art of a man in black with a flute and a man in white with a chinese zither. official art from Mo Dao Zu Shi

I Did an Asian Readathon and Whoops Now I’m Into MDZS

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Exalted Funeral

This year for May, I decided to participate in #AsianReadathon, a reading event sponsored by the only booktuber I follow readwithcindy. The point of the readathon was to broaden my horizons and read more books by Asian authors — there were some goals written into the readathon, like reading a book by an author who had something in common with you, or a book recommended to you by an Asian, and you could read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng if you wanted to read along with everyone else. The main point was to read books by Asian authors, and with my years long backlog, it made sense to start going through that backlog.

(Note: this is actually the quite amazing Asian Readathon curated list of books by Asian authors, which is pretty neat. There’s some great reads on there, and it can help you expand your own reading lists to authors you might have missed out on, highly recommended.)

For this years readathon, I read Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw, which felt like Constantine-the-movie-if-it-were-actually-much-grosser-and-way-more-visceral combined with that thing where people say Lovecraftian when they actually mean “tentacles.” I think. I’ve never actually read anything by Lovecraft. It was heavy on the noir elements (a lot of dames and rooms with slatted windows where light shines through from passing cars) but it really, really worked and it made me want to read the rest of the books in the series. Highly recommended. Additionally I also read The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Neon Yang, an excellent fantasy book with nagas and prophets and grief and nonbinary characters. It kind of reminded me a bit of the parts I remember liking of reading fantasy as a teenager, like Ursula K. Le Guin? Solid reads all around.

I hesitated to read the last book because I had tried a few times but I knew that if there was going to be a time to try it, it was going to be during a readathon challenge. My friends have been trying to get me into danmei for ages, and explicitly this book: The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation. Danmei is a specific variety of Chinese media, targeted at female fans, focused on the romantic love and entanglements of homosexual male relationships. Originally a Chinese language web novel by author Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (abbreviated to MXTX by fans), The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation is a massive book, normally purchased in four volumes but currently only available in English through fan translation. The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation was sold to me with this incredible oversimplification: gay Chinese necromancers who fall in love.

Putting aside the ethics of fan translation (it’s unethical; as an English language reader it is the only way for me to engage with the text), The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation is initially quite dense both because of the roughness of translation and also due to my own unfamiliarity with the xianxia genre. Xianxia is a Chinese genre focused on “cultivators,” a kind of magical being who is on a quest towards immortality — effectively they are wizards, combined with elements of Taoism and Chinese myth. They are heavy on magical creatures and beings, demons and ghosts. Additionally, and this factors in quite early on, each character has approximately three names, potentially more. In pre-modern China, which is where xianxia is based, in addition to your given name (Wei Ying), you would also have your courtesy name which you would receive upon adulthood (Wei Wuxian). If you then later on did anything of great importance, you may then get an additional title (Yiling Patriarch). When I first attempted to read the book, months before the Asian Readathon, this naming convention was one of the things that I could not get a handle on. But the characters are distinctive enough that they start to define themselves if not by their names, initially, then by their distinctive personalities so much that by a certain point you realize that you have remembered all of their names and their courtesy names as well.

After adjusting to the unique naming conventions however, I sailed through the rest of the book. The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation is a decades spanning romantic epic, the slowest of slow burn sagas about a culture at war, two people who cannot communicate, and about soulmates. To clarify, when I say it is a slow burn, I do mean slow — our two lead romantic characters do not kiss until the book is over halfway complete, and it is not a moment of edification for the two of them so much as one for the audience. The story is about Wei Wuxian, an inventor and genius and flirt, and Lan Wangji who is stern and stone-faced and comes from a family of rule followers. The story opens on Wei Wuxians death – literally the first words are “Great news! We Wuxian has died!” and we work both forwards and backwards from this point historically — our main character is a necromancer of sorts, after all.

There is actually quite a lot of additional material for The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation. In addition to the book series, there is also a live action show (The Untamed), an animated television show (Mo Dao Zu Shi), and a manhua (also known as Mo Dao Zu Shi), not to mention further material in the original Chinese, fan made derivative works, and further books from MXTX. Somehow, simply by reading the book I have fallen into a massive part of the Internet that I didn’t know had previously existed; the tag for the fandom on Twitter (#MDZS) is constantly updated with new fanart and content and clips from the shows. I feel like a glutton, given more and more content than I could ever possibly consume or need.

I’m obsessed. I am blessed that there is actually so little MDZS merch available in the United States because I would likely own it. I have been attempting to get the Unwinnable crew into the Untamed television show, since it is on Netflix and is readily accessible, but it hasn’t worked. Maybe this will instead serve to interest you, dear reader. Come, fall into the MDZS fandom with me.

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