Mo Dao Zu Shi is a manhua (Chinese comic), donghua (Chinese animation), novel, and live action series. It’s my current hyperfixation. Come join me in this fandom playground!
Mo Dao Zu Shi may have multiple versions in several different formats, but the basic premise, plot, and characters are the same throughout them all. If the basic story draws you in, you’ll likely want to go through all of them. Where you start, however, will depend on your personal preferences.
The story follows Wei Wuxian, a spiritual cultivator who died 13 years prior to the start of the story. He was a controversial figure in his time as he used the ‘dark arts’ to utilize his magic. He becomes known as the founder of the Demonic Path as a result of this practice.
When the series begins, a man named Mo Xuanyu decides to sacrifice his soul to bring Wei Wuxian back to life. In doing so, Wuxian would resurrect in Xuanyu’s body. The ritual works, and Wei Wuxian returns, slightly confused at his unexpected resurrection, but ready to do whatever task Xuanyu has summoned him to do.
Wei Wuxian gets a surprise second chance at life, but he’s haunted by the reputation he left behind prior to his death. He quickly finds himself interacting with people he knew before he died, some of whom suspect his true identity and some who don’t. He embarks on adventures fighting monsters and solving mysteries across the countryside, dealing with the fallout from his previous life along the way.
If you dig supernatural adventures – especially those that lean towards the horror genre – this element of the story will be your jam. This also will appeal to people who like the BL genre, or mlm romance, though how big of a draw this aspect is may affect which version you’re drawn to the most.
The Main Characters of Mo Dao Zu Shi
My main draw to the story overall is the protagonist, Wei Wuxian. He has a surprisingly sunshiny personality for someone with a dark and traumatic past. It’s exactly that conflict in character elements that appeals to me in most of the media that I consume. It’s essentially the heart of both Atsushi and Dazai from Bungo Stray Dogs, both of whom I adore. These divergent character elements allow a lot of possibilities for exploring their psychology, and we get a lot of that here.
So if that’s your thing too, you’re going to love the hell out of him. We love sunshine demon Wei Wuxian. He’s precious.
The other main protagonist we have is Lan Wangji, who is a more subdued character, known for his discipline and somewhat cool exterior. But it’s clear he has a soft spot for Wei Wuxian even with all the demonic baggage that he comes with him. Lan Wangji is elegant and graceful, but also incredibly powerful. He can fight off evil spirits with a strum of his guqin.
We love Lan Wangji, too. He’s precious in his own stoic way.
There are a whole host of other characters, too. Some are more focused on in certain mediums than others, but the extended cast of characters is generally high quality and enjoyable in their own right. The younger spiritual cultivators-in-training are particularly endearing, and you’re sure to find a favorite among them.
The Four Main Versions of Mo Dao Zu Shi
& How They Differ
The four main iterations (manhua, donghua, novel, live action series) are very similar when it comes to the basic plot points, but each medium comes with some variations in how the story is presented.
One example of how this presentation differs comes with how Wuxian’s previous life is portrayed. Wuxian’s previous life had a lot of baggage that’s very relevant to the life he’s thrown into due to Mo Xuanyu summoning him. The backstory is important to understand his relationships now, but the presentation of this history varies. Some rely on heavier flashback sequences than others, for example. There’s a particular 12 episode long stretch of flashbacks in the donghua that dragged a bit, but these details are spread out a bit more evenly in the manhua.
All the various formats for the story also have various levels of queerness, as well as the willingness to portray the same sex romance between the two protagonists. At this time I can only speak from personal experience on the donghua and manhua, but the show and novel have been discussed at length in this regard online and I’m fairly certain I can gauge how far they go based on that discussion.
This series is a slow burn in all formats, so don’t expect explicit romance right out of the gate with any of them. The plot and history of these characters is vital and the romance develops around that. There’s lots of clan feuds and gruesome battles. And also zombies, because that’s a thing here. And Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji fall in love along the way.
So basically, the queer levels, from what I gather, seem to be as follows:
Novel = the gayest
Manhua = very gay
Doghua (so far) = moderately gay
Live Action = relies heavily on subtext
The mythology and story are a major factor in the story’s popularity, and as noted above, not all iterations put a heavy focus on the romantic side of the narrative. This is a thoroughly fleshed out universe that just happens to have an same sex romance. It’s part of the story, but not the only part of the story. And when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation, that’s generally my preference anyway. So I really dig it, guys.
How To Find The Story
& What To Expect
Mo Dao Zu Shi – The Donghua
How To Watch It: Officially For Free on the Tencent YouTube Channel
That’s right! This show is available officially for free from Tencent. There will be absolutely no sketchy streaming websites, nor any fees to pay for legit streaming services in order to enjoy this version of the story. It’s all generously handed to us in an easy and accessible way.
Thank you Tencent. You’ve done us a solid here.
Be prepared for YouTube ads as well as in-show ice-cream ads featuring the characters themselves (this show is brought to you by Cornetto, so they’re going to hawk their sweet sweet wares at you during the show itself repeatedly). But honestly, it’s worth dealing with ads to have this show for free, so we should count our blessings. And it’s kind of cute having a demon selling you ice cream, anyway. These parts aren’t subtitled, so if the subs suddenly disappear, just know you’re experiencing an ice cream ad, okay? Okay.
The donghua was my first venture into this story as I’m an anime nerd at heart and I just find this medium visually appealing. While I don’t consume nearly as much donghua and I do anime, the visual language used is incredibly similar and will likely appeal to my fellow otaku.
