand that, before humans had to abandon the Earth (this part is explained most clearly in the film Serenity), the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China somehow merged and attained world hegemony. The galactic government that the Serenity crew face is a descendant of that imperial fusion, an Alliance that won, through war, the right to extend its dominance over the galaxy where humans made their new home.

If we really think about this, we can see that Whedon has actually managed to evoke two seemingly contradictory negative images of the Chinese in his work here. First, they are our inevitable rulers, and their inherently cruelty is perhaps responsible for the fact that the Alliance’s despotic tendencies go far beyond what George W. Bush ever dreamed of. At the same time, the Chinese are usually invisible, always silent, pure decoration rather than human beings.

What’s not strictly clear is whether this was always the plan. Kaylee Frye, the sweet, good-hearted mechanic,  is supposed to have originally been Asian, according to a costume designer quoted in the Companion. The brother and sister pair of Simon (stuck-up doctor) and River (insane victim of government experiments) share the Cantonese surname Tam, but are clearly white (they have black hair, anyway! Um, yeah), and they’re not the only white characters with Asian names. What really interests me, though, is this unverifiable tidbit I stumbled across:

The original pitch, I’m given to understand, included a racial element in that the Han Chinese were the dominant culture and language. The captain was on the losing side of a war and presumably in the original context he would have been on the losing cultural side as well; the authorities on many planets would have been Han; the two upper-class fugitives who join the crew would have been Han; etc. All that remains of this very cool background idea is some mis-pronounced Chinese dialog and big Chinese characters stenciled onto the sets.

Well, now that’s interesting, if true. Was Whedon originally planning to avoid the “silent Chinese” image while going ahead full throttle with the “malevolent Chinese”? If so, what happened? The casting directors couldn’t, or wouldn’t, find any Asian actors for him? The network reigned him in, afraid that too many Asian actors would put off “mainstream” viewers, or that Asian advocacy groups would cry foul, or both? Did the Sino Alliance become the Sino-American Alliance in order to account for the scarcity of Asian actors?

I leave it to the reader: would it have been preferable to have evil Asians over silent Asians, is the show better as it is, or are both equally bad outcomes?

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4 thoughts on “Firefly‘s ill-advised Chinoiserie

  1. To answer your question at the end, I think there are a few ways of looking at it: I think it would largely depend on the way the “evil Asians” are represented, because it would be easy to fall into the ages old Fu-Manchu stereotypes of Asian Villainy: stilted accents, mysterious, smoke-filled chambers, long fingernails and bushy facial hair (I’m looking at you, “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”). But imagine, if the “Han Asians” were written with as much care as the protagonists, actually spoke Chinese (cuz that’s how they would communicate, if they stick with the show’s back-story), and didn’t live in a space-going opium lounge. Then, that would make a difference.

    1. Well, as Fontaine points out on the other post, chances are they’d cast non-native speakers at best, or at worst, Chinese or “other Asian” people with no spoken Mandarin at all! In that case, you might regret your insistence on all dialog being in Mandarin!

      The truth is, I think Whedon is generally uneasy at best when it comes to race. I mean heck, the show’s last episode as well as the film are based on the unrelenting threat of a scary black guy (very different kinds of scary black guys, but still). So I base my hazy suspicion that it would have been “Fu Manchu” all the way had he been able to make the Chinese the villains. But frankly, I’m not sure that would be the only way to make it offensive. Wouldn’t it be a bit bogus for the Chinese to be fascists and the whites to be the freedom fighters? Sure, the mainland Chinese state is totalitarian, but it’s not as if it’s white folk fighting against its dominance, and the suggestion that we will is kinda “yellow peril” isn’t it? I dunno, maybe I’m being too picky now.

  2. I pretty much agree that the whole “Chinese” universe background was poorly conceived of in the first place. It feels like Whedon needed something “exotic” and since the Japanese had been overdone already in cyberpunk (i.e. Gibson in “Neuromancer”), the Chinese were next in line. In a lot of ways, it matches with the current sensibilities about the Chinese as emerging power (in a lot of ways mirroring the growing economic power of the Japanese during the ’80s when “Neuromancer” was written).

    Well, in his defense, nobody’s perfect.

    1. Definitely, that’s what Stacy (who complained on the last post) said too, it’s all overly based on the idea that today’s geopolitical situation will never change much,

      Also, since my last two posts have been picked up by a Firefly link aggregator, I do want to reiterate (perhaps obvious in light of my first post) for those folks that this is far from a dealbreaker in terms of enjoying the show, at least for me, and that I’m certainly not accusing Whedon of “racism” or anything simple as that. I imagine that he thought he was paying homage, rather, but it’s quite easy to misstep when it comes to portraying people that Hollywood has almost always mis-portrayed (by that, I mean basically everyone who’s not Anglo!).

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