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The Untamed: We're getting on the WangXian ship and never coming back

Samseng Zhabor
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This issue has been a long time coming. If I’m running a secondary newsletter for fun stuff, I’m going to need to have to write about The Untamed. There’s a rule about it somewhere, I’m sure.
The Untamed, or 《陈情令》, is a 2019 Chinese drama adapted from the web novel 《魔道祖师 Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation 》by the author 墨香铜臭 (Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, a pseudonym). It’s her biggest hit thus far, although if you’re on Netflix, you can watch the donghua adaptation of her third novel 《天官赐福 Heaven’s Official Blessing 》.
You’ll find all 50 episodes of The Untamed on Netflix, Viki, and YouTube. If you’re the sort who gets put off by such long dramas, there’s a 20-episode cut on YouTube, although that’s really for fans who love to revisit the relationship between the two main characters. You’ll probably still be able to follow the story, but obviously it skips over quite a lot. (Yes, I’ve watched both versions.)
If you really really want to get into it, there are also manhua and donghua versions of 《魔道祖师 Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation 》. And this adorable Q version with little funny scenes—I don’t really know why this exists and I haven’t seen it all myself, but I’m not complaining.
What's it all about?
The Untamed is a xianxia (a genre of Chinese fantasy) story that’s set in a world of cultivators who can communicate with, control, and fight ghosts, spirits, and demons.
Wei Wuxian/Wei Ying (played by Xiao Zhan) is a free-spirited disciple of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect, who goes with his older adopted sister and young adopted brother to attend lessons conducted by an elder of the Gusu Lan Sect. There, he meets Lan Wangji/Lan Zhan (played by Wang Yibo, one of those simisai-also-can-do-then-some-more-young-and-handsome celebrities), the Gusu Lan Sect’s poker-faced wonder boy.
Wei Wuxian’s carefree, mischievous ways piss off the very reserved stickler-for-rules Lan Wangji—or at least, that’s what it seems like. But Lan Wangji turns out to like Wei Wuxian a lot more than he might let on, and the two become friends. (Or at least that’s what the Chinese censors think, but we all know they’re muuuuuch more than “friends” 😜.)
The world is messy and complex and full of politics and power-grabs, which the two can’t extricate themselves from. There’s war and plots, murder and intrigue, leading them on a long journey of discovery, revenge, and friendship/love.
NOTE: Many of the characters have more than one name in the series, which can make it confusing if you’re not used to it. This article explains how it works; it does require remembering more names, but I really like it because of the extra layer of nuance that it provides.
What's so great about it?
It’s strange how The Untamed works, because it requires a big upfront commitment from new viewers before paying off.
If you’ve never read the novel and don’t know anything about the story—which was my situation when I first started watching the drama—the early episodes can be confusing AF. They drop you right in the middle of the story, then jump into a loooooong flashback that only brings you back to where you were in episode 1 around 30 episodes in. There are fewer back-and-forth time skips than the novel (which zips around), but it’s still a weird narrative choice for new audiences.
On top of this, it can feel like there are 2347623 characters, from different sects and generations, to keep track of. And some of the special effects and sets are just—I’m going to go ahead and be brutally honest here—quite bad.
You might feel like this when you first encounter The Untamed and can't quite make head or tail of it.
You might feel like this when you first encounter The Untamed and can't quite make head or tail of it.
On paper, this show sounds convoluted and B-grade. I know a few people who gave up after a few episodes because they couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on, and I can understand. I watched the first episode a couple of times before I decided to stick with it and see where things go.
But if you stick with it… ohhhhhhh what a reward. Don’t believe me? It’s a known progression. 👇🏼👇🏼👇🏼
Dr Kate Wiles
@philistella @Hello_Tailor The three stages of watching The Untamed:
1. This is ... nonsense? This is very bad.
2. Oh, this is quite watchable nonsense.
3. I HAVE NEVER CARED ABOUT ANYTHING MORE IN MY LIFE
why am i here
@taheta_ me, ep 1 of cql: wth is the plot...idk if I'll continue this...
me today: shall I recite yb and xz's entire flirting techniques to you
It takes awhile to get to grips with the world, the characters, and how they relate to one another. But once you’re in, you’ll find an intricate tale populated with complex, interesting characters. Mo Xiang Tong Xiu has done a truly remarkable job making each character distinct, propelled by their personalities, backstories, and motivations. Apart from the two leads, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, there’s a large ensemble of supporting characters who all have their own stories. There’s an entire subplot in a deserted city that is equal parts horrifying and devastating. Even listening to the song (yes, they produced an entire album with original songs relating to specific characters) gives me the feels 😭😭😭
(Warning: Since this song tells the story of the characters involved in the subplot, there are spoilers for the subplot in the music video below!)
