Word of Honor

  • by

Content warning: Ableism, torture, toxic masculinity, poison, suicide, indentured servitude/slavery, abuse.

Shout out to Aube for luring me up the mountain!!!

Word of Honor (山河令) is a BL/Dānměi Chinese historical fantasy series that was based on the webnovel Faraway Wanderers (天涯客) by Priest, who has had other webnovels adapted into series, too. This one centers around Zhōu Zǐshū and Wēn Kèxīng.

Zhōu Zǐshū led the martial arts sect and intelligence organization “Window of Heaven” until grief, disillusionment, and guilt drove him to quit super dramatically to wander about before fading into the good night. His method of choice is also a potential trigger-more on that later. Wēn Kèxīng leads the much reviled Ghost Valley and is out for epic revenge and for getting with his man. As all the legacies and self interests of the various sects and players churn about the two, they flirt, angst, eat, and child raise their way to greatness and each other’s arms.

This series is one of those stories that isn’t perfect. It gets some things so right, and others so wrong that the phrase ‘mixed feelings’ doesn’t even begin to cover how I feel towards it. Word of Honor is:

as flamingly gay as a TV/streaming series can be under government censorship
is incredibly ableist
shows the shades of grey a family can be
is needlessly classist
features sexy bisexuals being messy
shows how love isn’t enough on its own
makes very pointed remarks about collateral damage and breaking cycles of violence
yet supports violent retribution as justice…

The list just goes on!!!

Me thinking about the show

But before we get into all that, let’s go back to that ‘fade into the good night’ bit. First and foremost, the gays are fine. This show absolutely deserves a tragedy tag, but not for burying its gays. While Zhōu Zǐshū’s lifespan is one of the central tensions, this show is a campy romp with beautiful men being badasses and raising their cinnamon roll of a son. Don’t get me wrong, they draw out the angst for sure, but the way they set up this angst cow of a plot point telegraphed that Zhōu Zǐshū is going to live. But like I said, there was a fair amount of knife-in-my-heart angst, too. If any of that would still be triggering for you, fair.

And now I can talk about the very good things and the very bad things about the show!!! HURRAY!!!!

When I said this show is flamingly gay, I mean it is truly, madly, deeply gay.

Truly, Madly, Deeply Gay

While the source material is unambiguously a m/m romance, government censorship will not allow any TV series to show characters as canonically queer. In deference to this limitation, Word of Honor queer coded the ever loving shit out of everything they could.

Everything.

Like a lot of C-dramas, the character’s voices are dubbed in post. It’s basically an industry standard at this point, and it means they can change the lines of the characters…while leaving the camera riiiight up on their faces. For reasons.

Reasons

Also for reasons, you can show the character cutting sleeves, which is a reference to an emperor who cut off his sleeve so his lovely lover can keep snoozing. You can show them getting jealous.

You can show a straight-laced grouch vaguely agreeing to meet the sly, sunny, shameless man again, “If the fates allow it”…only to turn around and almost immediately see the same shameless man pulling up in his boat.

And what about referencing romantic poetry all over the place and gifting hairpins the way married couples do? Or how about referencing a specific m/m webnovel trope from a particular decade?

These are just the tip of the iceberg of how lushly romantic this series is, and there’s also other queer couples in the story! Avenue X’s videos on youtube were my main source for learning about all the ways cultural and literary references were used to layer romance in, so definitely check out her videos if you’re interested! Even if you’re not, there’s still sparring as foreplay, gazing starry eyed into each other’s eyes, domestic bliss, loving support, and aaaalll kinds of romantic tropes piled on besides.

Combined with the chemistry between the leading actors, the show served up soooo much squee!!! Among my favourite squee moments are Zhōu Zǐshū and Wēn Kèxīng spending time with Zhāng Chénglǐng, who is effectively their adoptive son. Family is a big theme in the show, and I thought it was handled better in some places than others.

