Censorship, Sexuality, and Intimacy: Appreciating the Chinese Drama “CQL”

I’m going to talk about sex, sexuality, and censorship. These are sensitive topics for a lot of people. Because of that, I want to make clear three things before we begin:

  1. I ship my ships regardless of their sexuality. Just making sure I say it clearly since I’m discussing positively a piece of media that grew from censorship of a fictional gay relationship.
  2. I am not about government censorship, even as I can acknowledge that artists operating under such censorship can still produce amazing works, including things that perhaps would not have been made if not for those governmental limitations.
  3. On a personal note, intimacy is far more romantic to me than is sex. Intimacy and care waters my crops. I adore shows like CQL that have an abundance of them both. If that works the other way around for you, that’s fine. Honestly, I don’t care. It’s up to you. Everyone has preferences.

There has been controversy in this fandom. (Controversy? In a fandom?? No way!)

The Chinese yaoi or boy love* webnovel, Mo Dao Zu Shi (MDZS), spawned multiple adaptations, including:

  • audio dramas,
  • a manhua (“Chinese manga”),
  • a donghua (“Chinese anime”),
  • a chibi donghua (slated for this fall),
  • and an anime (in the works).

These adaptations have become immensely popular in China and abroad.

Yet among the numerous incarnations listed above, one is conspicuously missing. Chén Qíng Lìng (CQL) is a C-drama adapted from the MDZS souce material. The highest earning drama of 2019 has been officially translated into 11 languages and proved so popular in its own right that it spawned two of its own pieces of additional media, movies Shenghun (The Living Dead) and Luanpo (Fatal Journey), as well as a 30 episode special edition.

The drama was praised for its faithfulness to the novel in spite of censorship, but as a huge fan myself, I can say with certainty that MDZS and CQL are two different beasts. For one example, the morality tale may be similar, but main character Wei Ying is portrayed as less of a morally gray character in CQL than in MDZS. (His characterization is nothing less than EXCEPTIONAL in CQL, I must add, just different. I prefer him in CQL on several fronts.) Furthermore, the relationship between Lan Zhan and Wei Ying in the novel is very sexually explicit. In the drama, their love is expressed through intimacy, but not sexually.

The masterful degree of intimacy between these men in CQL can’t be mistaken as friendship. The characters touches, vocal inflections, looks, and actions reflect romance and love so much more beautifully, in my mind, than throwing them into bed together. I am a huge CQL fan, but in being a fan, I acknowledge that CQL might not exist in its exact and current form without censorship. You can’t miss their love, but the series was made with plausible deniability in mind. The Chinese government can’t call out the team behind CQL if they leave that piece of deniability in place.

China’s censorship policies are legendary. I won’t get into them, but I’ll link you to this article on Wikipedia should you want to being learning more about them.

Yet, without censorship, the production team behind CQL might not have been as careful and delicate in their handling of the men’s relationship. Frankly, think it would have been easier to put them in sexual situations that scream “LOOK! THEY ARE MORE THAN FRIENDS!!” Instead, the team managed to portray a loving whisper that resonated wider and louder than a scream ever could. Wei Ying and Lan Zhan may or may not end up in a sexual relationship after the end of CQL (either way I JUST WANT THEM TO BE HAPPY 😭), but the intimate love they feel for each other is without question. That’s why I like it! (That love is portrayed as stronger than societal pressures, politics and death, but that’s not the point of this essay.)

Knowing this, censorship is still bad. There is a sub-facet of the MDZS community that doesn’t appreciate CQL because the idea of censorship ruins the concept for them. I get it. But there is also a huge portion that CAN appreciate amazingly quality content that grew from censorship as an oddly pleasant side effect while still recognizing that censorship is dangerous and oppressive.

In the novel, Wei Ying and Lan Zhan have sex in an inn, they make out in front of a villian, and at one point, Lan Zhan uses his sword as a…sexual tool. In the drama, their love is shown to be more intimate, less sexual. Those aforementioned “novel-verse” features were never going to be shown in any title no matter what country made it or the sexuality of the couple invovled.

But Chinese censorship goes beyond that; our leads couldn’t even kiss. That is not okay.

YET, the creative team used the limitations present to their advantage to tell a romantic story in a beautiful, unexpected way. As much as I’d have loved to see my boys share a romantic kiss at the end of it all, I cannot resent them for making something absolutely beautiful in spite of (or, because of?) China’s dangerous laws.

Love doesn’t have to be expressed sexually to be both intimate and romantic. Some people are very sexually inclined, and that’s totally fine. Others aren’t, and that’s fine, too. In the source media (of which I’ve since read a good chunk) things get pretty steamy. In fact, I’d say they blow way past steamy and straight into pornographic–no judgement intended; it’s just a fact. I knew from talk around the fandom what was coming, and running into it was one large reason that I stopped reading. Before that, I still preferred CQL’s interpretation, because… well… I just like those things that it offers better than those things the original MDZS offers.

I’m glad CQL exists as it does, even if its exact incarnation arose from Chinese censorship. I would rather watch it than an exact replica of MDZS played out in live-action on screen. (The anime is great, too, though. You should check it out.)

The relationship between Wei Ying and Lan Zhan is so intimate and close and romantic, even though it isn’t portrayed as sexual. I’m totally okay with it being sexual as an extension and expression of their deep and abiding love, but I can appreciate CQL without the sexual component. I can appreciate a series that grew from dangerous policies while acknowledging that the world as a whole would benefit from their removal.

As Husband can attest from me screaming it around the house, I just want them to live their best lives!!!

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