I was first exposed to Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (MXTX) through the donghua (Chinese “anime”) version of Heaven Official’s Blessing (Tian Guan Ci Fu or TGCF). It was the first time I had ever seen “anime” outside of Japan. At first, I thought it was just dubbed in Mandarin and I was watching an anime. That’s how out of touch I was to it. But then I didn’t recognize the producers or the name BiliBili so I investigated a bit more.
The eleven episode series was released back in the end of December 2020 and into January 2021. As a seasoned anime fan, I was used to the heartbreak of making it to the end of a 10-13 episode series and realizing there would never be a season 2. So, like every other good anime fan, I got obsessed with everything remotely related to it. Unfortunately, I knew there was a web-novel but it wasn’t officially translated into English so I couldn’t read it. I also knew there was a manhua (Chinese “comic”) but I didn’t discover until December 2021 that I could actually read that manhua with an official English translation.
So, when SevenSeas publishing company announced that they were not only going to translate TGCF but also the other two MXTX works…I was elated! In fact, not only were they going to translate them but they were also going to leave them uncensored which was exactly like throwing chocolate syrup over my ice cream (MXTX’s works have had a common issue with being censored and this is most often done to remove the queer content– something that happens in an adaption which I will get to later, don’t worry). I cannot begin to explain how excited I was when I heard about this announcement! I had been dying for about a year, not being able to get into more of MXTX’s stuff and then SevenSeas dropped this beautiful news on me (literally, it’s very pretty, as are the cover designs).
Now, I’ve been an anime and manga fan for a very long time and I was a bit nervous about SevenSeas in particular. They are known for not completing the series once they start translating it. They also translate a lot of obscure items which is fine, don’t get me wrong, but it also means they go out-of-print quite quickly and can be hard to find. Fortunately for me, SevenSeas announced at the same time that they would be translating all volumes right off of the bat and had even gone so far as to give a timeline of release dates.
Me being a broke college student with no money to spare obviously had a moment of no restraint and pre-ordered all of the volumes available for pre-order without a second thought. You might be thinking I’m crazy but I promise I actually went and bought the first volumes of each of the three series and read them before I binge-bought the rest. That doesn’t make my moment of poor financial decisions any better but #NoRegrets.
That being said, after consuming nearly every form of media I could possibly get my hands on related to each of these series, I deep dived into The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (Mo Dao Zu Shi or MDZS) last considering the live-action series based off of it was on Netflix (The Untamed or Chen Qing Ling aka CQL). I was certain I would be able to watch it, so I stalled, and tried to find everything else first (with very little success).
Due to censorship restrictions in China (no on-screen depictions of queerness or queer relationships, no grey morality, and visibly censored corpses/zombies, being the most notable things censored), the relationship between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji is turned into homoerotic subtext and not as obvious as in the web-novel. All three of MXTX’s works fall into the genre of danmei which is essentially equivalent to the shounen-ai genre in Japan (however, shounen-ai is typically never explicit or sexual and all of MXTX works start out not explicit but will have sexual scenes later in the work). If you aren’t familiar with either of those terms, it’s basically the equivalent of of calling something a “homosexual story.” It’s a particular genre surrounded by “boy’s love” (quite literally, shounen = boy and ai = love) and explores the relationship (romantic and/or sexual) of two male characters.
Going into this knowing it was going to be censored, I was very reluctant to start watching CQL because one of my favorite things about reading MDZS’s first SevenSeas released volume was the eccentric behavior of Wei Wuxian waking up in the body of someone everyone knew was gay and and the shenanigans that came with that as he tried to keep his real identity a secret. But, since I couldn’t get my hands on the donghua version I just went into the live-action fully prepared to have my heart disappointed. The censorship rules still apply to animation, but I’m more accustomed to homoerotic subtext in anime than I am in live-action. I tend to stay away from live-actions (understandable, as an anime fan, since most live-actions based around anime are absolutely the worst).
Before I go too crazy, why don’t I actually tell you what the series is about (lol). Essentially, the main character, Wei Wuxian, dies in the beginning of the novel and then comes back to live in the body of Mo Xuanyu. As he is trying to pick up the pieces of what happened between the time of his death and the present day, he comes across a lot of individuals he formerly knew and attempts to keep his identity a secret by “acting” like Mo Xuanyu. One such individual is Lan Wangji, his future husband (future husband after he comes back to life in Mo Xuanyu’s body; they were not married while Wei Wuxian was still in his own body).
Going back to the drama series, CQL did something completely crazy from early on. They showed the super important scene of Wei Wuxian’s death and then proceeded to have about 30+ episodes of flashback content. All of the content I knew nothing about, because I have only read volume one. All of the scenes I had been looking forward to I now had to binge watch to get to AND experience content that I wasn’t even emotionally prepared for yet since I hadn’t read it. Loved that for me. At first I considered the decision odd. Actually, I still think it’s odd but I’m a bit more okay with it. Part of this is because the donghua did the exact same thing (however, the first season of the donghua was subtitled “the past ” so at least I was mentally and emotionally prepared for that).
In the novel, there is a huge flashback portion of Wei Wuxian’s and Lan Wangji’s first encounter (their meet-cute, if you will) but then it goes back to the present for more of Wei Wuxian trapped-in-a-different-body shenanigans (my favorite). This was done with literary writing intentions to keep the suspense up of the reader not knowing why Wei Wuxian died. All the reader knows going in, is the first scene with Wei Wuxian’s death and then the events after he gets summoned into a body offering ritual by Mo Xuanyu. The reader doesn’t know what happened in the time-gap of his death and his summoning and the reader also doesn’t know what led to the events of his death. We only know what Wei Wuxian is telling us from time to time and that builds a lot of intrigue.
