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Review: Heaven Official's Blessing
A little slice of indulgence to ease you into Pride Month.
Welcome to Tongzhi Tuesday, a series where I’ll be reviewing queer Asian and AAPI content in whatever form that may come in, whether it be movies, TV, music, or the occasional manhua. Subjects and tone will range from comical to serious, depending on my mood. Yes, this is a veiled excuse to talk about the things I like. Want to suggest something for me to review? Leave me a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
tongzhi (同志): lit. “same aspiration,” meant to denote “comrade” but has been adopted by the Mandarin-speaking LGBTQ+ community to mean “gay” or “queer”
To talk about Heaven Official's Blessing necessitates a bit of contextual information. (Don’t worry — I’ll try to make this as enjoyable for you as possible.) This is because the first season of the donghua (or, the Chinese equivalent of anime) adaptation is 12 episodes long and only covers the first two arcs in this sprawling epic that takes place over hundreds of years. To review the actual donghua will take scant space, which I’ll get to later on, but if you’d rather see the Sparknotes upfront: Impressive animation? Sumptuous historical fantasy setting? Entertaining cast of characters who aren’t afraid to get funny? If all of those speak to you, then you might not want to miss this one.
So — what exactly is Heaven Official’s Blessing, anyway? It’s a xianxia BL webnovel by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, all words that require a second of explanation (except for “webnovel,” which I hope is self-explanatory). BL is the easiest, so let’s start there — boys love, which you might have seen me mention in previous Tongzhi Tuesday installments. It’s a popular genre in Asia that depicts love between queer men, and I say genre because it has a number of common tropes that are quite unique to BL alone. (To the point that there are now various manga or manhua solely dedicated to parodying those very tropes). Xianxia, on the other hand, is a Chinese fantasy subgenre based on Taoist magic that’s become extremely popular in television dramas over the past several years, thanks to the advancement of CGI. Practitioners of Taoist magic “cultivate” their qi (hence these characters are often called “cultivators” in English translations) and master their craft in hopes of one day achieving immortality as gods. Of course, the worlds of xianxia are often populated by demons, ghouls, ghosts, and other types of monsters created by an accumulation of negative qi, requiring exorcism by our heroes who bear their priestly powers proudly.
Many xianxia dramas are about still very human cultivators, but Heaven Official’s Blessing covers the bit that happens after you become a god. Xie Lian, our main character, is a bit of a special case in and of himself. When the story opens, he’s ascended to heaven as an immortal for the third time — because he was disgraced and banished back to the mortal realm the first two times. The other gods regard Xie Lian a nuisance, so he’s sent off to investigate mysteries in the human world that none of the other gods want to deal with. If it sounds like the series is somewhat of a magical whodunit, it’s because it is — just with demons involved. And the perpetrators behind each case are always surprising and more closely tied up with Xie Lian’s past than he expects.
We can’t forget the romance, of course: along the way, he meets a mysterious youth named San Lang, who knows much more about the world of gods and demons than he’s letting on. Because of Chinese censorship laws, the love story is carried out in the donghua through implications only. I’m not sure how they’re going to get around certain plot-specific points that require the male leads to kiss (because of course they do), but it seems like the show is going down The Untamed route and making sure to hit audiences over the head with subtext so heavy that it’s become the text itself. In the first 12 episodes alone, the animation makes sure to pause and slow every time Xie Lian and San Lang share a long, loving gaze. I don’t know how the animation team did it, but there is something so tender in the way these two characters look at each other, something so emotionally loaded in the shine of their eyes. This is emblematic of the whole relationship, really — there is no slightly antagonistic tension brimming just beneath the surface, no turning point of mutual understanding, just a gentle desire to accept each other from the very beginning. Which is what makes this relationship a particular favorite among fans (myself included).
Of course, I cannot talk about Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s work without talking about the author of the original webnovels herself. Though her true identity has been kept anonymous (par for course for Chinese BL webnovel writers), she’s produced three of the most popular BL series to come out of China, the most well-known of them being Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, which later got adapted into the live-action series The Untamed. Unfortunately, for a writer whose work revolves around queer love, she can be borderline homophobic, going on record in an interview, for example, that she doesn’t think any of the characters in her stories aside from the central couple are queer, because it would be “unrealistic” to have that many queer characters. There are some uncomfortably transphobic jokes (that, yes, made it over to the donghua as well) near the beginning of Heaven Official’s Blessing about Xie Lian crossdressing, and a general lack of recognition that trans people exist, but on the same token, the series also contains two characters that can be read as trans lesbians (with ample canon evidence to prove it), and they happen to be my favorite relationship in the whole series aside from the main pairing. Engaging with Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s work is very much an exercise in enjoying the highs while ignoring the content that can elicit eyerolls. (People who have read the Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation webnovel extras — you know what content we’re ignoring.)
