Welcome to Chinese Drama (BL Edition)

East Asian dramas, even the increasingly popular Korean dramas on Netflix, aren’t on my radar often. Before this post, the last subbed dramas I watched were probably Hotel del Luna (2019), which I didn’t even finish, and Goblin/Guardian (2016). Oh wait, I also watched bits and pieces of the controversial series Start-Up (2020) pretty recently with my sister.

So it’s hard to explain how I found myself watching Chinese dramas. It was probably because many of the stan accounts I follow on Twitter and Tumblr started reblogging and producing content about these dramas. I wanted to know what the hype was about. These were fan creators and internet strangers that I’ve looked up to and followed through various Kpop, film and anime fandoms, so I might as well follow them into Chinese drama. Also I just didn’t want to feel left out.

As someone who denies watching TV series a lot, I apparently have a lot to say about them.

I realized recently that I haven’t written about The Untamed, the first series on this tiny two-part list, which is wild because that show pretty much kept me awake for half of 2019. Here is my attempt to rectify that lack of documentation.

This is the spiritual sequel to my post about my favorite anime shows.

(Read: My Anime Picks!!!)

Warning: Queer Coding Ahead

What I learned in my journey with these two Chinese dramas is that censorship is real. It was a surprise to learn that most mainland shows are actually dubbed post-production by other voice actors. If something in the original script and version makes someone Up Above unhappy, it gets dubbed over.

This also means there is absolutely no chance of actual queer, liberal, or anti-CCP representation in mainstream media. It’s unfortunate, because both of the Chinese dramas I’ve watched are based on books that depict male-male romantic relationships.

The difference between queer coding and queerbaiting is intent. Queerbaiting (hello Teen Wolf) happens when show and content creators hint at queer relationships, whether by engineering easy-to-misinterpret encounters or by claiming homosexuality off-screen, but they do nothing to show that queer representation within the text itself. This is often used as a marketing ploy when creators know that fans want queer relationships or ‘controversial’ ones, but they’re too homophobic and capitalist to commit.

Queer coding is subtextual, and the creators usually intend for characters and relationships to be read as queer by the audience. The characterization is also neutral to the work. This is done through increased intimacy between same-sex characters, culturally-relevant stereotypes, and overall storytelling. External censorship, ie the government, or the plot, ie the story doesn’t care for romance at all, makes it impossible to bring that subtext into text.

In short: the queer relationships in the shows below aren’t canon, in so far as everything is subtext, but it is canon, if you consider the source material. Which is pretty gay.


1. The Untamed/Chen Qing Ling (2019)

Based on the novel Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation/Modao Zushi written by Moxiang Tongxiu

Genre: Xianxia, Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Historical, Mystery

What’s That: Xianxia literally means “immortal heroes”, which stands for cultivators (magic practitioners) in a high fantasy setting. These heroes attempt to cultivate to immortality, godhood or ultimate strength through martial training, seclusion, knowledge transfer, and so on. This genre typically references Chinese folklore and mythology, and actively includes elements of magic, ghosts, spirits, demons, and so on to the plot. Daoist elements, such as yin and yang energy, are characteristic of the xianxia genre.

The Untamed (2019). Aside from using pretty swords to fight, the main leads also fight with music! Lan Wangji (played by Wang Yibo), left, uses the traditional string instrument guqin, while Wei Wuxian (Xiao Zhan), right, uses a flute dizi.
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Plot in one long sentence: Wei Wuxian, a free-spirited genius cultivator, meets Lan Wangji, a talented yet untouchable handsome cultivator from another sect, and together they work to rid the world of a grave threat while fighting a war, unravelling betrayal, and even facing Wei Wuxian’s descent into unorthodox magic and death (and resurrection).

What I love about this series: This was my first experience with Chinese dramas, and I wasn’t prepared for the huge cast of characters or the scale of the production. It was a struggle to remember everyone, since I wasn’t used to learning Chinese names, and even to follow the plot, which was sometimes confusing or complicated. The story arcs were also spread over 50 episodes lasting maybe 45 minutes each. It was a shock to me, though it’s apparently par for the course in Chinese dramaland.

But there was a charisma to the show that made it worth watching despite the initial humps. The actors were charming, with Xiao Zhan (who played the lead character Wei Wuxian) and Wang Yibo (who played the taciturn soulmate Lan Wangji). Their chemistry as leads, as well with the rest of the cast, was exciting and believable.

And for every emotional scene, their mind-boggingly addictive main duet kept playing in the background (“无羁 / Unrestrained”). In fact, the entire soundtrack is worth a listen.

Plus, SIBLINGS. NIBLINGS. BROTHERHOOD.

Before I was even halfway through, I was already addicted and binge-watching the show.

The overall experience was so fun and intriguing that I watched the whole series a second time, just to fill in the gaps in plot that I missed the first time around. (FYI, the show has an unconventional story structure with jumps in time.) It was easier to appreciate the surprisingly mature themes of the show when I wasn’t scrambling to memorize names or plot points. The show was able to highlight the main themes of the novel, such as the consequences of war (ie refugees), the power of propaganda in the context of mob justice, and the inherent struggle between innovation and tradition.

As an adaptation, there were some things that I didn’t like about the show compared to the novel. This includes the portrayal of extremes to justify the lead’s descent into madness and rampage. Sometimes it’s not reactionary to trauma. Sometimes it can just be hubris.