The choice of just having a flashback and staying in that flashback was one I wasn’t very impressed with at first. I understood some of the reasoning for that but I still don’t appreciate a whole first episode acting like it’s going to continue on as the novel did only to throw you into flashback for more than half of the series. They could’ve still shown the death scene (briefly) since it’s a major part of MDZS and then gone back to the past for those 30+ episodes. I think too much time was spent on developing the “present” timeline if they had already intended to focus on the past for a huge chunk instead of having many flashbacks throughout the series.
Due to the censorship restrictions, it does actually make a lot of sense for them to spend so much time in the past without jumping forward to the present. In the “past” portion, the two central main characters are not in-love, so to speak, and spend most of their time bickering like the trope of “if he is being mean to you, it just means he likes you.” The huge flashback also explains in a way that is easier to follow over the trying-to-pick-up-the-clues method the novel did. However, for a first time viewer who is assuming the flashback might be 1-3 episodes tops…it’s very jarring. Even if I had gone into this without reading the first volume of the SevenSeas released novel, I would still find this incredibly odd. With western TV viewing practices, including shows or movies, having 30 episodes of a “flashback” is something that would most likely never take place. I’ve also never seen it happen in something that wasn’t MDZS so that just goes to show how great of a writer MXTX is for managing to pull off a somewhat odd stylistic choice (not that she had any say in the drama-version but still… she does frequently write in long flashbacks they just aren’t exactly 30 episodes worth).
By the time the series “goes back to the present” I’d lost interest in how accurate or not-accurate it was. I was just vibing at that point using the series as my preview for the volumes that have yet to be released. The scenes that I was aware of from reading the first volume were altered but not in major ways. Obviously, Mo Xuanyu being gay was something that was never brought up so the Wei Wuxian shenanigans didn’t exist (still sad about that). As an example of some slight changes: in the novel, Lan Wangji carries Wei Wuxian princess/bridal style and in CQL he just gives him a standard piggy-back ride. Not too much a difference but one that likely had to be made because it wasn’t subtexty enough. It could’ve also simply been that the actor wasn’t strong enough to carry his co-star. I think the latter is more amusing. While the novel itself had some very humorous situations, the c-drama was primarily serious (which would attract a larger audience than the MXTX original fans).
One of my other major complaints alongside the choice to stay in the “present day” for an entire episode before going to the past for nearly 30 episodes, is that Wei Wuxian inside Mo Xuanyu’s body does not look different. This man, okay, has been put into an entirely different person’s body, and yet he still has the exact same face. They didn’t even try to justify it. They didn’t give him another outfit. They didn’t change anything about Mo Xuanyu’s “body” so the audience would even remember he was in a different body. No. Mo Xuanyu apparently looks exactly the same as Wei Wuxian did because…because plot armor? What? Nothing about that makes sense to me. I can understand wanting to keep the same actor we have just been with for the past 30 something episodes instead of getting a “Mo Xuanyu” specific one but the minute Wei Wuxian takes off his mask people somehow know he is Wei Wuxian without any explanation.
For crying out loud, come on guys, he is still in an entirely different body! How do you know so easily? Lan Wangji knowing it’s him is one thing but everyone else? Really? What’s that about? What was the point in emphasizing in the beginning that he was in a different body in the first place?! It’s very difficult to follow the train of thought in CQL as to why such a choice was made. In the later episodes where Wei Wuxian has given up on hiding his identity, it feels as if he has never been in a different body entirely but they never did a great job of explaining if Wei Wuxian was brought back in his own body or in Mo Xuanyu’s in the first place. Which is another thing to be a bit annoyed about. I know Lan Wangji is technically his love interest but there is a limit to the power of love!
This is pretty much my main issue with the c-drama as a whole. I wish they had explained better how they were going to handle the body-swap situation (or if there wasn’t a body-swap at all, I think they should’ve addressed that a bit more fully so the audience could grasp it). The donghua’s take on this is very refreshing because they do actually give Wei Wuxian (as the demonic cultivator) a different body design. The two are practically identical for the most part but there are small nuances that are different which makes the designs distinct. Of course, that is obviously easier to do when the medium itself is animation. The donghua also goes more into the shenanigans of Wei Wuxian in Mo Xuanyu’s body which is why I’m more partial to the donghua as opposed to the c-drama. However, the donghua itself does not have nearly as many episodes to go into depth about the characters outside of the main two and that often makes things a bit harder to follow.
(Demonic Cultivator Wei Wuxian on the left, Wei Wuxian in Mo Xuanyu’s body on the right. Lan Wangji is also in the top left of the photo on the right.)
Watching the c-drama was kind of like watching a k-drama. The only real “romance” was long loving gazes at each other with a potential intimate hand hold. In the donghua, there is slightly more intimacy as Wei Wuxian (in Mo Xuanyu’s body) does not shy away from clinging to Lan Wangji (whether from fear of dogs or simply because he is pretending to be someone else). CQL is primarily focused on the “plot” in terms of character development and motives. The costume designs, music, and time spent on each individual character is extremely refreshing and makes it definitely worth a watch. If you’re familiar with fanfiction tags the c-drama is essentially an “angsty slow burn.” It’s a great adaptation to watch if you’re not particularly familiar with danmei/shounen-ai and are interested in Chinese fantasy. It also has some of the best special effects I’ve seen in Asian-dramas (but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still a bit cheesy… I’ve watched a lot of k-dramas and sometimes the special effects just aren’t it). Overall, I would definitely recommend the series and the other MXTX works as well!