The Hit Chinese Drama "Word of Honor" pushed the limits of Censorship laws, allowing a thrilling and progressive LGBT love story to air in Mainland China.
Firstly, happy Pride Month!
June reminds us of the great progress made by LGBTQIA, however, it also reminds us that there are still milestones to be made. A stigma still exists and in parts of the world, many still fear for their lives and face persecution.
This brings us to China.
Now while China isn't like parts of the Middle East and North Africa that criminalise same-sex relations and even offer death penalties, there is still a large stigma towards LGBTQIA there. In fact, in 2017 China was voted the worst country to live in if you were LGBT, Beijing (the Capital) was voted the least welcoming city out of 100 around the world.
The main cause of this unwelcoming attitude is censorship.
While it isn't illegal to be Gay in China, you will not see discussion about LGBT rights, people, or stories in mainstream media. They are suppressed. In fact, programmes that involve the topic are often taken off the air, stripped of all its Gay narrative and context before it is allowed to re-air.
In general, China has very strict censorship rules; the internet and media are heavily regulated by the government. The moment you step off the plane and enter China if you don't have a VPN, all unauthorised apps or services on your device will become unusable.
The censorship of Homosexuality in China is an extension of this Government regulation. It's another way to control citizens, public discourse and politics. Directly it has encouraged LGBT in China to be ostracised in society.
But there is resistance.
When there is a will there is a way.
The LGBT in China exist; there are many allies and it is a flourishing, albeit underground, community. While they risk getting thrown in jail for violating censorship laws, the Chinese LGBTQIA have still found ways to express themselves. One method is through literature and manhua (danmei) that has allowed romantic LGBT stories to be published.
While it is still heavily censored; and Gay romances are often marketed as 'friendship' to pass the tricky laws, LGBT (danmei) stories have been adapted to the screen and have become very popular. Such as The Untamed (2019).
Drama: The Untamed (2019)
We're slowly seeing more and more LGBT representation on TV in mainland China.
That brings us to "Word of Honor" or 山河令.
Drama: "Word of Honor" or 山河令 (2021)
This Hit C-Drama aired on the streaming platform Youku this year, 2021, from February to March. And, it has very much challenged the homophobic censorship in China.
The Production quite literally pushed the limits on what they could put on the screen.
They used every trick in the book to allow the two male leads to openly flirt with each other; either through martial arts, romantic poetry, literary references, intense eye-fucking, and hand-holding.
They even have the characters boldly call each other "Soulmates" and discuss how they want to grow old together.
And the production made sure to emphasise the family dynamic in the show when the two male leads adopt a child together. There are many parenting and family moments of which emphasise their romance.
Despite how blatantly gay this drama is, it somehow avoids being too much for censorship due to the genius of the script.
The story is about the leader of an Assassin organisation (Zhou Zi Shu) who decides to retire, and the leader of a Demonic Cult (Wen Kexing) who is out for revenge. There is love, conspiracy, magic, martial arts and a deadly treasure hunt.
Not only is the plot interesting, but the characters are also complex and beautiful, and the martial arts is really awesome. You end up sitting on the edge of your seat constantly wondering what's going to happen next.
Most of all the nuances of the homosexual relationship is daring, romantic and well done. We're given such well-written characters.
Through the great efforts of the Production team and Scriptwriter, we end up getting a beautiful gay love story that has been bolder than all those (in China) before it.
The drama got an 8.6 rating on Douban (an acclaimed Chinese reviewing platform) with over 200,000 reviews. Making it the highest-rated LGBT drama in China, and shooting the actors into greater stardom.
The drama has caused a frenzy of reactions from the public due to the nature of the show and the great chemistry between the actors: Zhang Zhehan (who played Zhou Zi Shu) and Simon Gong/Gong Jun (who played Wen Kexing).
Zhang Zhehan (Zhou Zi Shu)
Simon Gong/Gong Jun (Wen Kexing)
While the nature of the characters' romantic relationship is never outright said in the show, it is blatantly obvious and constantly suggested with so many innuendos that it's laughable. You'd need to be blind not to see it. No, even a blind person can tell.
Overall this is a step in a good direction. Progress for LGBT and Pride. It may take a while for us to see a significant change in how LGBTQIA are treated in China, but productions like this spread the right message. It shows romantic love between soulmates. It is breaking barriers and it is opening doors for more representative content in the future.
To learn about how "Word of Honor" used poetry to show us a gay romance while skirting away from censorship laws, watch some insightful videos by AvenueX, a Chinese Youtuber who gives some insight: