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How Racist is Starfleet?

[ 68 ] August 1, 2012 |

James Holmes asks us to crowdsource a name for China’s “it’s new to you” aircraft carrier, having correctly noted that “ex-Varyag” is getting old:

Our friends in Beijing are evidently having a hard time settling on a name, though. Shi Lang, for a long-ago conqueror of Taiwan. When word got out, the ensuing uproar apparently convinced China’s leaders they were being a tad heavy-handed—especially when they were cultivating an era of good feelings across the Taiwan Strait. Since then the poor ship has gone by “ex-Varyag,” truly an undignified moniker to grace China’s first operational carrier.

That’s where you can help. What kind of name should the ship have? Should it overawe all who behold it, sporting a name like Indisputable Sovereign of the Sea? Should it emphasize the cuddly side of Chinese sea power, with something like Panda Bear or Hello Kitty? Or something else? Please tell us! Enter your response in the comments below. Our crack editorial team will judge the responses and publish the winner next week. The prize will be … a date with editor Harry Kazianis!!

My first thought, obviously, was to check out the major Chinese-origin ship names in Starfleet. Know what I found? A single vessel (USS Yangtze, a glorified shuttlecraft) has been christened with a Chinese name. Dozens of Native American names, plenty of Japanese, lotsa European, even a few Indian, but only one (insulting, really) Chinese name.

For shame, Starfleet. For shame. If we don’t get a Zheng He, Zhenyuan, or Dingyuan in the next Star Trek movie, I’ll move from “mildly piqued” to “gravely concerned.”

UPDATE: A good rant ruined by fictional facts.


Comments (68)

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  1. newsouthzach says:

    Speaking of culturally insensitive, isn’t Hello Kitty Japanese? Something tells me that some inhabitants of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere might not be down with that…

  2. Heron says:

    At the very least, they should have a Guan Yu.

  3. Anderson says:

    Long time since I looked at anything Trekkish, but doesn’t their fictional history of Earth include some sort of world war with China? By the late 1960s, it was practically a progressive notion to think that Russia and the West might find common cause in alliance against China.

    Doesn’t excuse the continued neglect of China in the burgeoning Trek universe, of course.

    • Heron says:

      That brings up a rather grisly possibility for this. I seem to recall Kirk, when discussing the Eugenics Wars with Khan, talking about much of the Indian subcontinent being depopulated by nuclear weapons. Perhaps a similar fate befell China and the canon reason why there are so few Chinese names in Starfleet is because so few Chinese people survived :/.

    • Craigo says:

      “Eastern Coalition,” whatever the hell that is.

  4. Halloween Jack says:

    The Earth of Star Trek had had a World War III, which isn’t described in much detail (or with perfect consistency, for that matter), but in First Contact there’s an “Eastern Coalition” that gets mentioned as a major enemy of the US; if America and its allies come to dominate United Earth following Zefram Cochrane’s discovery of warp drive and subsequent first contact with the Vulcans, this could be a sort of grudge that gets carried forward. The real racism in Star Trek, IMO, as noted by the Klingon chancellor’s daughter Azetbur in Star Trek VI, is the domination of humans over the other sentient species in Starfleet and the Federation, even though the Vulcans were clearly the much more advanced race at their first meeting.

    • Heron says:

      Then there’s the racism of Starfleet’s official language, which she also points out. Why should “human” be the standard adjective for civilized, decent, moral behavior in a galaxy-spanning democracy?

    • Craigo says:

      Even though there were obvious budget reasons for the overwhelming number of humans in Starfleet, it was always bugged me that.

      That, and the shocking number of Americans and Canadians. Even Sulu was from San Francisco.

    • sharculese says:

      Didn’t Enterprise basically try to rationalize that as ‘humans have a unique ability to get disparate species to work together’? That was the point of all that nonsense about the special character of the human spirit, right?

      • Craigo says:

        You watched Enterprise? Huh. Better than voyager, I suppose.

        I assumed that humans formed a majority of Starfleet because they were more extroverted than the Vulcans and whoever else happened to be a constituent species. Certainly the Vulcans had some sort of prime directive in place before the Federation even existed.

        • sharculese says:

          You watched Enterprise? Huh. Better than voyager, I suppose.

          Well, it was on Netflix and i was having a completionist urge.

          I assumed that humans formed a majority of Starfleet because they were more extroverted than the Vulcans and whoever else happened to be a constituent species.

