Mandarin Chinese in Western TV Shows, Part II

Dec 27, 2018 | East meets West

Last week, we began exploring the exciting topic of Mandarin Chinese in Western TV Shows. Let’s continue our journey into the world of non-Chinese actors and actresses who attempt to speak Chinese. There are two TV shoes on our today’s agenda: Castle and Marvel’s Iron Fist!


1.Mandarin Chinese in Castle

 Mandarin Chinese in Western TV Shows

Castle (灵书妙探 Língshū miàotàn, literally “Spiritual-book’s-exquisite-investigation”) is a popular American crime-comedy-drama television series. It tells a story of a famous mystery novelist, Richard Castle, who gets tired of writing and experiences a writing crisis. After a serial killer imitates the plots of his novels, he goes to the police and receives a permission to work along with NYPD homicide investigation team to find the killer.


Castle speaks Chinese

In one episode, they speak to Chinese workers who do not understand English. Castle says, “My partner is crazy and may start firing at any women” in Chinese.

Beckett asks in English, “Semester abroad?”
Castle: “No, a TV show I used to love.”

Learning Chinese from a TV show? Sounds too good to be true!

But what exactly did he say? Let’s have a look. He says:

我同伴脑子不正常,随时都可能开枪。Wǒ tóngbàn nǎozi bù zhèngcháng, suíshí dōu kěnéng kāi qiāng.

(“My partner-brain-not-normal, anytime-might-start-shooting.”)

Mandarin Chinese in Western TV Shows


How good is his Chinese, really?

Now let’s test his Chinese skills that he’d allegedly gained from his favorite TV show. For that, let’s turn to Chinese native speakers, or namely the “bullet screen” group – online viewers who post their on-screen comments to movies, TV shows and videos in real time.

They kept silent before Castle said this phrase, but when he said it, this “bullet screen” group exploded, commenting that his Chinese was so bad they wanted to cry. Sorry, Castle – but here’s proof that you can’t learn a language just by watching a show.

Chinese level: ★☆☆☆☆


2.Mandarin Chinese in Marvel’s Iron First

Mandarin Chinese in Western TV Shows

And here we are! Our today’s icing on the cake!

Marvel’s Iron Fist (铁拳 Tiěquán), or simply Iron Fist, is an American web television series created for Netflix by Scott Buck, based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name. In this comic series, so many things in Iron Fist’s bio are related to China. Here’s what Gil Kane said about this character:

“…started “Iron Fist” because I’d seen my first kung fu movie, even before a Bruce Lee one came out, and it had a thing called “the ceremony of the Iron Fist” in it.”

This character appeared during an American pop culture trend of martial arts heroes in the early to mid-1970s. The main character in this TV show, Danny Rand (Finn Jones) becomes an expert in Martial Arts. He’s a billionaire who combined martial arts skills with mystical powers, using his powers to defeat the evil forces. Sounds great!

But in China, “Iron Fist” turned out to be a “so-so” kind of TV show, and didn’t attract much attention. Its rating is 5.6 out of 10 on Douban, China’s social networking website. No wonder Chinese people didn’t like this – it included many distortions of Chinese culture.


Danny Speaks Chinese

Western TV shows with Non-Chinese speaking Mandarin

There is scene where you can notice a security guard carrying a sword instead of a gun. An ancient sword! During the training, there is a scene with the main character meditating and mumbling something in Chinese that – as you might think, was supposed to be some kind of a prayer. But it’s just a random bunch of phrases! He was saying:

“红~玛尼~贝贝~红~” Hóng ~mǎní ~bèibèi ~hóng ~ (“Red, Mani (god), Baby, Red”.)

Resembles Winter Soldier’s activation code, huh?

There is another moment when Danny meets Colleen Wing (played by Jessica Henwick). It’s worth mentioning that Jessica has some Chinese ancestry, as her mother is Singaporean Chinese. So Danny begins to speak to her in Mandarin, an Asian language (he thinks) he is really good at.

[Danny: 这是个中文名字吗?你怎么会教日本忍术?Zhè shìgè zhōngwén míngzì ma? Nǐ zěnme huì jiào rìběn rěn shù? (Is this a Chinese name? How do you teach Japanese Ninjutsu?)

Colleen:你问这干吗?Nǐ wèn zhè gànma? (What are you asking for?)

Danny:没什么。我就是想。。。找工作。Méishénme. Wǒ jiùshì xiǎng… Zhǎo gōngzuò.(It’s nothing. I just want to. . . find a job.)]

How good is his Chinese, really?

The grammar used in his phrases is okay, but his pronunciation – that’s a problem. He’s not alone though! This appeared to be a common problem for all non-Chinese actors and actresses attempting to speak Chinese (as noticed in almost all the TV shows and movies we’d covered before) – they didn’t pay attention to the tones and phonetics!

The pronunciation systems of Mandarin and English are quite different, and there are many sounds that do not have an exact English equivalent. But there’s one thing you cannot ignore: Colleen obviously spoke English as a native speaker. As a native English speaker himself, Danny should’ve noticed this from the 2-3 phrases she said. So there was no reason for him to speak Mandarin and ask her about the Chinese origins of her name! Unless he wanted to impress her (he didn’t). His accent is quite heavy, which made it difficult to understand what he was trying to say.


Jessica Speaks Chinese

Mandarin Chinese in Western TV Shows

Jessica Henwick only spoke a few words during the first episode, and many people couldn’t understand her. Madame Gao didn’t speak fast enough, like an average Chinese person – that would expose her accent. According to Reddit, the best Chinese speaker is the guy singing a Chinese song on a taxi, who got killed shortly. That’s sad!


Mandarin in Iron Fist: Final Verdict

The verdict is, expectedly, disappointing. “Iron Fist” has problems in understanding and adequately showing Chinese culture, not to mention Chinese language. What a pity!

Chinese level: ★☆☆☆☆


Next week, we will turn to movies – but now, it’s time to hear from you!

What other Western TV shows have you seen featuring Mandarin Chinese spoken by non-Chinese actors?

Share in comments below – or tweet us at @thatsmandarin.


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