In this three-part column , I’m going to talk about two topics linked to the chinese drama The Untamed (陈情令, Chen Qing Ling) – the political subtext and the censorship, of which the latter will be divided into two parts. I would like to state that most of the following claims stem from connections made by me, my personal opinions formed by combining my passion for this drama with the one for chinese politics.

The Untamed is a drama by Tencent Video and broadcast in summer 2019 in China, whose plot is based on a 2016 danmei web novel (danmei is the chinese equivalent of yaoi, an homosexual boy-love story targeted towards a female audience), Mo Dao Zu Shi (Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation) written by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. MDZS is about the story of Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi, two cultivators of magical and martial arts respectively from Jiang Sect of Yunmeng by adoption, and Lan Sect of Gusu by birth. Ever since the start, the two are visibly presented as yin and yang – a commonly recurring theme in c-dramas set in ancient China, and a duality China has always been fascinated by: Wei WuXian is dressed in black, extroverted, lively, and he is the biological son of one of leader Jiang’s servants – so, from a lower class – who lives among the crystal clear waters of the lakes of Lotus Pier; Lan WangJi, on the other hand, is dressed in white, reserved, less talkative and shy, but he is also the youngest son of Lan Sect’s leader – so, from the elite – who lives in the mysterious mountains of Cloud Recesses. Due to a series of events (political conspiracies, betrayals, changing of some characters’ ideals), Wei WuXian kills himself – just to be reborn 13 years later in the body of Mo XuanYu, a 24-year-old boy who sacrifices his own soul so that Wei WuXian can avenge him for the wrongs suffered in his brief life. Just after his reincarnation, the cultivator is involved in the investigations of an homicide with dark and worse contours than they seem like, together with his old friend Lan WangJi.

Behind magical arts, romantic stares between the two main characters, intrigues and a beautiful message of love, there’s a strong political subtext – which made the drama earn the praise of People’s Daily – the official newspaper of Communist Party of China – that described it as:

A wonderful presentation of Chinese characteristics, showcasing traditional cultural elements through exquisite costumes, traditional Chinese music instruments; as well as transmitting positive values such as courage, chivalry and love for one’s country.[1]

Spoiler ahead!

Among the political messages in The Untamed, there are two of them that stand out the most: the right and wrong topic, and the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist one.

Right and wrong

Other than being one of the founding principles of taoism (a reality completely yin or yang doesn’t exist, but each one has a part of the other), this topic is introduced in the Anti-Dühring (1878) by Friedrich Engels, and explained in a simplified way by Joseph Stalin in his Anarchism or socialism? (1907).

Today we are demanding a democratic republic. Can we say that a democratic republic is good in all respects, or bad in all respects? No we cannot! Why? Because a democratic republic is good only in one respect: when it destroys the feudal system; but it is bad in another respect: when it strengthens the bourgeois system. Hence we say: in so far as the democratic republic destroys the feudal system it is good – and we fight for it; but in so far as it strengthens the bourgeois system it is bad – and we fight against it. So the same democratic republic can be “good” and “bad” at the same time – it is “yes” and “no”. The same thing may be said about the eight-hour day, which is good and bad at the same time: “good” in so far as it strengthens the proletariat, and “bad” in so far as it strengthens the wage system. It was facts of this kind that Engels had in mind when he characterised the dialectical method in the words we quoted above.[2]

In the real world, so, good and evil co-exist – yes and no, right and wrong. In The Untamed, this is one of the main themes, the basis of Wei WuXian’s ideology – as we can notice in episode 27[3].

He remarks it in episode 29[4] too, reporting the same words in chapter 75 of the novel Mo Dao Zu Shi.

Wei WuXian spoke slowly, “Thank you for keeping me company today. Thank you for telling me the news about my sister’s marriage too. But, let the self judge the right and wrong, leave others decide to praise or to blame, let gains and losses remain uncommented on.”[5]

The quote “let the self judge the right and wrong, leave others decide to praise or to blame” (是非在己,毁誉由人) was resumed by the National Museum of Imperial exams of Nanjing (of which Wei WuXian is testimonial), as representation of the ideals of the museum – where it is situated the biggest hall for imperial exams of ancient China.[6]

Wei WuXian will later be supported by the stoic Lan WangJi – a support that will lead him to defend a dying Wei WuXian and his legacy, to the point of harming thirty-three members of his own Lan Sect, and be punished with three years of exile and thirty-three whips of the Discipline Whip, whose scars will never fade away. In episode 43[7], WangJi says the same words as the ones Wei WuXian said to him before.

Anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism

Imperialism and capitalism are represented respectively by Wen Sect of Qishan and Jin Sect of Lanling. Throughout the story we see that when the first Sect falls – a falling Jin Sect takes merits of too – the last one basically substitutes the other in the role of oppressive Sect. The only difference between Wens and Jins is how they are judged by other Sects: if Wens were considered members of a despotic Sect, Jins are seen as members of a democratic Sect. The first person to notice the political resemblance is Wei WuXian, who fastly exposes the real goal of Jin Sect – keeping the power using oppression and getting rich using slave labor and exploitation of Wen Sect’s survivors, mostly poor and old people, children and women. He is later supported by a girl from Jin Sect, and by Lan WangJi. In this context, Wei WuXian represents the communist ideal – building a world where oppression of the weaks doesn’t exist, where power games don’t exist and everyone works together to create a more just society – which is something that Wei WuXian tries to achieve when he is forced to exile himself in Burial Mounds.

This replacement from Wen to Jin is proved by the words spoken by Wei WuXian in chapter 72 of the novel, and in episode 26 of the drama[8].

Before [Jin GuangShan] even finished his words, Wei WuXian began to laugh. After a few laughs, he continued, “Sect Leader Jin, let me ask you something else. Do you think that, because the QishanWen Sect is gone, the LanlingJin Sect has all right to replace it?”
All was silent within Glamour Hall. Wei WuXian added, “Everything has to be given to you? Everyone has to listen to you?
Looking at how the LanlinJin Sect does things, I almost thought that it was the QishanWen Sect’s empire all over again.”[9]

As we can see in episode 2[10], this side of Wei WuXian, in which he opposes class oppression, remains even in his second life.

Continues in the second part.