《陈情令The Untamed》Official MV 孤城 - 孙伯纶&陈卓璇 Gu Cheng - Sun bo lun & Chen Zhuo Xuan【义城组曲角色曲】OST
《陈情令The Untamed》Official MV 孤城 - 孙伯纶&陈卓璇 Gu Cheng - Sun bo lun & Chen Zhuo Xuan【义城组曲角色曲】OST
Since watching the drama, I’ve also read 《魔道祖师 Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation 》 and I think they’ve done a good job of adapting these characters to the screen, keeping the essence of each even as some tweaks are made here and there. And it’s really these characters and their stories that suck you in and make you forgive the naff sets and special effects.
Ultimately, it’s a story about the thirst for power and prestige, the difference between performative righteousness and true justice, and the struggle with societal demands for conformity. Wei Wuxian, in particular, goes on this magnificent journey that’ll break your heart and mend it—once recognised as a prodigy, he tries his best to follow his sense of what’s right, but ends up in a situation where he finds the entire world against him. His choice not to fold in the face of widespread condemnation is a double-edged sword, saving some while condemning others. (One thing that the drama has done is softened some of Wei Wuxian’s harder edges—there are parts in the novel where he displays more ruthlessness and cruelty than he does in the show.) At the end of the day, what really makes the difference is his relationship with Lan Wangji, and how having that soulmate to trust in and be with can make a difference (and also help you solve some supernatural mysteries).
The fandom, oh the fandom
After you’ve watched The Untamed, you can have more fun by diving into the rabbit hole of the fandom. There are a ton of hilarious fan edits like this one 👇🏼 floating around on YouTube. And while Chinese censorship means there can’t be explicit mention of any homosexual romance, fans aren’t restrained by any such consideration. As the subject of this issue says, we’re getting on the WangXian (Lan WANGji + Wei WuXIAN) ship and never coming back.
lan xichen seeing the gay before wangxian saw it [the untamed]
lan xichen seeing the gay before wangxian saw it [the untamed]
(I have to acknowledge that not all of the fandom has been for good. In 2020, fan wars that erupted on Chinese social media got really out of hand, involving the blocking of the fan-fiction platform Archive of Our Own in China, and generating a massive backlash against the actor Xiao Zhan. It was really ridiculous and intense.)
We’ve also got to give it up for dedicated fans, because people have actually gone and translated the entire 《魔道祖师 Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation 》 (which is not a short novel!) into English. It’s not a good translation in the literary sense, but it can be understood. Also, it contains some of the really explicit sexy stuff that you might not be able to find in the Chinese versions of the novel online. (Yes, I tried because I didn’t like the idea of reading a censored novel.) But be warned: those are some truly XXX scenes, including one in which unspeakable things are done with/to a sword. NSFW DO NOT READ ON BIG SCREENS WITH OTHER PEOPLE IN THE ROOM, AND BE READY WITH YOUR PEARLS
The Untamed was a huge BL hit in China. It has spawned two spin-off films, The Untamed: Fatal Journey and The Living Dead. (I’ve seen both and if you’re looking for something to complement The Untamed, I recommend Fatal Journey because it provides more backstory for a couple of the characters. You can give The Living Dead a miss; I wasn’t a fan of how it drastically changed the personality of one of the original characters 😤.) There’s the aforementioned album with character songs. There’s merchandising (official and fan-made). There’s even a boyband made up of some of the supporting actors from the series; they’re called T.U.B.S, which stands for The Untamed Boys, and they recorded a song with, of all people, Daniel Powter.
All in all, without the redonkulous success of The Untamed, I don’t think we would have been blessed with adaptations like Word of Honour. For this, I will be forever grateful to WangXian.
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Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor
Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor @kixes

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