Serenity Green

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"{.alignnone .size-full .wp-image-1200 width=”720” height=”352”}

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.”

::: left Tearing the labels off cans{.size-medium .wp-image-1202 width=”300” height=”163”} Mystery meals{.size-medium .wp-image-1203 width=”300” height=”163”} :::

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{.alignnone .size-full .wp-image-1208 width=”704” height=”384”}

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{.alignright .size-full .wp-image-1209 width=”280” height=”284”}

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.