“Why would a living person worry about what happens after they die? I'll just live freely for as long as possible.”
― Wei Wuxian
Mo Dao Zu Shi (魔道祖师) or The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, is a Chinese danmei (another term for Boy's Love, or BL) webnovel written by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. It is about Wei Wuxian, a demonic cultivator (functionally a necromancer) and his childhood rival Lan Wangji. After he comes back from the dead in the body of Mo Xuanyu, Wei Wuxian must solve several mysteries to clear his name, while simultaneously wondering why Lan Wangji is treating him differently than he used to.
This article contains one or more spoilers. This is a potentially bad thing. Be careful reading on if you are not well-versed in the continuum or not caught up!
Mo Dao Zu Shi (MDZS) takes place in ancient China, though, thanks to the presence of anachronisms, the exact time period is unknown. It is in the xianxia (Chinese high fantasy, as opposed to wuxia, martial/low fantasy) genre, and the main characters are all cultivators.
Cultivation (修仙) is a spiritual/semi-religious practice in Taoism and Buddhism that has been exaggerated and romanticised in cultivation dramas and books like MDZS. Basically, someone can meditate enough to form a golden core, which then enables them to use spiritual energy to manipulate stuff. The more they cultivate their spiritual energy, the higher levels they ascend, until they achieve immortality—or godhood, depending on the rules of the continuum.
In MDZS, only one person, Baoshan Sanren, could qualify as immortal, but many characters are very long-lived and/or very good-looking for their age.
Cultivators with sufficient control over their spiritual energy can wield almost anything as a weapon. In MDZS, many characters use musical instruments as weapons, such as Lan Wangji's guqin, Wei Wuxian's dizi, and Lan Xichen's xiao. Other characters, like Jiang Cheng, can wield spiritual energy like a whip. MDZS cultivators also can fly on their spiritual swords, though that is a common xianxia trope and is not restricted to MDZS-verse alone.
In pre-modern Chinese culture, people had multiple names, the most prominent of which are the birth name and the courtesy name. Unfamiliarity with Chinese naming customs can make stories like MDZS confusing to follow.
To use a Tolkienverse analogy, a birth name in Chinese culture is like the Elvish amilesse (mother name), something kept only for the use of people closest to the person. A courtesy name is like the epesse, something that anyone can use (provided they show proper deference). It is possible to have multiple courtesy names (like Turin Turambar and Aragorn having multiple names themselves).
In addition to birth names and courtesy names, there are also titles. Here is a breakdown of some major MDZS characters' names. In italics is how the novel (from Wei Wuxian's POV) usually refers to the character.
|Birth Name||Courtesy Name||Title|
|Wei Ying (魏婴)||Wei Wuxian (魏无羡)||Yiling Patriarch (夷陵老祖)|
|Lan Zhan (蓝湛)||Lan Wangji (蓝忘机)||Hanguang-jun (含光君)|
|Jiang Cheng (江澄)||Jiang Wanyin (江晚吟)||Sandu Shengshou (三毒圣手)|
|Lan Huan (蓝涣)||Lan Xichen (蓝曦臣)||Zewu-jun (泽芜君)|
|Meng Yao (孟瑶)||Jin Guangyao (金光瑶)||Lianfang-zun (敛芳尊)|
|Nie Mingjue (聂明玦)||Chifeng-zun (赤锋尊)|
|Wen Ning (温宁)||Wen Qionglin (温琼林)||The Ghost General (鬼将军)|
|Wen Yuan (温苑)/Lan Yuan (蓝愿)||Lan Sizhui (蓝思追)|
|Jin Ling (金凌)||Jin Rulan (金如兰)|
In fandom, most people refer to the characters by abbreviations of their names, such as WWX for Wei Wuxian and LWJ for Lan Wangji. This is standard across all English-speaking Chinese media-based fandoms. NHS in this fandom does not stand for National Health Service, but rather Nie Huaisang!
- As a note, by that same rule, it is acceptable to refer to Agent Liu Siyuan as LSY. Just not in prose, though.
Cultivators usually train in cultivation sects. In the world of MDZS, there are various family/clan-based cultivation sects, each with their own distinct style. In the adaptations, they are all colour-coded for your convenience.
The five big cultivation sects are:
- Yunmeng Jiang: Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng's home sect. They are located at Lotus Pier in Yunmeng. In the Real World, Yunmeng is in Hubei Province. They are usually seen in purple with a lotus motif.
- Gusu Lan: Lan Wangji's home sect. They are located at the Cloud Recesses in Gusu. In the Real World, Gusu is in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. They are usually seen in blue-and-white with a cloud motif.
- Lanling Jin: Jin Ling's home sect. They are located at Koi Towers in Lanling. In the Real World, Lanling is in Shandong Province. They are usually seen in yellow/gold with a peony motif.
- Qinghe Nie: Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang's home sect. They are located in the Unclean Realm in Qinghe. In the Real World, Qinghe is in Hebei Province. They are usually seen in green/olive with a beast motif.
- Qishan Wen: Wen Ning's home sect. They are located in Nightless City in Qishan. In the Real World, Qishan is in Shaanxi Province. They are usually seen in red-and-white with a sun motif.
The politics of these five major sects plus the smaller sects in their orbit form the bulk of the conflict of the novel.