The biggest hurdle switching between anime and donghua seems to come with simple things like naming conventions and cultural customs. These are things that are fairly easy to pick up on with some quick google searches or by paying attention to context clues, so I urge my fellow anime nerds out there to not be afraid of stepping outside their comfort zones for this. It’s amazing. Give it a shot.
A third season of the donghua is due this summer, so stay tuned for more! And while you wait, check out the following iterations of the story.
The Untamed – Live Action Show
How To Watch It: Now Streaming On Netflix
I have not had a chance to personally vet this version of the story, but from my understanding it strays a bit from the other versions. But if social media is anything to go by, this version is actually the most popular among English speaking audiences. It may be an accessibility thing? Or an actor, thing? The actors seem to have an enormous following. Especially Xiao Zhan, who plays Wei Wuxian.
But regardless of why this seems to be the most popular, it is yet another option for you to explore this story. And if the absolutely bonkers amount of awards it’s won is any indication, it’s well worth your time. It’s been translated into 11 different languages and the fanbase is rapidly exploding on pretty much any social media platform you go to.
The same sex romance elements are largely muted in this version of the story and I gather that it’s largely subtextual in nature. I refuse to say it’s completely straight (I may not have seen this version yet, but I’ve seen gifsets), but if you hate having to rely on subtext to float your queer ships, this might not be the version for you. Your mileage may vary.
I understand that in context it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that these elements are muted. China is known for censorship of this type of content. I’m truly amazed that we got the amount of queerness that’s available in the novel, donghua, and manhua. This story is a blessing in whatever format you choose and their love for one another is there even if muted.
Mo Dao Zu Shi – Manhua
How To Read It: N/A.
In my opinion, the Mo Dao Zu Shi manhua flows a little bit better than the donghua and that’s largely due to how they integrate the flashbacks. It’s also incredibly visually appealing in general. The art is also absolutely gorgeous one moment, then adorably chibi the next. It’s a quick and easy way to consume the story, but I find myself lingering on the pages to absorb the art and that’s not at all a bad thing. I enjoy taking my time and appreciating the pages. It’s just so very pretty to look at and I want to savor every image.
The style and flow of the work is similar to what you’d find with Korean online webtoons, with long image chapters that you basically scroll through from top to bottom. If you’re used to reading manhwa on, say, Lezhin, this functions similarly.
As a disclaimer, I don’t read a lot of Chinese manhua. About 90% of what I consume is Japanese manga, followed by Korean manhwa. So this could be a standard format for this. But, if you’re coming from where I’m coming from, the comparison is useful.
I enjoy the flow of these types of online comics and, as a result, this is quickly becoming one of my favorite formats to experience the story.
The biggest downside of this version is that there are no legal English translations available. From a moral standpoints, I can’t send you off to read illegal scanlations if there’s no way to also get money to the original creators. From a safety standpoint, I can’t guarantee the safety of your computer from whatever malware may be hidden on whatever website happens to host them. I realize the inherent hypocrisy that comes with reviewing something that doesn’t have a legal option yet, so no need to point that out. I know. And I’m sorry about that.
Should a legal way to get cash into to creator’s hands become available, this article will be enthusiastically updated with a link! And if you happen to have a link on hand to make that possible, please do share that one. (Illegal links will have to be removed, however).
The manhua began publishing in December 2017 and has since won both the Best Web Popularity Comic Adaption at the 16th China Animation Golden Dragon Award, as well as the Best Manhua award at the China Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers Film Festival. This series is clearly beloved. Make it more accessible please! Just like the donghua and live action show. Please.
Mo Dao Zu Shi – Novel
How To Read It: No English Option, Chinese Option Is Here
The original novel was published in 2016, and it’s what started all these many adaptions that you’ve read about above. This will be my next deep dive for the series, and from what I heard it’s the gayest and most thorough telling of the tale. Any variations in the manhua, donghua, or show would be variations from this, and not vice versa. This is the main canon, and everything else is a variant.
Like the manhua, there is no legal option in the English language market at this time, so I have no English language links to provide for you. However, unlike the manhua, you can purchase the original Chinese language book online. So from a moral standpoint, please purchase the original copy and use the fan translations to guide you through it. It’s still legally sketchy, however, so I won’t be linking to it here.
A Fifth Version! – The Audio Play
If you’ll notice, I’m only discussing four main versions. Many die-hard Mo Dao Zu Shi fans may scream, “But what about the audio play?!!” That’ll obviously make it five different mediums, not four. I’m not elaborating too much on the audio play, however, as legal English language versions of these are rarely available nor are they too terribly focused on within English language fandoms. I’d be lying if I said I never read an audio play transcript before (the Yuri on Ice ones are too damn good, guys), but it’s rare.
So yes, this version exists. You can likely find transcripts online with some googling. For now, this version isn’t factoring into my recommendation. But by all means, knock yourself out! Lots of fans seem to enjoy it.
If you value canon queer romances, action/adventure/mysteries, beautiful artwork, or beautiful actors, you’ll find something in one of these four iterations that meets your needs. Which of these elements you value most will likely determine which option you choose to pursue. We’re blessed to have so many options available to us.
I hope you’ll soon dive into this hyperfixation with me. I’m having a great time here! And I still have at least two iterations of this story to go before I’m ‘done’ with it. And then, like, there’s the fanfic. Oh boy is there fanfic. There’s over 5,000 stories in the Wei Wuxian/Lan Zhan tag alone.
I’m going to be playing around in this fandom for a good long time. Come join me!
Author: Angel Wilson
Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. They earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. They have contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. They’ve also written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. They identify as queer.
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