Western media consumption is now at an all-time high; network and cable television are migrating to streaming in an attempt to topple Netflix, buzzworthy content is delivered directly to our fingertips and Bong Joon Ho demands your sight on subtitles. Amongst this, it is a televisual export from East Asia that’s garnered widespread acclaim and an international fan base. China’s The Untamed is based on the novel 魔道祖师 (pinyin: Mo Dao Zu Shi) by author 墨香铜臭 (pinyin: Mo Xiang Tong Xiu).
Social network sites are to thank for the high engagement of this series; I found it after the entire Twitter timeline was talking about the ‘ancient Chinese gays.’ Being queer myself, it caught my attention, and having read a part of an Untamed fan fiction by Twitter user @lanzhqn, that was superbly and unequivocally homoerotic, I decided to tackle the fifty-episode beast.
This series features queer representation, multi-faceted women and lives on long after the final special edition episode through the incredibly welcoming online fandom. The Untamed is a powerful, soaring and alluring tale. It’s a monster of a story. And I’m its latest victim.
Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are married and they have a son. You’ll see that everywhere if you open Twitter. Their love story is not at the forefront, nor does it take the backseat. It just is. It just exists. Seeing their fondness and altruistic willingness to fight for each other grow, all points to love. Real, tangible, gay love — despite being at odds with China’s censorship laws. The queer community is so often relegated to imagine our fantasies and representation as divergent from the hetero-normative narrative at play. We insert our reality where queer people are valid, into fiction that constantly tells us we are not. But The Untamed is fresh to my Westernised eyes. It’s layered, lavishly-designed and marvelously acted. We are valid in the world of The Untamed.
Wangxian’s love story has left an indelible mark on me. I identify as bisexual, but have grown to see sexuality as a broad spectrum and thus have considered the possibility that labels might not be for me. Spending fifty episodes with them has been like making two new friends. Hearing their love song makes me feel at home. We didn’t get any dramatic signs of love; hugging, kissing or the like, but I honestly believe the drama is stronger for it. It forces the audience to contend with a kind of gay love that we all know exists, but is rarely shown. Ophélie, a fan known as @lordweiyanzhan, tells me “Wangxian don’t need to say ‘I love you’ or even have sex to show their love. Everything is shown through their eyes.”
Li, a fan known as @promisestb, believes Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo’s portrayal of their characters does a wonderful job of conveying their relationship, despite censorship. She tells me that, as a bisexual Muslim woman, many stories she knows featuring queer people are either sex-focused or end tragically. “The Untamed manages to showcase the depth of a relationship beautifully without fetishising or diminishing the two main characters,” she says. “It’s a breath of fresh air to see this.”
Western media snatches headlines with queer representation, but when they engage in queerbaiting tactics, it’s a demonstrable loss to the queer community. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes to Martin Freeman’s John Watson is a prime example. We project our own wants of fulfilment into characters like them, only for writers to hint at exploring a queer relationship with zero intentions of canonising it. “It’s no secret that the queer community is overlooked and overshadowed in fictional portrayal,” a fan known as @dadguangjun tells me. “They’re often being reduced to just a side pairing, a foil to their straight counterpart.” Disney’s clout mission with Beauty and the Beast flopped. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’s queer kiss was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, easily cut for foreign audiences. These tidbits are checkboxes for straight people to help them think they’re making history, while their stale contributions will likely only fill the appendices of some future encyclopaedia. It’s virtue signalling at its finest.
“Although we have come a long way to even begin receiving recognition in art,” @dadguangjun continues. “I feel like we’ve hit a stalemate, where no one wants to move to make things better, but no one is doing anything to make it worse.” We remain idle because nothing overtly negative has come from it and executives dare not rock the boat. Not only did the producers of The Untamed bring Wangxian to life, they pushed boundaries with a depiction of gay sex in the Lan Clan’s library. I take refuge in the fact that where Western media fails, a censored foreign drama fights tooth and nail for representation.
While Western media has, in the last decade, finally realised the wealth of stories that can be told about women, it’s the notion that these are also made by women that I think then produces multidimensional women. Women with talents and flaws, trials and triumphs. You know, the same thing gifted to men on a silver platter in every film, series or novel known to humanity. The women of The Untamed are a credit to their creator, who has imbued them with hesitation and determination in good measure.
“Jiang Yanli has a special place in my heart,” Li tells me. “She’s one of the strongest characters for me personally.” Li contrasts Yanli’s lack of physical fighting with her incredible emotional strength. “She’s polite and well spoken but doesn’t shy back from speaking up when she sees injustice. She stands tall against the prejudices that come with her closeness to a brother who’s not blood related to her.” Yanli never questioned the legitimacy of her new brother. The Yunmeng siblings were to be together forever. They should have been.
Speaking on Wen Qing, Ophélie tells me that she’s brave. “She did what she thought was right, she tried to protect her brother and was ready to give him the whole world,” she says. “She never did anything wrong. She just wanted her brother safe and sound and for him to be happy.” It’s the great tragedy of a character like Wen Qing, to dedicate her life to healing others only to die unsuccessful in treating her most important patient.
@dadguangjun tells me why Mianmian was one of her favourite characters. “I love that she was willing to speak up on Wei Wuxian’s behalf,” she says. “I felt she had a good, unbiased grasp on right and wrong — a troublesome concept for 98% of the damn characters.” It’s a shame that with the exception of Mianmian, the women of The Untamed are all dead by the end, having paid the ultimate price. This may illustrate the toll that sect-life can take on oneself. Mianmian is alive and well only after denouncing her place and seceding from the clan; some food for thought. And then there’s Lan Yi and Madam Yu, the latter of whom I hated, but both were badasses ’til the end.
“It’s my safe place,” is a quote attributed to more than one person, speaking about their fondness for The Untamed. This world has captured hearts and shone light into the darkest lives. And this light has spilled into reality with the online fan base. “We are just like the cast — a family,” Ophélie tells me of her experience in the fandom. “It just feels nice to belong somewhere where you are loved, understood and share the same passion.” Li tells me that it’s the international unity that’s caught her eye. “It’s really great to see people from all niches of the world come together and learn about different cultures,” she says.
Any given day, you will find fans intentionally making each other as sad as possible; sharing endless ‘what-if’ scenarios where the plot takes a different turn, compiling screenshots of cinematic parallels between episodes and engaging in pure angst-ridden discourse. And it’s beautiful. @dadguangjun coalesces the complexity of the fandom into one statement: “It is like being part of a huge family who collectively gathers at the dinner table just to cry over good food.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
The Untamed has changed my life in the best way. I’m a screenwriter. That’s what I want to do with my life. It means that every piece of media I consume, every television series I invest time in, must teach me more about the craft I want to develop. And in the pursuit of finding series to learn from, I found this. I have learned so much in watching this drama, full of queer representation and remarkable women. I want to thank the fans — especially P — for never shutting up about this beautiful, funny, tragic show, for without you it may have never made its way into my heart.
“I once treated you as my soulmate in this life,” Wei Wuxian says.
Lan Wangji looks at him. “I still am.”