The Art of Queer Coding in Mainland China - Part One: The Untamed - Chiu-Yi Rachel Ngai

Currently in mainland China, there are censorship laws in place that forbid the display of LGBTQ themes in visual media, leading to a severe lack of queer representation and media. However, in recent years, a rise in the popularity of danmei (mlm) and baihe (wlw) webnovels led television studios and directors to adapt such works for the screen. With censorship in place, creators could not film or show any of the explicit queerness present in their source material. As a result, they are forced to queer-code, hiding the queerness of the content in small and subtle ways, many of which are deeply rooted in Chinese culture.

This piece is the first in series I hope to continue: a show-by-show, drama-by drama, analysis aiming to educate non-Chinese audiences on Chinese culture as well as provide them with the context necessary to understand and interpret queer-coding in Chinese dramas for themselves.

Released in 2019 to great acclaim and international popularity, The Untamed is a xianxia drama that follows cultivators Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji as they travel together and solve a series of mysteries linked to events 16 years in the past. The plot of The Untamed is complex and easily deserves its own analysis essay, but sadly, that is not what this piece is about. I tried to keep this as spoiler-free as possible even though it meant cutting out a few points, but this piece now contains no major plot spoilers.

A significant element of The Untamed is the use of birth name over courtesy name between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji. While courtesy names are rare in modern-day China, they were used in the past as an indicator of respect to education level. To explain very briefly, ‘birth name’ is the name you were given at birth and ‘courtesy name’ is the name that is granted or chosen for you when you are older to show that you are educated (not everyone had access to an education in ancient China). While courtesy names are often chosen with more care and have ‘deeper’ meaning, birth names are more intimate and should really only be used by those closest to you.

In The Untamed, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji almost exclusively call each other by their birth names, Wei Ying and Lan Zhan. In the case of Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian is the only person who uses his birth name as even his closest biological family, his brother and his uncle, call him by his courtesy name. This implies an incredibly deep level of intimacy between the two, showing that their relationship to each other is stronger than any other in the show.

To add to the intimacy of their relationship, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji engage in elements of marriage throughout the show. I’m just going to list them out with a little explanation and let you make your own connections the way the show does. For context, some of the most distinctive and important parts of Chinese weddings include wedding gifts, the wrist binding ceremony, and three formal bows—one to heaven and earth, one to family and ancestors, and one to each other. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji bind their wrists together with the Lan Clan’s forehead ribbon (an in-show creation which can only be touched by parents, children, and spouses, not actually a thing in ancient China) and bow to the ghost of Lan Yi, one of Lan Wanji’s ancestors. This happens incredibly early on in the series, in episodes six and seven.

Later on in episode 36, Lan Wangji gets drunk and steals two chickens, both roosters, gifting them to Wei Wuxian. In some parts of China, chickens are a traditional wedding gift, with the groom presenting the bride with a rooster and a hen. Make of that information what you will.

In my opinion, the clearest sign of marriage can be seen in episode 46. In the ancestral hall of Wei Wuxian’s childhood home, the two of them perform three formal bows to the altar. While this can just be Wei Wuxian paying his respects to those who raised him and Lan Wangji accompanying him, with the three formal bows together, it can also easily be interpreted as either an elopement or a declaration of engagement.

These scattered parts of marriage ceremonies aside, they also engage in behaviour typically only displayed by married couples. After running into a childhood friend and her family in episodes 43 and 44, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji give her daughter lucky money together. Given to children/unmarried youth by married couples, this scene makes several implications that are easily picked up by those familiar with Chinese cultural habits. There is another major example, but it is also a very big spoiler, and so I made the decision not to include it.

Last but most certainly not least, the show makes use of a motif in the recurring use of the term zhiji (知己, literally translates to ‘know self’). More accurately translated as ‘soulmate’, zhiji is not explicitly romantic, but does often imply the closest and most emotionally intimate relationships possible, when two people know each other as they know themselves and sometimes even more so. The Untamed shows a gradual change in the way Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji use zhiji in referring to each other, going from a casual throwaway adjective that can be translated as “Ditto” or “Same!!” to conversation between the two that goes as follows: “Who am I to you?” “I once considered you the one closest to my soul in this lifetime” “I still am”. Through use of the word zhiji, The Untamed shows the evolution of the intimacy in Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji’s relationship, romantically interpreted or otherwise.

In their attempt to show a queer relationship in a country that forbids it, the creators of The Untamed have created a work of art that integrats subtle yet important elements of Chinese culture that tells a story within a story. With careful word choice and actions, they make Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji’s relationship noticeably queer whilst still leaving it unsaid and up for audience interpretation.

As a queer Chinese person myself, watching this show was an amazing experience of representation when I was expecting none. The Untamed brought queer representation through Chinese culture, allowing uncountable numbers of queer Chinese to see themselves on screen, and its success internationally further spread admiration of Chinese culture and Chinese entertainment. For these reasons and many more that I could not articulate here, The Untamed was a cultural reset, and I hope this analysis helps explain some part of it to Western audiences.

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