The Art of Queer-Coding in Mainland China - Part 2: Word of Honor - Chiu-yi Rachel Ngai

While the Untamed utilized traditional aspects of Chinese culture to show the queerness of its characters, Word of Honor gravitated more towards usage of romantic tropes common in wuxia. Released in 2021 and starring Zhang Zhehan and Gong Jun as leads, Word of Honor follows the journey of former imperial assassin Zhou Zishu (Zhang) and Master of the Ghost Valley Wen Kexing (Gong) as they travel the martial arts world, uncover a conspiracy, and reveal secrets and histories that were never intended to come to light. Through tropes familiar to Chinese audiences, Word of Honor shows the relationship between Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing as near-undeniably romantic. **Like the previous analysis in this series, be warned that this piece contains spoilers.

Established very early on, the first romantic undertones occur in the last few minutes of the first episode and throughout the second, when Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing first meet. They make very long eye contact across a courtyard and Wen Kexing’s fan, and within the same day, have a ‘fated meeting’ in a forest amidst falling peach blossoms. Peach blossoms symbolize luck (or fate), love, and immortality in Chinese culture. Fated meetings in peach blossom forests are a very common romantic trope in Chinese guzhuang and wuxia drama, and two characters meeting as peach blossoms rain down around them can be seen as the Chinese equivalent to the Western trope meeting eyes across a busy street. While in the case of Word of Honor, their meeting cannot be called entirely ‘fated’ since Wen Kexing actively goes searching for Zhou Zishu, the romantic imagery of falling pink peach blossoms and “I see we meet again” dialogue still stands.

The meaning and connotations of the term ‘zhiji’ is something I address in my analysis of the Untamed, and it comes into play once more in Word of Honor. Zhiji literally translates as ‘know self’ and in general is best translated as ‘soulmate’ in English. Common as a censorship dodge, it often stands as a replacement for romantic endearments and labels in queer-coded dramas, and Word of Honor is no exception. Quick to quote romantic poetry on the subject, Wen Kexing often refers to himself as Zhou Zishu’s zhiji. Zhou Zishu becomes enraged when Helian Yi, the Prince of the Jin Kingdom and his former employer and cousin, says that he once considered him and Zhou Zishu zhiji, saying that Helian Yi does not deserve the term. Their actions also reflect their words. They are perfectly balanced in fights and often know what the other is thinking or planning before anything is said or done. Throughout the show, we see them know each other as they know themselves if not better, a fundamental implication of zhiji.

Furthering the romantic undertones of their actions is a scene that made me do a double take and wonder how it got past censorship. After a suitably dramatic rescue of Zhou Zishu from the imperial court, Wen Kexing takes over combing Zhou Zishu’s hair. A traditional action that has intimate implications attached to it, hair combing is typically only done by immediate family or servants. It doesn’t end there, however, as after the combing was done, Wen Kexing removes his own hairpin from his head and puts it on Zhou Zishu’s. This is a very blatant romantic trope in guzhuang as hairpins are often seen as romantic and used as love tokens in Chinese culture. It is common for engaged women to give their hairpins to their fiance, and for their fiance to wear it and place it back into the lady’s hair after the wedding. Not only that, the scene also ends with a shot of Zhou Zishu smiling down into a bronze mirror, another very common post-wedding wuxia trope.

Finally, we turn to the ending of Word of Honor. Not included as part of the main 36 episodes and only released as a short special, the true ending of Word of Honor shows Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing living their lives on top of a snowy mountain as immortal, almost fairy-like beings. One of the more common wuxia and xianxia happy endings, especially for couples, this can be seen as the Chinese version of ‘riding off into the sunset’.

Word of Honor starts and ends with romantic tropes. Unable to show an explicitly queer relationship, the makers and writers managed to write Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing’s relationship in a language of love through tropes familiar to their Chinese viewers. By painting their relationship with images and parallels closely tied with romantic hetersexual couples, Word of Honor brings a queer love story into a heavily sensored country where queer love stories are rarely ever seen on screen.

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