Speaking Chinese: Do not attempt without prior experience

November 13, 2017 — by Jayne Zhou and Callia Yuan

According to Business Insider, Mandarin Chinese is one of the hardest languages to learn as a native English speaker, so it isn’t surprising when the many American actors and actresses trying to speak Chinese fail.


For example, the film, “The Great Wall” gave us a Cantonese-speaking actor, Andy Lau, speaking the most lines in Mandarin Chinese — and not succeeding.

Many roles require actors to say their lines in Chinese, but it is obvious that the casting directors often doesn’t evaluate language ability when choosing actors.

This becomes evident when we hear their broken Chinese, degrading the overall quality of the movie or show for any Chinese speakers who can barely understand what these actors are trying to say.

“The Great Wall,” which was released last year, disappointed us with not only a terrible story line but also terrible Chinese.

Lau sounded incoherent and disoriented with his incorrect pronunciations.

Another popular movie, “Kung Fu Panda,” about a quirky, relatable and funny panda named Po, was set in China as well. Sadly, Po was voiced by American actor Jack Black, who took it upon himself to create new words using his limited Chinese vocabulary.

The infamous “Wuxi finger hold” that Po used, despite popular beliefs, is not an actual move. In fact, the phrase “wuxi” itself has no meaning in Chinese.

When a famous actor like Jack Black uses his platform to mock and mimic the complex language of Chinese, it sends a disappointing message to the Chinese viewers at home. It is extremely disrespectful that an actor, who has no prior knowledge of Chinese, has the audacity to create new Chinese phrases without even knowing what those words mean.

In contrast, when Chinese actors are cast to portray Chinese speaking people, the authenticity of the film or show improves.

For example, in “Fresh off the Boat,” which is airing its fourth season on ABC, stars an entirely Asian-American cast playing a Chinese family in Orlando.

Though Chinese is rarely spoken in the show, it is authentic and natural when actors do speak it. Actor Randall Park, who plays the role of the main character’s father, is an American-Korean actor and never speaks Chinese on the show.  

Instead, most of the Chinese is spoken by Constance Wu, Eddie’s mother, or Lucille Soong, the main character’s grandmother, who are both Chinese-American actresses, allowing Chinese speakers across the country to appreciate ABC’s effort and finally not have to read subtitles all the time.

Since most of the spoken Chinese in TV and movies is inaccurate and incomprehensive, it’s no surprise non-Chinese people think Chinese is as simple as “ching chong chang.”

So here’s a bit of advice to those actors and actresses out there considering taking up Chinese for their next role: Get it right or leave it up to talented Chinese actors who can actually speak the language.


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