The “Chi” part is easy. “Chee.” Rhymes with “Kree.” Technically the “Ch” is not precisely the same as in English “Chad” or “Chocolate,” but it’s close enough for conversation amongst non-fluent Chinese speakers.
The “Shang” is said the same way as the “Shang” in Shanghai, the city in China. But here’s the thing, if you’ve been saying “Shanghai” as if it rhymes with “Fang Sky” all your life, that’s not really how you say “Shanghai.” And that’s okay.
Rhymes-With-Stank-Eye is a conventional English way to say “Shanghai,” just as English has many pronunciations of foreign loan words that are not correct but have become conventional, like “Bombay,” “Los Feliz,” “karaoke.” Some of these words have had more-correct pronunciations recently introduced into American English, some have not. The name of “Shang-Chi,” the Marvel superhero, is conventionally mispronounced to rhyme with “Banksy.” Until now.
“My name… is Shang-Chi.” Here’s a new ad for Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, premiering in theaters on September 3. Skip to the end part for a dialogue between Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) about how to say his name.
(Disclaimer: my Chinese language skills are terrible. My Mandarin is like that of a dumb child, my Cantonese is non-existent. But I am a word nerd, and I like trying to untangle linguistic “problems.”)
So let’s over-analyze this exchange between Katy and Shang-Chi, can we? From an Asian American cultural perspective, it is entirely plausible that Katy would not know how to say “Shang-Chi.” Haven’t seen the movie yet. I assume from context clues that the Katy character is Chinese American, but she may not be. If she is of Chinese descent, maybe she doesn’t speak Mandarin (many Chinese Americans, including myself, don’t), or maybe she speaks a dialect that tends to drop the final “-ng,” hence the confusion.
But the questionable aspect here is how the actors are playing the scene. To my eye, Awkwafina plays this bit like “Shang” is a word she’s never heard before. She’s effectively standing in for the perspective of non-Chinese speakers, for whom the “a” sound is a tricky sound to learn. She makes it sound a lot like “Shaun Chi,” which is funny in its own right.
There’s nothing wrong or obnoxious about any of that, except: in a subtle way, the scene might reinforce the idea that Chinese is a prohibitively exotic language to learn (it isn’t), especially to non-Chinese-speaking observers who might see the gag and think “wow, his name really IS hard to say,” ignoring the very specific and common Asian American miscommunication scenario. This creates a permission structure along the lines of “It’s okay that I think Chinese words are impossible to say, because Chinese people can’t say them either.” (And by the way, Awkwafina definitely knows how to say “Shang Qi.” She’s acting.)
I’m not saying this is the intent of the scene (who knows if this scene is even in the final cut of the film) but it is a possible accidental interpretation. I enjoy the scene as a relatable dialogue between two Asian Americans of different backgrounds. But I don’t want the takeaway to be “Haha, Chinese words are sooooo weird, bro,” because that’s not the main thing going on here.
It’s worth mentioning that “Shang” (and its homophones) is a very often-used word in Mandarin. If you’re a Mandarin speaker, you’ll say “Shang” (as in Shanghai) about 50 times a day. It is not at all exotic. It is literally one of the most commonly-used words on Earth.
At this point, I would provide a YouTube video that simply demonstrates how to say “Shang-Chi” but, astoundingly, most of the videos that come up from a simple Google search are wrong, or not very right. AMENDED, we made our own YouTube video. Yet still, we’re living in a misinformation age, folks. The way Simu Liu is saying it in the clip is how billions of Mandarin speakers say it, give or take regional accents.
So, anyways, “Shang” doesn’t quite have a true rhyme in English, the “A” is like the A in “swan,” but the word more closely rhymes with “song” or “bong,” but not quite. It’s really not too exotic a vowel sound when compared to the fussy vowels in French or Russian. In my opinion, the vowels in “Liu” are harder to get right than the vowel in “Shang.” Both are extremely common phonemes in Mandarin, so it’s worth it to try! The whole point is to try, to be curious and open-minded, to not fall into the trap of thinking that Asian cultures and languages are inconceivable inventions from other planets.
Again, his name is Shang-Chi. In Pinyin (the standard Romanization system for Mandarin Chinese): “Shang Qi.” In Chinese, “尚氣” or “尚气.” FYI, when you see the “Q” in Romanized Chinese words, it’s like a “Ch-.” An “X” is like a “Sh-.” “Zh-” is pretty much like a “J-.” Just in case it ever comes up in your travels.
Now, if anyone would come forward to propose a hyper-correct pronunciation of “T’Challa,” I’d be grateful.