On a press tour in China to promote the Chinese premiere of Bumblebee, John Cena surprised fans by answering questions in Mandarin Chinese. Mandarin being the official dialect spoken in China and Taiwan. This is more than knowing “Ni hao”, speaking a phrase or two that was rehearsed before the interview or learning to sing a ballad phonetically like Jon Bon Jovi did in the past. This is full-on conversational Mandarin, off-the-cuff, even if he has to think carefully to get the words and intonation right.
Here Cena speaks quite fluently about how his character seems like a bad guy because he thought Bumblebee is a bad guy, but gradually becomes more sympathetic and a good guy. He also explains to the Chinese audience how WWE is not real, it’s an enacting of stories of good guys vs. bad guys. In WWE, he’s a good guy and audiences learn about good guys by seeing bad guys.
This has led many of his Chinese fans on social media to say, “Hey, he’s actually pretty good. We can actually understand what he’s saying.”
It turns out that Cena has been learning Chinese for the last five years. He has been living partly in China for work ever since the WWE made a deal in China. He made a speech at the inauguration ceremony two years ago in Mandarin, which surprised even some of his colleagues in the WWE.
Cena’s ability to speak Mandarin is a godsend to the WWE since he can talk directly to the Chinese audience about WWE being a global organisation, the size of their audience and bringing WWE to China.
Cena now has accounts on China’s main social media platforms WeChat and Weibo where he frequently posts videos to his Chinese fans about his life in China and his enthusiasm for the local culture and what his everyday life is like there. These have been posted to the WWE’s YouTube channel where he speaks in English for the US audience.
His Mandarin isn’t perfect, as he’s the first to admit. His intonation can be off in the way that Westerns still need to get used to spoken Chinese being tonally specific. His grammar still needs work but he’s been improving steadily over the last two years and he can now manage everyday conversational Mandarin. Cena has always been a thoughtful guy, and when he speaks Mandarin, he’s extra thoughtful because he doesn’t want to say the wrong thing.
It makes practical sense and business sense for Cena to learn Chinese. As he gets a fanbase in China as a WWE member and a movie star whose blockbusters are partly financed with Chinese money and have a significant audience in China, why not know the local language?
Here’s a video taken from social media where he talks entirely in Mandarin about finding out what the most popular hot sauce in China is and deciding to put it in his lunch. He insists it’s not an advertisement or product placement. It’s just a cool local food he’s discovered.
If you can spot the label, you can probably find that hot sauce at your local Chinatown supermarket.