Mo Dao Zu Shi Review
Why Everyone Should Read My Favorite Book: A Manifesto
[Moderation note: people who have read MDZS, please ROT13 all spoilers. Thank you!]
Last month, the first part of the professional translation of my current favorite book, the Chinese webnovel Mo Dao Zu Shi (MDZS) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, came out. (The first part of Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s other books, Ren Zha Fanpai Zijiu Xitong and Tian Guan Ci Fu, also came out out, but I can’t write reviews of them because I’m not finished.) So now is the best time to explain to everyone once and for all why they should read my favorite book, instead of bringing it up constantly in unrelated conversations.
I’ve noticed, in my various attempts to explain to everyone why they should read my favorite book, that there is widespread confusion about whether it is gay. Presumably part of the problem here is my historical tendency to declare things to be gay based on something between “subtext” and “wishful thinking.” So I would like to clarify, once and for all, that MDZS is in fact a gay romance novel. It is not subtext. It is very textual gay. The protagonist canonically has an impregnation kink. There is a passionate, explicit declaration of love on page. They are literally married, because marriage is a social construct and when a terrifying necromancer tells you that gay marriage is legal in fake fantasy medieval China then you’re going to listen to him. We really should have thought of this before we went to all the trouble of doing Obergefell.
MDZS is like A Song of Ice and Fire, if A Song of Ice and Fire were a gay romance novel. If you caught up with ASOIAF and said to yourself, “wow, I really wish there were a book like this, except complete, and also half the plot is a man hopelessly pining after The World’s Very Stupidest Man who has spent the past decade failing to work out that he’s gay,” then I think you will love MDZS.
Wei Wuxian is the terrifying Yiling Patriarch, inventor of demonic cultivation, which enables you to control fierce corpses (=fake fantasy medieval Chinese zombies) instead of laying them to rest like most cultivators (=fake fantasy medieval Chinese wizards and martial artists). Thirteen years ago, he died. In the present day, an abused gay teenager permanently destroyed his own soul, exiling himself from the cycle of reincarnation, in order to allow Wei Wuxian to possess his body so that Wei Wuxian could take revenge on his abusers.
(This is the part where I tell you that the title translates to “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation,” which I didn’t do earlier because it gives Westerners a totally inaccurate view of what the novel is about.)
In the process of doing so, Wei Wuxian runs into Lan Wangji, an incorruptible paragon of purity and pureness. Lan Wangji has been in love with Wei Wuxian for twenty years, but unfortunately Wei Wuxian is The World’s Very Stupidest Man, so he thinks that Lan Wangji hates him. (In his defense, Lan Wangji doesn’t talk and all of his emotions happen in microexpressions.) He decides to shore up his “I’m an abused gay teenager and definitely not the terrifying Yiling Patriarch” cover story by sexually harassing Lan Wangji constantly. Little does he know that Lan Wangji saw through his cover about five minutes after meeting him and now Lan Wangji Suffers. Oh how does he Suffer.1
Now Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian are going to run around fake fantasy medieval China solving a murder mystery with the assistance of a Greek chorus of snarky teenagers. Meanwhile, in flashbacks, it is explained how Wei Wuxian became a demonic cultivator and how he became the Yiling Patriarch.
You might expect from this description that the story is rather light and funny. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a light and funny story by MXTX, the one you’re looking for is called Ren Zha Fanpai Zijiu Xitong (Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System) and it is a completely different book.
In terms of content warnings for MDZS, the answer is “yes.” I’m not lying about the A Song of Ice and Fire comparison. There are:
multiple sexual assaults (one committed by a heroic character, although the narrative disapproves of his behavior)
multiple murders of hundreds or thousands of people, including children
arguably a couple of genocides depending on your exact definition of “genocide”
child abuse. so much child abuse. oh my god so much child abuse holy shit, often depicted fairly vividly
lots of body horror and zombies
alcoholism and other very poor trauma coping mechanisms
a detailed and difficult to read, although very plot-relevant and not gratuitous, torture scene
You may be catching on to one of the distinctive traits of this novel, which is hella tonal shifts.
So why should you read this book? Two points: characters and themes.
The MDZS fandom tends to be obsessed with the two protagonists, which is a shame, because every character in MDZS is great. It is one of a handful of books—the others I can think of off the top of my head being Discworld and the Vorkosigan Saga—where it is hard to think of a major character that couldn’t be stanned by a reasonable person. I am personally not very into Jin Zixuan or Nie Mingjue, but I get why someone would! Far too many books have secondary characters who are unlikable, boring, stupid, or simply ciphers. Everyone in MDZS has a deep and rich inner life that you could write thousands of words of meta about. This novel happens to be about Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, but it’s not at all hard to imagine it as the story of Jin Guangyao or Nie Huaisang or Wen Ning in which Wei Wuxian plays a surprisingly minor part.
More specifically, MDZS has some of the best neurodivergence representation I’ve ever read. Wei Wuxian has ADHD: he hyperfocuses on things he’s interested in and is incapable of finishing things he’s not; he makes all his decisions on impulse based on whatever issue he happens to be interacting with at the time; he has trouble controlling his feelings; he talks constantly and goes on random tangents. Even the little details are right—his messy room, his tendency to always leave his wallet at home, his love of intense sensations like very spicy food.
