Category Archives: Anecdotes

Photographing Shanghai from a skyscraper crane

One of my favourite photo sets from 2013 has to be the Shanghai crane operator 魏根生‘s photos from ~500 metres in the air. Here’s just one example:

Shanghai from a crane

This story circulated widely around Internet news sites. The best coverage I found was the Daily Mail’s, despite referring at one time to the photographer as “Mr Gensheng” instead of “Mr Wei”.

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Chinese in Firefly

One of my favourite science fiction shows is the short-lived Firefly series by Joss Whedon. The show is particularly interesting to me because it features bits and pieces of Chinese language and culture. Below is a bit of an overview of Chinese in Firefly.

Firefly logo

宁静 (níng jìng) means “Serenity”, which is the name of the Firefly-class ship in the show.

The premise of the show is that the USA and China became co-superpowers. When humanity became a space-faring race, the two cultures merged strongly. English and Mandarin are both spoken by most people.

Obviously, for the purposes of the intended audience, virtually all dialog is in English. People sometimes speak a small amount of Mandarin when the meaning can be understood by the audience in context (usually when they’re cursing colourfully). There are some parts where full sentences are spoken, usually by high society in formal situations (this was subtitled). It reminds me of how French was used by highly educated English speakers generations ago (and by the less educated when swearing).


靑日 (qīng rì) “blue sun”, or maybe “green sun”?

Whilst the actors in the show are great, their spoken Chinese left much to be desired. For the most part it was completely unintelligible (I confirmed this with a Taiwanese friend). I suspect the content of what they were saying was good but that they had no speaking coach on set with them to correct their pronunciation.

Firefly Chinese - Episode 2 (The Train Job), Mal Barfight

They also have many signs in Chinese and some (non-Asian looking) people wearing Chinese-style clothing (e.g. a 旗袍). Notably there are no major characters in the show of Asian descent, which is a shame.


Chinese-style clothing.

Unfortunately the show lasted only one season before being cancelled. However, it had such a strong following that they ended up doing a movie some years later called Serenity. Notably, the small amount of spoken Chinese in the movie had much better pronunciation. They had a larger budget so I think they must have had a speaking coach this time!

I really liked seeing a show that recognises the growing global influence of Chinese culture. Whether you’re a fan of this aspect or not, if you’re a fan of sci-fi at all Firefly is a must-watch!


  • – Many video snippets of Chinese being used in the show, including word break-downs and an analysis of how well it was pronounced.
  • Firefly-Serenity Chinese Pinyinary – Detailed information about pretty much every bit of Chinese used in the series and movie.
  • Firefly timeline  – A very detailed timeline of everything known about Firefly lore.
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The Beijing accent

Popup Chinese
One of my favourite Chinese podcasts to listen to at the moment is Popup Chinese. Today I listed to an episode entitled The Beijing Accent and Standard Mandarin. The main point being made was that the 儿化 or ér-isation (putting at the end of certain words) did not automatically make it non-standard Mandarin (i.e. the Beijing accent).

They gave some examples to show that there are standard Mandarin words that do/can include the diminutive without making it specific to the Beijing accent. Some of these words include:

  • 那里 vs 那儿 (there)
  • 这里 vs 这儿 (here)
  • 哪里 vs 哪儿 (where)
  • 一点 vs 一点儿 (a bit)
  • 小孩 vs 小孩儿 (child)

They made the interesting claim that saying the non-ér-ised version in Beijing would actually make you sound quite effeminate (something for males to watch out for!).

They also provided some examples of ér-ised words that really do constitude ‘the Beijing accent’ that would be incorrect in the context of standard Mandarin:

  • vs 根儿 (classifier for long slender objects)
  • 告诉 vs 告儿 (to tell someone something)
  • vs 水儿 (water — more specific to Hebei than Beijing)

You wouldn’t hear these words on TV or other places where standard Mandarin is expected.

It’s hard to know how much of this is ‘universal truth’ and how much is the opinion of Beijingers, but at least good to be made aware that there are differences. Be sure to check out the lesson, including the interesting discussion in the comments section.