The unintended result of China’s censorship – making gay themed drama mainstream

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山河令海報

 

Asian dramas are not only popular in their home countries but also have worldwide appeal and influence. It started with the widespread of Korean pop culture (Korean Wave) and Korean dramas about two decades ago. Over the past decade, Chinese dramas have also enjoyed exponential growth. Both Netflix and Amazon have increased their acquisition of  popular Asian dramas and boast a sizable library of the genre. With universal appeal comes intense competition. It’s increasingly challenging for a drama to gain breakthrough success. Word of Honor (currently on air in China and released on YouTube) is one of the most successful shows in 2021 and has become viral. While it features all the common elements that make a show successful such as great acting, production and storyline, it’s unique in that it features the romantic chemistry between two male leads, against a historical, martial arts backdrop. The show’s success has significant implications for popular culture and values.

 

Gay themed dramas have been getting a lot of attention and drawing fans both in and outside of China. This trend started with Guardian in 2018, continued with The Untamed in 2019 and the freshly released Word of Honor took it to a new height. Episode 1 of Word of Honor which premiered on YouTube on Feb. 23, 2021 currently has more than 4 million views based on word of mouth and organic growth without any advertising fanfare. It debuted 8.6 on Douban (a popular drama and TV rating website in China) and 8.7 on IMDB and later pushed to 9.9 by international fans.

YouTube comments on IMDB rating

Comments under episode 12 on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WuKjcNSHt2o

 

This chat was extracted on March 12, 2021. The first comment was posted on March 10, 2021. And within 2 days, the rating went from 8.7 to 9.9.
IMDB review

A partial review on IMDB for Word of Honor, retrieved on March 12, 2021.

 

The Untamed is the highest earning drama in 2019 and one of the most viewed dramas on Tencent Video. As of May 2020, it had accumulated more than 8 billion views on Tencent Video. It’s also available on Netflix, YouTube and other Asian drama platforms. The critical commercial success of The Untamed drew investors and producers in spite of the limitations of producing gay themed programming in China such as government censorship which could easily kill a production before it goes on air. There are reportedly more than ten BL themed dramas in the works, all based on popular web novels. This video has a fairly comprehensive and insightful account of them The BL Drama War of 2021 in Chinese Dramaland!

 

Here are a few factors why well produced gay themed TV series can be locally and internationally successful:

 

Solid fan base for the original novel

Danmei (love stories based on two male leads) is a hugely popular web novel genre in China and there are numerous web novels published over the years. The backdrop could be historical or modern, xianxia (fantasy), wuxia (martial arts) or even space. The successful ones have a vast and solid fan base. In China, many commercially successful TV dramas are based on web novels such as Expresses in Palace, Nirvana in Fire and Ashes of Love. However, adapting web novels for a drama can be a double-edged sword because fans demand a truthful representation of the original story. And in particular for gay themed dramas, because the government bans overt portrayal of LGBT themes, the story often requires not just adaptation but sometimes rewriting. However, straying too much from the original plot in order to pass censorship such as changing one of the male leads to female, or adding a female lead will result in condemnation from angry fans of the original novel and there are numerous examples of that. According to an article on Zhihu (China’s equivalent to Quora), there are 30 dramas adapted from BL novels prior to the success of The Untamed. This is a good illustration of the dilemma for BL novel adaptation.

 

The delicate art of language and expression

Government censorship results in delicate dance around censorship rules to stick to the original plot and the spirit of the story without getting the drama killed by the government before it’s aired. In Guardian, The Untamed and Word of Honor, actors use reserved expression of intense emotions and body language. Everything is hinted at instead of saying it and showing it in your face. Word of Honor took it to a new height of more expressed emotions and body language that fit naturally into the plot but still with the veil on. The result is creating broader appeal of the drama and along with it the BL theme, making a subject such as homosexuality that used to be taboo mainstream or acceptable to the general public.

 

Interaction Wen Kexing

 

Interaction Zhou Zishu

Interaction between the two male leads Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu

 

Entertainment without border

Chinese entertainment publishers have become more savvy and publish content on global platforms such as YouTube simultaneously in China and globally and provide English subtitles for all their new releases, drawing quite an international following. Majority of the tens of thousands comments for The Untamed and Word of Honor are from enthusiastic fans outside of China.

 

Implications for marketers

Well done Chinese dramas have international reach and appeal and BL dramas are a brilliant spot. If you’re a global brand with a presence in China, US and elsewhere, appropriate product placement and built in advertisement in popular Chinese dramas will reach an international audience and communicate your brand and products effectively. Oh no, I’m not talking about those random YouTube ads that pop up throughout each episode which the audience skip as soon as they can. I’m talking about working directly with the production team to craft your product placement and advertisement (imagine your favorite character and male lead pitching a product to you).

Wolong product placement in Word of Honor episode 6
Wolong product placement in Word of Honor episode 6

 

Built in advertisement at the end of The Untamed episode 39
Built in advertisement at the end of The Untamed episode 39

 

These ads work a lot more effectively than ads auctioned and placed by YouTube which are random and quite frankly out of context.

 

Here are a couple of examples of the ads that are placed in the show on YouTube. And what do they have anything to do with a martial arts drama? What would they achieve other than annoying the viewer who can’t wait to skip the first chance they can?

 

YouTube ad 1

 

YouTube ad 2

 

Just for fun: To get a taste of the show’s specular martial arts choreography and special effects (one of the success factors of the show), this fan created video captures the essence of it.