First and foremost, it was mostly a positive representation of two dads and their son. There were really cute moments like Zhāng Chénglǐng going in for hugs when he’s a little nervous to be separated from them for a while or asking for bedtime stories then complaining to Wēn Kèxīng about how Zhōu Zǐshū’s stories are too boring.

What I didn’t appreciate was moments like Zhōu Zǐshū embodying the Stern and Demanding Patriarch and Wēn Kèxīng taking the role of Peacekeeping Mother. There were times when Zhōu Zǐshū was unreasonably harsh to Zhāng Chénglǐng, and Wēn Kèxīng tells the boy Zhōu Zǐshū is only like that, “Because he cares.” It’s an incredibly toxic and dangerous narrative that perpetuates the idea people you love are allowed to, supposed to, disrespect and even abuse you. The scenes of Zhōu Zǐshū pushing Zhāng Chénglǐng to over-train slaps an unsolicited layer of toxic masculinity over it all.

There were many other parts of the show that underscore the importance of emotional intelligence and how demanding that children adhere to certain norms or what the parental figure thinks is right can be disastrous. Being part of the East Asian diaspora, I understand the logic underpinning these different choices, but I’m still very frustrated with them.

How the show handles class is even more haywire. There are indentured servants in the show, and first, why is there a Beggar sect? Just…WHY? Where the show didn’t use indentured servitude as a small, fiddly bit of window dressing, it used indentured servants to prop up the ‘benevolence’ and ‘good heart’ of other characters. In fact, indentured servants were compared with dogs at one point, because their masters must be able to take care of them and protect them… Yuuup. Yup, excuse me, there’s a pillow that needs screaming into.

I never made it to the pillow

Similarly patchy was how the show explored redemption.

Redemption and ableism

There’s a throughline that there are ‘types’ of people who innately deserve redemption and people who don’t. It is possible to read it as there are people who are capable of redemption and work towards it, but that interpretation doesn’t work for me. There was no meaningful exploration of one of the most pivotal villainous character’s inner life, which might have allowed for that interpretation.

This also ties in with how the show is mind bogglingly ableist. Two of the characters in the show are Little People, and both were positioned and coded as ‘evil’ and ‘other’ gratuitously. One of them was one of the main villains, and his entire motivation just made no sense.

The conflict took an entire arc of the show, all ending with him choosing a horrible death because he’s not able to walk. Pass me that pillow again.

Production wise, this show was nothing short of a miracle. Apparently, it didn’t even have a shoe string for a budget, and while that did affect the quality of the editing, set design, and costumes, somehow it managed to pull everything together. There were many beautiful shots, enjoyable fight choreography, and for all my annoyance at how unevenly the show handled some of its themes, it maintained internal consistency for most of its run.

The highs in Word of Honor make the lows all the more aggravating, in no small part because the highs often demonstrate the show definitely could have taken a different turn. It’s also deeply moving to me that such a romantic, emotionally nuanced piece of queer media, showing more than one queer couple, was made in a place where successive crack downs against LGBTQ spaces and media have been happening barely a month after this show finished airing. At time of writing, a lot of dānměi webnovels are disappearing, and no more shows based on dānměi novels can be made. I adore the love, resilience, and bravery that made this adaptation possible.

But while this series embraced queerness in so many ways, it also reproduced many harmful stereotypes and narratives. Good thing this isn’t a book, because I would have been at a loss how to grade this. I feel really weird for both recommending it and not recommending it.

If you’re looking for a very romantic series with lots of flirting and several queer couples, and many instances of people, most of them queer, choosing who they love, then this series serves that up in spades. But count your spoons before you head in because, again, this series does come with a hefty tragedy tag, is very ableist, and has some other issues too.

Word of Honor is 36 episodes plus epilogue, with each episode being ~45minutes long, and the worst of the ableism lasts an entire arc. And as I said, while it is very romantic and emotional, there are very valid reasons to invest your time in other stories.

Word of Honor is on YouTube, Youku, Rakuten Viki and Netflix. On YouTube, Youku, and Viki, the final bit of the ending is behind a paywall, though I’m not sure about Netflix.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *