The BL (boy’s love) drama genre has exploded in popularity across the world, particularly in Thailand, with the Philippines, Taiwan, and Korea following close behind. But in China, many are hesitant to actually call their drama adaptations “boys love” due to strict censors. In fact, community website MyDramaList categorises BL from China as “Censored Adaptation Of Same-sex Original Work” and BL fans generally refer to them as “bromance.”
Despite the tight censorship of on-screen portrayals of homosexual relationship, the danmei (耽美) genre of literature romanticising male–male relationships – typically created by, and targeted towards a heterosexual female audience – is flourishing, providing plenty of potentials for drama adaptations.
When xianxia drama The Untamed (2019) – about a magic-wielder and his ice prince – become a runaway hit, it gave actors Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo a huge boost in popularity. Gone are the days with minimal production budget – all the attention BL dramas is receiving lately has encouraged production companies to throw huge investments into these potential money makers. Chinese dramas tend to stretch to 30 episodes or more, compared to Thai BL dramas which average 12 episodes. And that’s great news for our viewing pleasure – you can watch them across China’s major streaming platforms like Youku, Mango TV, and iQIYI, as well as WeTV and Netflix (for English subtitles).
Chinese historic costume dramas
This year can be billed as the year of costume wuxia (and its offshoot, xianxia), thanks to a number of currently-airing and soon-to-air titles that feature beautiful men in flowy period costumes and long hair. Here are some titles to look out for:
Word of Honor (山河令)
Word of Honor (watch here) became a surprise big hit early this year. It’s a wuxia about Zhou Zishu (Zhang Zhehan), the leader of an elite royal secret service, who leaves the bloody past behind to start anew. He meets Wen Kexing (Simon Gong, who starred in 2017’s BL drama Advance Bravely), the master of the valley who is on a quest to avenge his parents’ deaths. The pair grow closer as they embark on a series of adventures involving a legendary treasure.
It’s adapted from the novel “Faraway Wanderers (天涯客)” by Priest, a BL author who’s had a number of novels adapted into dramas. [45 mins / 36 episodes]
Immortality is an upcoming xianxia about overcoming all odds to protect humanity. It follows Chu Wanning (Arthur Chen), an elder with immense spiritual powers to protect the mortal realm, and his unruly disciple Mo Ran (Luo Yunxi) who’s a gifted cultivator with a dark past. Chu Wanning remains steadfast in leading Mo Ran to follow the right path as they try to prevent a recurrence of the disaster.
It’s adapted from Meatbun Doesn’t Eat Meat’s novel “The Husky and His White Cat Shizun (二哈和他的白猫师尊)”, known to fans as Er Ha or 2Ha, which is short for Husky. During the filming, there was some intense stalking incidents from fans of the novel and the actors. [45 mins / 50 episodes]
Winner is King (杀破狼)
Set in an era of political upheaval in Beixuan Kingdom, Chang Geng (Chen Zheyuan) – a youth living in the borders – is saved from a pack of wolves by Shen Shiliu (Tan Jianci), who takes him in as a godson. When invaded by nomadic tribes, Chang Geng learns that he’s actually a prince and Shen Shiliu is the formidable commander Gu Yun, who’s tasked with bringing him back to the capital to defend their kingdom.
Winner is King is adaptated from the novel “Kill the Wolves (杀破狼)”, one of Priest’s most well-known works. The series premiere will be postponed as it didn’t pass the censorship. [45 mins / 45 episodes]
The Story of the Bat (夜燕白)
The Story of the Bat tells the tale of four young heroes hailing from great martial arts clans – Feng (Mao Ziju), Bai (Gala Zhang), Sima (Liu Yuhan), and Xu (Rain Lu) – who are tasked with investigating a crime of famed murderer “Bat”. Along the way, they uncover traces left behind in a showdown between forces of good and evil from 20 years ago. They soon form strong bonds of friendship as they seek justice.
The drama is adapted from the novel “Bat (蝙蝠)” by renowned BL author Feng Nong. [45 min / 36 episodes]
A League of Nobleman (张公案)
A League of Nobleman (trailer here) is a crime mystery set in ancient China, featuring a duo of detectives a la Holmes and Watson. The story centres around poor scholar Zhang Ping (Song Weilong) who meets Minister of Rites Lan Jue (Jing Boran) by chance, thus starting their story of working together to solve various cases.
Also known as The Society of Four Leaves, the drama is adapted from the novel “Zhang Gongan (张公案).” While the author Da Feng Gua Guo is known for her BL novel “Peach Blossom Debt”, this focuses on mystery with no romance element. [45 mins / 24 episodes]
Heaven Official’s Blessing (天官赐福)
Heaven Official’s Blessing (天官赐福, Tiān Guān Cì Fú) is about crown prince Xie Lian who ascended heaven three times before being banished. In order to ascend again, he has to eliminate ghosts in the mortal realm, where he meets a mysterious demon named Hua Cheng, with whom he shares an unknown bond that goes way back. The cast members have recently been confirmed, with Zhai Xiaowen (of boy band R1SE) as Xie Lian and Zhang Linghe as Hua Cheng.
Heaven Official’s Blessing is adapted from the popular BL novel of the same name by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (who wrote The Untamed), which has already been adapted into an anime series (it’s on Netflix). [45 mins / 40 episodes]
Enjoying China’s “BL” genre
Ever since 2016 when the Chinese government basically declared a clampdown on portrayals of LGBTQ in the media, many companies have been finding ways to straddle the fine line between BL adaptations and pleasing the censorship in order to cash in on the huge potential for profits.
The romance portion of The Untamed was rewritten as a “brotherhood” but that didn’t stop an online craze over the pair’s implicit romance. It’s the same for Word of Honor, where fans would revel in the thrill of seeking out tiny hints of romance instead of watching word-for-word adaptation.
For fans of Chinese BL, everything except kissing (and more explicit scenes) is there – fans simply inferred sexual tension between the two leads. It could be a poetic flirting, lingering eye contact, or hidden messages. For example, when two characters cut off each other’s sleeves with their swords, it signifies gay love – it’s a reference to a Han Dynasty practice.
The world of BL attracts plenty of female fans because unlike heterosexual romances, these BL relationships showcase equality and respect for each other, rather than focus on appearances and marriage hierarchy. In an age of feminism, it’s easy to see why women are drawn to this idea – and the BL drama industry is ready to occupy this lucrative niche.