It was only later that I found out that this show actually had a fairly low budget. I couldn’t believe it. The scale of the show felt big. The set design added a level of personality and character to the sects or people that lived in them; the scenery showcased the best and most fantastical in ancient Chinese motifs. I loved the costumes. For this to be low budget, I thought Chinese dramas must be on another level.

The novel MDZS now has other media franchises: an animated show, a “chibi” or cute animated show, an audio drama, sever. There’s something inherent to the tragedy and romance of the original story that makes it worth the retelling.

Where to watch: Netflix, WeTV on Youtube

Watch The Untamed on Netflix. The first few episodes are also on the Youtube channel of WeTV.

2. Word of Honor/Shan He Ling (2021)

Based on the novel Faraway Wanderers/Tian Ya Ke by Priest

Genre: Wuxia, Action, Adventure, Mystery, Historical, Friendship, Found Family

What’s That: Wuxia stands for “martial heroes”, and it can be considered the “low fantasy” version of xianxia. Heroes train to be martial artists from childhood and cultivate internal energy; some reach the peak of their art and become essentially immortal. However, stories are dominated less by gods and ghosts and more by the politics and disputes within a pugilist society (literally a society of fighters) set in ‘Jianghu’, a fictional lawless place set outside the jurisprudence of the Emperor. There are self-governing martial sects. Many sects and their special techniques, eg Shaolin Monks, have already entered common knowledge in the fictional heritage of China. Themes revolve around chivalry, coming-of-age, romance, and justice. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) directed by Ang Lee is a well-known wuxia film (starring the immortal Michelle Yeoh).

Word of Honor (2021). I love it when the lead characters color-code. Zhou Zishu (played by Zhang Zhehan), left, wears a lot of blue-white and fights with a whip-like sword. Wen Kexing (Gong Jun), right, wears a lot of red and teal. Beautifully, he fights with a fan.

Plot in one long sentence: Zhou Zishu, the disillusioned former leader of an assassin group for a royal prince, leaves it all behind to live a free wanderer’s life, and in the process meets the mysterious (and flirtatious) Wen Kexing, who is out to avenge his parents’ deaths; together they rediscover family and friendship as they fight through a web of death and deception in the pugilist world scrambling for the ultimate power.

What I love about this series: Word of Honor is a delight. It’s easy to follow, cohesively written, and also just aesthetically pleasing. It does a good job at delivering on its thematic beats, including a critique on the “word of honor” or integrity of pugilist heroes and a reflection on intergenerational cycles of vengeance and hate. But it does an even better job at delivering on its emotional beats.

Part of it is because of the great chemistry between the lead actors. Despite the fantastical background and skill sets of either leads, Zhang Zhehan (who played Zhou Zishu) and Gong Jun (Wen Kexing) made their characters feel realistic and relevant. It was a joy to watch their relationship and character arcs unfold. This depth in acting was important as it honors the efforts of the writer. The script writer of the series, Xiao Chu, seemed to be as faithful as possible in translating the original danmei/BL relationship into the show (she was apparently a fan of the novelist Priest and wuxia in general).

Their rapport also extended well with the rest of the cast, especially with the characters designed to bridge the emotional ties to the political intrigue: Zhou Ye (playing the bubbly yet capricious martial artist Gu Xiang, the daughter/little sister figure of Wen Kexing) and Sun Xilun, an actual 16-year-old playing the naive yet tragically hopeful character Zhang Chengling (who later becomes Zhou Zishu’s martial student/son figure). They’re babies.

Did I mention I tagged this series as FOUND FAMILY? Yes, please.

As a side note, I even watched clips of the Word of Honor Theme Concert held earlier this month. Clearly, the chemistry of the entire cast (sidekicks, B characters, and villains included) is great both on and off-screen. Chaotic gremlins everywhere.

Aside from having a script that’s mostly faithful to the spirit of the novel (though apparently some characterizations took a different turn thanks to the actors’ interpretation), the script also featured tons of references to Chinese literary culture. I do love a dose of good ancient poetry in my drama-watching escapades.

Finally, just like The Untamed, Word of Honor is apparently another low-budget drama. It didn’t expect to do well, though I think the show did have a sponsor for product placements. But there just wasn’t a lot of buzz when it was still in pre-production and even post-production. There were so many cast changes. In fact, the usual 50 episodes got truncated to 36 episodes. Or 37, if you count the bonus ending.

And yet the crew created something wonderful despite the budget constraints. Now it’s one of the top-rated dramas of 2021. The special effects were mostly great for a TV series. And the costume department clearly had the lion’s share. The costumes were able to translate the characters’ personality and even development.

I feel absolutely spoiled by the efforts of the crew. Even the behind-the-scenes clips that find their way into my feed are a joy to watch.

Where to Watch: YOUKO on Youtube, Viki

Watch the Word of Honor on the Youtube channel of YOUKO.

Do you have any recommendations?

The fact that both of these shows are BL is incidental to the fact that I apparently live in a very queer online space. It’s not intrinsic to what kind of Chinese dramas I like, I think. I’m here for the beautiful action, the enviable costumes, and the themes of honor and integrity.

Hit me up if you have any recommendations! I think I also want to try watching old xianxia and wuxia classic films.

Until next time!

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