I was passing by Waterstones the other day and was reminded by the window display that June was actually Pride month, and as a proud ally I always post a book review to commemorate the fact that love is always love, no matter what form or shape it takes.
This year I thought I’d do a review on a couple of book series that my friend Nina recommended, which are classified under danmei, the Chinese equivalent of the popular Japanese BL (boy’s love lol) genre. These two serialisations have experienced a surge in popularity recently due to the release of a Netflix adaptation called The Untamed in 2019.
I was pretty skeptical about reading these at first, mostly because I’ve always judged my sister and cousin for being so obsessed about manga that they could talk about it for an entire dinner conversation, whilst I twirled my chopsticks and imagined poking my eye out with it just to relieve my boredom. Lol
But actually, as an avid reader and a lover of books, I should have realised sooner that a good story is a good story regardless of packaging. And once I started reading these…well, hooked doesn’t even begin to describe it. I have gone down a rabbit hole that has no end in sight and I am enjoying every second of the fall.
Both Heaven Official’s Blessing and Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation are fantasy novels; there’s a lot of magic and spells and gods and monsters involved. You also learn a lot about Chinese culture, traditions, and beliefs. More importantly, the fact that they even exist in a country where everything goes through extreme censorship, and where being gay is still largely unacceptable, is a damn miracle.
Living in London, I take it for granted sometimes that there are still countries where people are not free to be who they are and to love who they love. I mean, progress: China no longer imprisons anyone for being gay as far as I know; but they’re not exactly advocating for gay rights, equality, and freedom either.
Take The Untamed for example, which is the Netflix adaptation of one of these novels (and my current obsession, don’t judge me). They had to take out any hint of romantic love between the two male leads just so the series would pass censorship and be allowed to even air.
The writers and producers had to go through extreme lengths to satisfy fans of the novel and to convey to discerning viewers that Wei Wu Xian and Lan Zhan are more than just soul brothers, or whatever lame-ass term they came up with. Because the truth is, these guys are actually partners who are in a committed relationship.
The microscopic hints of love between the two characters on screen, the ones that actually passed censorship, are made more special because of the need to be covert and creative. This is also a running theme in the books, where love is not explicit, and its not something you can shout about from the rooftops.
Instead, its expressed in the most infinitesimal of gestures, in the smallest lift of the lips into a secret smile, in the things one does for another regardless of the personal cost. Its not so much the words you say, as much as it is the spaces between the words, in the moments of silence where words need not be said. I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of purity very beautiful. Realistic, maybe not so much.
Still, I grew up in a typical Chinese family where we are not as effusive and demonstrative about our feelings as families in the Western world. I used to look at my parents and think, wow, this isn’t exactly the kind of stuff they write romance novels about, is it?
But actually, isn’t there romance in staying together even when there’s an option to leave, in fighting battles side by side, in being there for the person through sickness and health, and in the warm nights spent watching TV, comfortable in each other’s company, knowing you’ll never have to go through life alone?
I think that Western culture places a lot of emphasis in showing and proving your love, in saying the words “I love you” and needing to hear it said back. And that’s important. We need to be able to say and hear those things. But there is also a place for the spaces between words and the silence between actions.
In addition, in reading these books I am reminded that there are still places where people cannot afford to be demonstrative, where things need to go unsaid, where they have to rely on the weight of every subtle gesture to express how they feel.
I think Pride month is a good time to reflect on how far we’ve come and how much further we still need to go so that everyone, including and especially people who’ve always felt different, will realise that there’s also a place in the world for them and the ones they love.
I’m really glad I gave these books a go, and I can’t wait for the rest of the English translations.
Happy Pride, Everyone!