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Here’s a common question: Why doesn’t Joss Whedon’s Firefly have any Chinese people?

The backstory for Firefly is pretty simple, China and America expanded into space and were the dominant cultures as the resources of Earth were exhausted. Humanity left for a new solar system to make its home and along the way the two cultures fused into the amalgam depicted in the show.

Leaving "Earth that Was"

Why, though, does it depict a culture with Chinese style, language, and art without any Chinese people? Is it cultural appropriation? Outright racism? The vagaries of casting?

No, no, of course not. In the proudest tradition of fanwanking, I’ve discovered an entirely in-universe explanation. There are dark hints of the answer to this question.

In the episode Shindig, River (who knows government secrets she’s not supposed to) has a minor freakout and tears the labels off some cans of food. Book helps settle things down, saying “She didn’t harm much. We’ll have a few mystery meals.”

Tearing the labels off cans
Mystery meals

But what a dark expression for such an innocuous comment.

In the pilot, May lays out the ship’s amenities and says they offer “protein in all the colors of the rainbow”. So the fare must be pretty bland, Book soon says “The important thing is the spices. A man can live on packaged food from here ’til Judgment Day if he’s got enough Rosemary.”

Talking about spices

Later in the show it becomes clear that Book isn’t all he seems to be — he has a government ID card that gets him prompt service from otherwise hostile bureaucrats and a bounty hunter claims he’s not really a priest.

Jayne, armed as usual

The character Jayne, though, is exactly what he seems. Big, dumb, strong, tough, and heavily armed. Mostly dumb. He has a hard time keeping up in conversations.

And yet Jayne speaks and understands Chinese fluently, never even a pause when he or another character switch languages. Does this guy look like he spends his evenings curled up with a language workbook?

No, clearly he’s learned by osmosis, and it’s not cultural osmosis. Let’s put the pieces together.

Government secrets, dark mutterings from someone who’s not who he claims to be, multilingual morons. And endless cans of protein.

Yes, it’s what you’re thinking. The Americans and Chinese may have left Earth together, but the Chinese never arrived. The Americans turned on them and, using the technology behind Spam and other abominations, manufactured canned protein from their companions.

This cannibalism is the darkest government secret, the reason River lost her mind and tries futilely to destroy food while a hidden government agent downplays the outburst.

The Firefly movie, Serenity, revolves around River’s knowledge of an atrocity the government has kept secret for years or decades. Maybe River uncovering shocking secrets was going to be a recurring element of the series. With the show canceled, we’ll never know. But at least now we know why there are no Chinese people on the show.


  1. Maybe it’s because I’m hypersensitive to the depiction of asian women, but there’s actually quite a few fetishized asian women visible in the universe (I do believe the fan dancers in the movie were depicted as Chinese).

  2. Check out the video linked in the post from ‘outright racism’, it rounds up every apparent asian in Firefly and says (though I haven’t checked) that exactly one has exactly one line.

  3. You know, I never even thought about it. That is weird. I wished Firefly would continue, especially with all the crap “Sci-Fi” shows they have running now. For such a low budget, they did phenomenal with the CGI and camera work.

    Good post though, kinda makes me wanna go watch that whole season again.

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