          Basically this. Towards the end of the show Scott Bakula is going around preaching the importance of sentient races working together for the good of everyone and his Vulcan minders are like ‘Work with other species. Honestly, that never occurred to us before.’

      • elm says:

        That was also the explanatiomn Babylon 5 gave (a decade before Enterpise) for why humans had such a large role in galactic affairs despite being technologically behind. I think one of the Minbari explained that humans are good at “building communities.”

  5. Brian Rogers says:

    Your data is incorrect. In the TNG episode where they are setting up a blockade between Klingon and Romulan space the USS Tiananmen is one of the ships in the blockade.

    • Robert Farley says:

      Yes yes; see update.

      • Brian Rogers says:

        sorry – I posted this while you were posting the update. I never would have tired to out geek you if Inew you were already self correcting.

      • rm says:

        Then again, I’m not sure naming a Runabout “Yangtze” is all that inclusive, because Runabouts are all named after rivers. So it’s not like it took any knowledge of Chinese history or culture to come up with that one. (“It’s a good think Earth has a lot of rivers” remarks the Bajoran second-in-command after yet another Runabout is blown up).

    • Craigo says:

      Said ship apparently had a sterling combat record in the Dominion War.

    • I think the Tiananmen proves Farley’s point, but with a different explanation. One true warship in an entire fleet is quite a small sample. But, I don’t think that the ST franchise is racist, but rather anti-authoritarian. The Tiananmen Massacre just gave the ST franchise a way to express its ideological unease with a Maoist nightmare without seeming to stroke conservative sympathies by naming a vessel after a Taiwanese reference.

  6. ironic irony says:

    Can we get a USS Qin Shi Huangdi?

    Or at least a USS Ai Wei Wei?

  7. themgt says:

    James R. Holmes

  8. rea says:

    Zheng He? Wasn’t he the guy who discovered America in 1421? ;)

  9. firefall says:

    Chang Apana

  10. Amanda in the South Bay says:

    Yeah as has been pointed out, the in universe explanation is that China was in the losing side of Trek’s WW3 equivalent.

  11. Amanda in the South Bay says:

    Starfleet has all Vulcan ships. I’m not sure there are all Terran ships.

    • Brian Rogers says:

      There are – most of Star Fleet in the original show, since Spock is the only vulcan in Star Fleet. There are also all Andorian ships (the USS Eagle).

      I can’t believe I have this stored in permanent memory.

  12. Keaaukane says:


    Sure he was a pirate who sacked China, Formosa (Taiwan) and parts of Japan, but he was loyal in his beliefs, and deserves greater fame.

  13. Jim Lynch says:

    The Chinese should name that carrier the Wily.

  14. daveNYC says:

    All ships should be named after Chaos ships or Space Hulks from Warhammer 40k. Nobody is going to step up and try and attack something named Eternity of Damnation or Covenant of Blood.

  15. Njorl says:

    Since a carrier is designed to project force rapidly to forward positions, I think the Chinese should go with The Great Leap Forward for the name of their fine new ship.

  16. JetLi says:

    Wang Fei Hung!

  17. Stag Party Palin says:

    Rai Ning Men

    (In honor of the sexual birth ratio inequality that will in a few years put our women at risk of … of … oh it’s too horrible to write…)

  18. Woodrowfan says:

    maybe if they name it the “Mulan” they can get Disney to kick in a few bucks to pay for it…

  19. Jon H says:

    Seems like ships named for Chinese things ought to have names that are economical to express in Chinese, but are long and flowery or awkward in translation. (i.e. , something along the lines of that North Korean song, “Beautiful Horselike Lady”)

  20. […] Robert Farley has some fun  pointing out that Star Trek’s Starfleet is fairly… monochromatic. Of course, this isn’t surprising: Star Trek in all its iterations is an American show, and while its run has taken some fairly revolutionary progressive leaps, the show is still intended for a mostly American — and mostly white — audience. […]

  21. JR in WV says:

    What’s wrong with the Mao Tse T’ung or however they phoneticaly spell it nowadays?

    Or General Tso? Isn’t his chicken world famous?

    • JR in WV says:

      Now that I’ve read the rst of the thread, I really like the suggestion of using Culture ship classes and names.

      The could call it the “Wondering if anything is happening… Oh There it is” Psycho class carrier.

      Or since it’s a ski jump carrier, perhaps the “Vail”? Or Aspen?

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