And Lan Wangji is probably the best autistic character I’ve ever read. I assume he wasn’t meant to be, but every one of his traits rings true. His sensory sensitivities and lack of tolerance of being touched, his auditory stimming with his guqin, his love of rules and order and scripts, his difficulty understanding people, his tendency to communicate in monosyllables and the sound “Mn,” his absolute stubbornness once he discovers something is the right thing to do. I have met dozens of this guy. To some extent, I am this guy. And I love that there’s a book where instead of being cured he gets to fly around on his magic sword killing zombies and falling in love. (And can I just say how much I love writing a standard dark, silent, and mysterious love interest who turns out to just be really fucking autistic?)
My second pitch is the themes. MDZS is very thematically rich. When you’re done writing your thousands of words about the inner life of Jin Guangyao, you can easily write another ten thousand words about, say, the theme of how the stories others tell about us are different from what actually happened, or about how every villain is the hero of their own story. But there are two themes I want to discuss in more depth.
Firstly, MDZS is a story about trauma. Everyone in the main generation is a child soldier; most were abused as children; several watched their entire family be murdered. Everyone’s lives are profoundly shaped by their trauma, mostly badly. They’re alcoholics; they hide all their feelings under a protective layer of anger; they isolate themselves from those who love them; they hide their suffering under jokes; they refuse to express preferences and try to please everyone around them; they kill themselves. They hurt other people. They hurt other people, again and again and again, and you can hurt people quite badly, if you have magic powers, and you’re in a war. It’s about how your pain puts blinders on you which makes you hurt other people, and then those people have blinders in their turn.
The ending of MDZS is bleak. It’s about as sad an ending as you could have, given the genre constraint that a romance has to end with the main characters in love and reasonably happy. I was recently involved in an argument about whether MDZS was less depressing than Les Miserables which mostly hinged on whether people being in Heaven at the end of Les Miz counts as ‘happy.’ It’s depressing, is what I’m saying.
And yet… there is some hope in it. The main-generation characters have children2. They are very imperfect parents—angry, replacing love with gifts, wrapped up in their own issues. But they are all trying. They don’t give their children perfect childhoods, but they give their children better childhoods than they had. The Greek chorus of snarky teenagers don’t have to become child soldiers. In some ways, that’s an awful ending! But in other ways I find it very hopeful because of how low the standards are. You can break the cycle of abuse and violence. Even if your life is ruined, your children’s lives don’t have to be. “Everything is better for everyone” feels unrealistic to me, these days. “Some things are better than they were before, for someone, even if that person isn’t you” feels like something I can hope for.
The other MDZS theme I find fascinating is its anti-authoritarianism. All Governments, says MDZS, Are Bastards. Anyone who touches the government is corrupted. Indeed, one character’s tragic arc is about his attempts to be compassionate and carry out his duties as a clan leader, which ultimately destroys him. Many characters are fundamentally good people, but every one of them ends up doing wrong because the system is not set up to allow people to be good. The only ethical action is to step away from power entirely and spend the rest of your life as a wandering zombie-killing do-gooder, like you’re the protagonist of a Western.
Reading MDZS reminds me of Amartya Sen’s Development As Freedom. Many people say that freedom and equality and human rights are Western values; in the East, or in Africa, or wherever the person comes from, people don’t value freedom and equality and human rights. Sen points out that this is only true if you have a very particular idea of who gets to speak on what Eastern or African or whatever values are. Gay Africans, presumably, have a very different idea about whether executing gay people ought to be an African value; women have a very different opinion about whether Indian values mean women should be trapped inside their houses; those whose beliefs are censored or repressed have a very different opinion about the value of free speech; slaves have very different opinions on the morality of slavery. Why are the censors and the sexists and the slavers and the oppressors the ones who get to speak on the subject? The right to put your boot on someone else’s neck is cherished by boot owners and rather unpopular among those whose faces are ground into dust.
I accepted Sen’s argument when I read it but MDZS is what made me get it. MDZS is a passionate cry against an unjust government from a Chinese person. Mo Xiang Tong Xiu is opposed to authoritarianism because her speech—as an author of explicit gay romance—is routinely censored by her government. (And perhaps for other reasons which we don’t and can’t know.) Why is Xi Jinping a person who gets to speak on what Chinese people value, and an author of gay romance not? Even in the most repressive societies, the desire for freedom is one which cries out from every human heart.
On the first draft of this post, one of my betas objected that I needed to tie this all together, because this post starts on sexy shenanigans and ends with a meditation on corruption and freedom and overall sounds like I’m talking about at least three different books. This is not my fault, because MDZS is in fact at least three different books. I’m not sure if the “what if it were secretly an insightful meditation on the experience of living under an authoritarian government” approach to gay romance novels is common in China or unique to MXTX, but either way it’s great and more Western romance novelists should take a page from her book. And you should read it. It’s awesome. People fly around on swords.
This is technically a spoiler but literally all the sexual harassment scenes are 10,000% more entertaining if you know it already and are spending the entire time munching popcorn and appreciating Lan Wangji’s Suffering.
One of MDZS’s more charming traits is the fact that nearly every male character, if left alone with a child for twenty minutes, will instantly declare himself the child’s father and murder anyone who objects.