I like Joss Whedon and the universes he creates. Firefly is one of my favourites and I have a book of essays from various people talking about the show. Some are flattering. Some aren’t.
One essay asked where all the Asian people had gone. In the Firefly-verse, we are supposed to be seeing a future where Chinese and American culture fused. The characters all speak Chinese, especially in moments of stress. Chinese art and decoration permeates the sets. But the writer did make a valid point that we don’t actually get to see anyone of Asian descent except in occasional crowd scenes.
I’d like to propose an alternative theory to her suggestion that it was an Anglicized bias and that Asian culture had been reduced to an exotic sampling. Not saying it couldn’t have been, but here’s another way to think on it.
We don’t see any of the true nobility of the Alliance. Not the truly powerful people. We see their minions and agents and we see the people who are struggling at the bottom. The closest we come are the Tams, River and Simon’s family, during flashbacks in the episode “Safe.” The essay writer believed they were part of the upper nobility but I don’t think that’s true because of two simple factors.
One: Simon works for a living.
Even as a boy, his father is encouraging him to become a brilliant doctor. He’s not being groomed to take over the family business or enterprises. The family’s status in society is enhanced if he is a prestigious and respected doctor at a posh hospital. It’s a cushy job but it’s still a job and he’s expected to perform it.
To me, that suggests the Tams are not nobility but instead are upper working class. Very upper working class but still, not the people in charge.
My second argument in favour of the Tams being below the top rungs of society: River and the Academy.
The purpose of the Academy remained shrouded in mystery but one thing was clear: they were building black-ops weapons out of people using torture and experimentation. The children of your top families would not be recruited for that. Instead you would look for socially hungry families who are looking for a way to break into the upper crust. It’s the same reason drug dealers don’t target children of Mafia families, the payoff isn’t worth the risk of bringing that much power down on you.
I think, had the series continued, we would have discovered Asian characters at the very top of society. People imitate what their social betters and superiors do. It’s how fashion, especially celebrity fashion works. Thus the Asian flavour to much of the architecture and decoration. The higher the status, the more Asian things appear. The Tam’s home wouldn’t have looked out of place in China or Japan but the villagers on the outer planets only have a few bits of decoration.
I can’t be sure but I think the theory fits the evidence available. I suppose Joss could tell us if he’d thought that far ahead. But so far, he’s kept quiet on it.