I bring this up because I know not everyone will be quite as willing as I am to cherry pick what I love and leave aside the rest. But (and this is taking a major tangent from our main topic of discussion) I’m also not interested in “cancelling” or disregarding entire bodies of work for one or two poorly-considered lines. Creators of every creed and color are problematic, even this humble reviewer, because that’s just the way we are — relentlessly human. I don’t like Mo Xiang Tong Xiu and neither do I excuse any of the homophobic or transphobic things she’s said and written. At the same time, her work has been a huge source of comfort and identity reflection to me and other trans, non-binary, and queer fans, and that’s enough for me.
Despite her shortcomings, what makes me (begrudgingly) love Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s writing is that her stories aren’t just about impeccably handsome boys falling in love with each other. The romance is circumstantial, existing against the backdrop of complex worlds mired with greed, political power, and subterfuge. Her stories are cleverly drawn critiques of law, justice, convention, and tradition, and her protagonists are constantly rebelling against a corrupt system, only to be ostracized and painted a villain for doing so. Even the gods in Heaven Official’s Blessing aren’t exempt from this less-than-sympathetic depiction — they aren’t necessarily moral and upright, can be selfish and impassive to their subjects’ needs, and some can be downright evil. Similarly, the demons and ghosts aren’t always out to harm, either. It’s almost as if the main characters fall in love despite the insurmountable odds around them. And that, I think, is the real sticking point of these stories, and certainly Heaven Official’s Blessing — that in the face of a cruel universe that doesn’t always reward the right actions (and sometimes even punishes them), there is someone out there who loves you, believes in you, and fights for you, and one day, regardless of how long it takes, they will find their way to you.
To be honest, I don’t know if the donghua should be your first foray into Heaven Official’s Blessing — it’s an extremely faithful adaptation to the novel to a fault. Personally, I think the beginning of the story is a little hard to grasp, and the donghua doesn’t smooth that over handily. It’s also, in my esteemed and expert opinion, not as funny as the novel. The true triumphs of the donghua are its gorgeous animation bringing this beautiful story to life, and its quiet depiction of a growing relationship between the male leads, which you’ll catch enough glimpses of in the first 12 episodes to grow summarily fond of. (I can’t count the number of times I clutched my chest watching the donghua last night.)
But if you don’t feel like reading 244 chapters of text on Google Drive, or don’t mind waiting around for the entire story to unfold on a screen near you, the donghua is a perfect introduction to this indulgently soft love story. And at the bridge between APAHM and Pride Month — why not be indulgent? It’s been a long year. We’ve all deserved it.
Heaven Official's Blessing is currently streaming on Netflix.
A BIT OF HOUSEKEEPING:
Firstly, you may remember that at the beginning of last month, I promised a veritable bonanza of thoughtful essays on Asian America for APAHM, which, as you can tell, didn’t happen. You could say that I certainly overestimated the state of my mental health; aside from last month’s “Death By a Thousand Cuts,” I haven’t written anything, not even a journal entry, in over two months. Which is why this particular review might feel a little rough around the edges, as I’m still finding my bearings. And loathe as I am to admit it, I also fell into the trap of thinking that I “had” to write all of my thoughts on AAPI issues for the month of May, which I now realize was a product of white supremacist and capitalist brainworms, because I am Asian American all-year round, and I deserve to be able to write about AAPI issues whenever I want. (Whether any of those thoughts hold any validity is, of course, another question altogether.) So I will still be writing and publishing those essays here (along with the other 23984 essays I keep saying I’ll write) — I’ll just do so on my own time.
You may also remember that in my last newsletter, I mentioned possibly seeking another site to publish newsletters through, as many trans creators have rightfully pilloried Substack for continuing to platform transphobic creators. However, I haven’t really found a good alternative aside from Ghost, which requires a paid subscription. For the time being, I am staying on Substack with the hopes that I won’t be contributing to much harm, as my newsletter is free with a tiny subscriber base, but I’ve decided that I want to eventually create a paid subscription tier to cover the expense of transferring and hosting my writing on Ghost, when the time comes. If any of you might consider throwing $5 a month my way to read more expansive, non-film content (like essays on the craft of writing/storytelling!) on a more consistent schedule, please let me know. I think I’d only need about 5 of you for me to make the move.
And lastly, I’m going to be advertising my Ko-fi page here. If you’ve enjoyed any of the writing I’ve done in the past year or so, please consider throwing a coin to your writer! (Is that too much of an outdated reference?)
That closes up the housekeeping for this week. Thanks for reading — I appreciate your support in any way, shape, or form it comes in.