What better way to celebrate Pride Month than with some onscreen LGBT love?
In light of the occasion, we’re happy to share that China has had its fair share of popular BL (Boys’ Love) dramas over the years, especially with the industry following what many have observed to be the web novel adaptation trend. Dangai (耽改) dramas, as they are called locally, are essentially live-action adaptations of novels in the danmei (耽美) genre. Once considered to be a niche underground literary movement, the genre, which encompasses a wide range of fictional romances between men, has slowly evolved into a pop culture phenomenon that has drawn fans from all over the globe.
Ultimately, what many viewers love about dangai dramas is that they mean serious business. Despite the strict censorship that China has on its media, dangai casts and production teams have made sure to produce captivating stories that pay respect to the original novels, winning the hearts of not only domestic fans but also international audiences at large! This means that even if the relationships portrayed on camera are more on the “subtle” side — and we say this loosely — they are no less complex and emotionally investing than their heterosexual counterparts.
Without further ado, let’s take a dive at some of the best BL dramas that China has to offer:
The Untamed (陈情令)
We can’t start this list without mentioning what is not only the hottest drama of 2019 but also, arguably, the most globally recognized dangai drama to date! For those not in the know, The Untamed is a multi-awarded web series based on the xianxia (read: high fantasy) danmei novel Mo Dao Zu Shi by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu.
The series follows the story of Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, two talented disciples who discover a secret that casts the cultivation world into a violent war. In the wake of tragedy, Wei Wuxian desperately resorts to demonic cultivation, which inevitably leads to his death and condemnation. However, sixteen years later, Wei Wuxian is revived in the body of a lunatic and suddenly reunited with Lan Wangji. Together, they embark on a journey that unravels a decade-long mystery, revealing that everything in the past was not as it seemed.
Known to be one of 2018’s most successful dramas, this sleeper hit series is adapted from the web novel Zhen Hun by Priest. Although the original material is heavily centered on Chinese mythology, Guardian was filmed as a science-fiction detective series due to media censorship of religious themes.
Set on the Earth-like planet of Haixing, Guardian shows a world populated by native humans and two alien races: the Yashou, who have the ability to shapeshift into plants and animals, and the Dixing, who live as superpowered beings in the deep underground. Although all three have co-existed in peace for thousands of years, a series of conflicts suddenly begin to emerge between the Dixing and the surface-dwelling races.
In the middle of investigating cases related to the Dixing, Detective Zhao Yunlan encounters bioengineering professor Shen Wei. As they work together to solve mysteries, they find themselves inexplicably drawn closer to one another. Meanwhile, a mysterious enemy moves to re-ignite war.
*No English subtitles on Youku
Winter Begonia (鬓边不是海棠红)
Yet another well-received dangai drama that audiences from all over the world have praised is iQIYI’s original series Winter Begonia, which is based on Shui Er Tian Er’s novel Bin Bian Bushi Haitanghong. Renowned for its unique plot and tasteful portrayal of Chinese traditional culture, Winter Begonia depicts the developing relationship between two men as they pursue a mutual love of Peking opera at the onset of the Second World War.
Set in the city of Beiping during the 1930s, Winter Begonia follows Shang Xirui, a rising Peking opera dan performer whose talents capture the attention of shrewd businessman Cheng Fengtai after a captivating show. Intrigued, Cheng Fengtai befriends Shang Xirui and becomes an avid supporter, going so far as to provide assistance in building Shui Yun House, the residence of Shang Xirui’s new troupe.
However, when the Japanese army invades Beiping in 1937, a patriotic struggle to defend the land ensues. In the midst of it all, Shang Xirui and Cheng Fengtai lay down their own sacrifices for the country they love.
Main Cast: Huang Xiaoming, Yin Zheng
Episode Count: 49
Genre: Historical, Drama, War
Where to Watch: iQIYI
Word of Honor (山河令)
So far, Word of Honor is one of the top contenders for the title of 2021’s most beloved drama, becoming a huge success among both Chinese and international audiences for its intriguing fantastical dive into the jianghu — the martial arts world of ancient China. The series, which is inspired by the novel Tian Ya Ke, marks the second dangai adaptation and the third overall adaptation of works written by Priest, following the previous popular releases of Guardian and Legend of Fei.
Praised for its immersive portrayal of the Chinese wuxia (read: martial hero fantasy) genre, Word of Honor chronicles the story of Zhou Zishu, who wishes to enjoy the remainder of his short but free life, after taking drastic measures to escape his former role as the leader of a royal intelligence organization. Upon roaming the jianghu, he somehow meets Wen Kexing, the mysterious master of the Ghost Valley, whose desire to avenge his family wreaks public havoc.
As Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing face the tribulations and schemes thrown to them by the jianghu, they reach an intimate understanding of who they are as partners and uncover a nefarious decades-old conspiracy, shaking the very foundations of the martial arts world and revealing the culmination of destinies long intertwined.
Did you enjoy this Boys’ Love rec list? Check out our article on more dangai dramas to look forward to this year!