Have you heard of danmei (耽美) or Boys’ Love (BL)? It’s a fictional genre of literature that originated in China, but it’s also much more than that. Previously a niche subculture, it has undergone a transformation, especially in recent years. Danmei has turned into a pop-culture movement, transcending boundaries against national censorship on queer representation.
With a positive portrayal, the genre has garnered a wide audience in part because of its diverse settings and themes. Ranging from fantasy and sci-fi to martial arts and modern-day life, many online writers have captured the interest of domestic and international readers.
With the immense popularity of several danmei novels, there have been different translations and official publications. Danmei novels have also taken over the mass media, as there have been multiple successful adaptations for manhuas, audio dramas, donghuas (animated series), and live-action dramas. The trending genre continues to make waves as the danmei phenomenon continues to grow stronger beyond the borders of China.
Here are 5 popular danmei novels that you should read:
1. Heaven Official’s Blessing (天官赐福)
Pinyin: Tiān Guān Cì Fú
Author: Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (墨香铜臭)
Genre: Fantasy, Historical, Adventure, Romance
Heaven Official’s Blessing is written by one of the most popular danmei authors, Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (墨香铜臭). He is behind novels, such as The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (魔道祖师) and The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System (人渣反派自救系统). With its compelling plot, intricate storyline, and heart-fluttering romance, many readers have been enthralled by the love story between a god and his most devoted believer.
The crown prince of Xian Le, Xie Lian, has ascended as a god for the third time after eight hundred years. Previously known as the darling of the heavens, the martial god-turned-scrap god has no devotees nor merits. He attracts the attention of the notorious and fearsome Ghost King, Hua Cheng, who disguises himself as a handsome youth to accompany him on various missions.
The success of Tian Guan Ci Fu has been remarkable with its nationwide and international popularity. The novel has several adaptations with an ongoing manhua and highly popular donghua with an 8.7 rating on Douban. A live-action drama has also been recently announced and is set to film in 2021. It’s produced by iQiyi and directed by Chen Jialin, who is behind the globally acclaimed drama, The Untamed.
2. Sha Po Lang (杀破狼)
Pinyin: Shā Pò Láng
Genre: Historical, Steampunk, Wars, Romance
Priest is arguably the most successful danmei author, and out of her 19 novels, Sha Po Lang is her most popular danmei to date. Several adaptations of her works have been made, like the highly anticipated live-action titled, Winner is King, as well as a popular audio drama with three seasons.
Sha Po Lang remains a fan favorite because of its complex world-building and plot-heavy political themes. The novel is packed with action, heart-shattering scenes, and healing moments as well.
The literal English translation of Sha Po Lang may be “Kill the Wolf,” but the real meaning is rooted in a kind of horoscope sign from Zi Wei Dou Shu. This Chinese fortune telling dates back to the Tang Dynasty. Sha Po Lang refers to the moment when three stars are aligned, and it’s noted as a sign of turmoil and transformation, depending on the position of the stars. People born under these stars would have a life full of ups and downs, but they possess heroic traits.
In the novel, steam-powered machines called, Violetsteam Gold, run in the Great Liang Dynasty. The life of protagonist Chang Geng is turned upside down after the barbaric Man Tribes invaded his countryside village. He uncovers his real identity and the secrets of his mother, teacher, and his adoptive father, Gu Yun. While facing conspiracies against his adoptive father, Chang Geng faces many challenges to save his country, people, and loved ones.
3. The Husky and his White Cat Shizun (二哈和他的白猫师尊)
Pinyin: Èr Hā Hé Tā De Bái Māo Shī Zūn
Author: Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou (肉包不吃肉)
Genre: Fantasy, Mature, Historical, Romance
Officially published as Haitang and Weiyu on the Way Home Together (海棠微雨共归途), The Husky and his White Cat Shizun, is one of the most popular danmei novels. The much-awaited live-action drama titled, Immortality (皓衣行), and a manhua are set to be released in 2021.
Emperor Taxian-jun, the tyrant ruler of the Cultivation World, has committed many crimes. Ending his own life, he is reborn and transmigrated back to a Sisheng Peak disciple as Mo Weiyu/Mo Ran. In his second lifetime, many revelations are discovered. After a catastrophe happens, Mo Ran undergoes changes in himself. Mo Ran and his master Chu Wanning unite with other cultivators to find the real culprit and face many trials to protect humanity in the Mortal Realm.
The novel is praised for its mix of angst, anguish, and sweetness. Not to mention, it brings a mind-blowing twist for a xianxia (immortal heroes) novel, along with its morally gray characters, a riveting storyline, and complex world-building from different timelines. Trivia: It’s also set in the same universe as the author’s second novel, Stains of Filth (余污).
4. Breaking Through the Clouds (破云)
Pinyin: Pò Yún
Author: Huai Shang (淮上)
Genre: Action, Mystery, Drama, Romance
Breaking Through the Clouds is a must-read modern novel, as Huai Shang has recently released a sequel titled, Swallow the Sea (吞海). With its immense popularity, the novel also has several adaptations, such as a manhua and an audio drama.
Three years ago, Commander-in-Chief Jiang Ting made a misjudgment during a buy-bust operation. His narcotics division suffered unfortunate casualties as a result of explosions. Jiang Ting wakes up from his coma with his heroic soul who is still committed to bringing justice. Jiang Ting teams up with a rich police vice-captain, Yan Xie,as they uncover a series of crimes and find the mastermind behind them.
The urban crime-solving novel has many cases that are intriguing and unexpectedly interconnected. Readers just can’t get enough of the shocking plot twists and the exploding finale. The light comedy and romance between the cop and the gong also balance out the heavy themes and the crimes.
5. Run Freely (撒野)
Pinyin: Sā Yě
Author: Wu Zhe (巫哲)
Genre: Drama, Psychological, School Life, Slide of Life
Run Freely is a phenomenal coming-of-age novel and definitely lives up to the hype surrounding it. A live-action drama, Chasing the Light (左肩有你), is set to air in 2021. The well-loved novel also has an audio drama with four seasons.
Many readers claim this is a comforting and heartwarming novel that inspires readers to stay optimistic and strive hard to be better, despite facing many trials in life. Wu Zhe accurately portrays the struggles of mental illnesses and the challenges of growing up. At the same time, it envelops the readers with an interesting writing style and dialogue that are worth remembering.
The story is about the journey of Jiang Cheng from adolescence to adulthood. He has high academic aspirations, but his life begins to change after being abandoned by his foster family. Living with a new adopted family and a different environment, he struggles to cope with his situation. After meeting Gu Fei and his sister Gu Mei in the city, Jiang Cheng redeems himself. The duo tries their best to conquer their problems while pursuing better lives together.