If I were to try to describe Word of Honor, I would say that it’s a little bit The Untamed, a little bit Tian Guan Ci Fu, and a teeny bit Game of Thrones. (Just a bit, specifically because of plot reasons, but I can’t tell you which bit, because of spoilers.) Of course, if you’re unfamiliar with Chinese media, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about when I say The Untamed or Tian Guan Ci Fu, so that description probably isn’t helpful. So consider this: martial artists can do magic and there are ghosts, and everyone is involved in a conspiracy trying to get a few pieces of glass to open a big library. Have I captured your attention yet?
Word of Honor (in Chinese Shan He Ling) is the live-action adaptation of the danmei wuxia novel Tian Ya Ke by Priest. I started seeing gifsets from the series pop up on my Tumblr dashboard a little over a month ago, and when the series hit Netflix at the end of May, I figured it was time to sit down and watch it. It is absolutely bonkers in the best way, and it has – at least temporarily – usurped The Untamed as being the only fandom I’m currently reading fic for.
Let me get you started with the basics: there are two guys who decide they’re soulmates essentially within seconds of meeting each other. (OK, it maybe takes a little longer than that, at least for one of them). You have Zhou Zishu, a reformed assassin who resorts to drastic measures in order to leave his position and because of that only has about three years to live. Then there’s Wen Kexing, the brutal and bloodthirsty completely non-ghost leader of the famed and feared Ghost Valley. Together, they end adopting up young Zhang Chengling when they rescue him from an attack on his sect, all the while trying to figure out what’s going on in the martial arts world, and why everyone is after a piece of glass.
The glass is the Glazed Armor, and once assembled, it – when used with the key – can unlock the World’s Armory, a secret vault located inside a mountain that contains stolen knowledge from all of the sects. It hasn’t been opened in decades, and its existence almost caused the downfall of the martial arts world.
What do you want out of a show? Because it’s probably in Word of Honor. Do you want a slow-burn love story between two people who only realize how much they want to live when they meet the other? Do you want fantastical fights featuring people in beautiful costumes performing gravity-defying martial arts and occasionally using weapons (like a sword that seems made out of rubber)? Do you want political machinations, backstabbings, and betrayals? Do you want powerful women not taking any crap from the men in their lives? Congratulations, this show has everything you’re looking for.
I know a lot of fans had complaints about The Untamed, the live-action version of the novel Mo Dao Zu Shi, because the book is explicit, and the show is not. Remember, this is from mainland China. Even the heterosexual couples on Chinese television shows don’t really kiss (and when they do, it is very chaste by American standards). But even without the demonstrative expressions of love, Word of Honor is still very much and very obviously a love story.
I mean, Zhou Zishu purposefully does something to his body that will slowly kill him over three years, and after he meets Wen Kexing he really regrets the fact that they won’t get to spend much time together. And Wen Kexing was fully prepared to burn down the world, himself included, until he meets Zhou Zishu. This is the kind of burning, pining, and perishing that tends to only happen in fanfic. Their relationship is the central focus of the show, and the dynamic between the two of them is by far the best part. (Wen Kexing is a shameless flirt who is completely inappropriate with a man he basically just met and likes to quote literature, while Zhou Zishu is the endlessly exasperated yet secretly endeared foil who has to constantly stop his companion from murdering everyone.)
Nothing has quite the ambiance and atmosphere of a wuxia series (or movie) – the gorgeous scenery, the lingering cinematography, the beautiful costumes, the sweeping music. Watching these shows is an experience that you need to dedicate your whole self to in order to appreciate the spectacle. At times, the effects are a little hokey, but there is something ethereal about watching two men in hanfu battle it out, particularly when one of them is using a sword that disobeys the laws of physics and the other is using a folding fan. (No, seriously, Wen Kexing’s primary weapon is his fan and I love it.)
I’m not going to lie, the plot of Word of Honor can get a little convoluted, mostly because there are about four separate factions working against each other, and you’re never really sure who is connected to whom. The government and the martial arts community are different things and not involved with each other’s business at all, and I’m not quite sure why that is or how it works. I thought I had things figured out and then got thrown for a loop. Nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun trying to guess what’s going to happen before it happens. (I was actually able to correctly predict something about five episodes before it was revealed and I felt very clever about what is likely an obvious clue.)
And the ladies! If I had one complaint about these types of shows, it would be the lack of female characters. The ladies in The Untamed are great, but they’re basically all dead three-fifths of the way through the series. Although, fair warning, Word of Honor also has a lot of people die, so don’t go into this thinking that happy endings abound, because they don’t. Still, I am a big fan of the women in this show. In Ghost Valley, there’s an entire department whose sole purpose is to punish unfaithful men, because it’s usually the women who suffer the consequences of men’s infidelity. And Gu Xiang, Wen Kexing’s adopted sister (essentially) is a precious bean who must be protected at all costs.
If you liked Mo Dao Zu Shi and Tian Guan Ci Fu, you will like this show as well. I binged this show in a weekend and am seriously considering re-binging it this weekend because I feel like I missed a lot of stuff and want to see if there are any hints I didn’t pick up on.
Word of Honor is 36 (+1) episodes and currently streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Viki, and YouTube. A word of caution: neither Netflix nor Amazon Prime has the epilogue (the +1), only the first 36 episodes. While only a few minutes long, the epilogue drastically changes the ending and you will not want to skip it.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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