Even though in MDZS-verse most cultivation sect members are blood family, there are some notable exceptions: Wei Wuxian, the protagonist, is raised by the Jiang family, but not officially adopted in. He therefore refers to his siblings with martial family terms, which is a mode of address used by people within the same martial arts discipline or other organisation.
|English||Term (Romanisation)||Term (Hanzi)|
|Martial elder brother||Shixiong/Shige||师兄/师哥|
|Martial younger brother||Shidi||师弟|
|Martial elder sister||Shijie||师姐|
|Martial younger sister||Shimei||师妹|
Other terms can be found here.
Contrary to popular belief in English fandom, relationships within martial families do not count as incest. A common trope in wuxia is actually a male ward of a sect (usually a protagonist) marrying his shijie, who is usually the daughter of the sect leader, so that he can be officially made the heir of the sect leader.
The 'elder' and 'younger' part of this can be used to refer to the person's age, or the amount of experience they have in the sect/organisation. In MDZS-verse, it refers to age, because while Wei Wuxian entered the Yunmeng Jiang sect after Jiang Cheng, who was born into it, he calls Jiang Cheng his shidi because Jiang Cheng is younger than him.
Additional honourifics in MDZS are 'qianbei' (前辈, lit. previous generation) and 'wanbei' (晚辈, lit. later generation), meaning senior and junior, respectively. Qianbei is used on people older or more experienced than yourself.
- Agent Liu Siyuan, for example, refers to Jacques, Christianne, and Eledhwen as Bo-qianbei, Shieh-qianbei, and Elerossiel-qianbei.
Demonic cultivation (魔道) is a necromancy-adjacent form of cultivation where the cultivator uses resentful energy created by corpses that died violent deaths. (You know the bad energy in horror films that seems to haunt the protagonists? That stuff.) The specific form of demonic cultivation in MDZS enables Wei Wuxian to reanimate corpses. He uses something called the yinhufu (sometimes translated as 'stygian tiger seal' or 'yin tiger tally') to control resentful energy.
Demonic cultivation is frowned upon in MDZS-verse, and not even Wei Wuxian, the creator of demonic cultivation in MDZS, could escape the suspicion and prejudice of other cultivators. Anyone in a fanfic who does demonic cultivation and is openly lauded by everyone else for it may have some excess Glitter in their veins.
Despite the stigma attached to demonic cultivation, many cultivation sects still use Wei Wuxian's inventions. Part of the reason he is persecuted and killed in the first place is because some cultivation sects covet his yinhufu.
The popularity of Mo Dao Zu Shi has led to numerous other adaptations of varying degrees of faithfulness to the novel. The audio drama, for example, is the most faithful to the novel, as the author herself worked on it. The manhua is also fairly faithful, but updates very slowly. The donghua is less faithful than the other two, but not to the same degree as the live drama.
- You can find the audio drama on MissEvan/Maoer FM.
- You can find the manhua on WeComics.
- You can find the donghua on WeTV.
Lily Winterwood recommends starting with the donghua alongside reading the novel, before watching the live drama.
In 2019, the drama The Untamed (陈情令, Chén Qíng Lìng), was broadcast on Tencent. The Untamed stars Xiao Zhan as Wei Wuxian and Wang Yibo as Lan Wangji. Due to the attractiveness of the male leads and the easy accessibility of this adaptation, The Untamed grew incredibly popular, and is now the starting point for many people trying to get into MDZS/Danmei in general.
The Untamed makes several notable changes to the novel's plot, both for adaptation and censorship reasons. The thirteen years between Wei Wuxian's two lives is lengthened to sixteen years, and there is an entire plot during his youth surrounding the gathering of yintie, a powerful metal used for demonic cultivation. Wei Wuxian is also not the creator of demonic cultivation in the live drama. Due to censorship preventing Chinese media from showing the truly undead, Wei Wuxian either puppets possessed people, or controls giant clouds of resentful energy.
- You can find The Untamed on WeTV or Netflix.
Mo Dao Zu Shi, as a BL novel, is of course predisposed towards slash of both the good and bad variety. It has a canon M/M pairing, Wei Wuxian/Lan Wangji (popularly known as Wangxian), which is the main pairing for most fanfiction set in this continuum. Other popular pairings include Lan Xichen/Jiang Cheng (Xicheng), Wei Wuxian/Jiang Cheng (Chengxian; though this is more popular in Chinese fandom than English fandom), and any of the permutations of Lan Xichen/Nie Mingjue/Jin Guangyao (3zun, referring to their sworn brotherhood).
In badfic, characters like Wei Wuxian tend to get woobiefied, while characters like Jiang Cheng or Lan Wangji become colder to the point of abusiveness. In Chinese, Lan Wangji's concise method of speaking is a sign of elegance, but some English translations do not convey this as effectively, which means Lan Wangji in badfic may come across as a caveman.
Another notable hallmark of a MDZS badfic is the imposition of Western (particularly American) culture and morals on the story. Research is
required highly appreciated when writing about cultures not your own.
Despite The Untamed having made several changes to the story, people tend to indiscriminately tag it with tags for the other adaptations. This can lead to confusion and frustration.
Mo Dao Zu Shi is the originating continuum for "Sexy times With Wangxian", which is infamous not only because of its increasingly reality-bending content, but also because of its incredible Great Wall of Tags. For the duration of its time on Archive of Our Own, readers on the Archive have bemoaned the 4,400 tags attached to the story, ranging from things like 'mangos' and 'horse jokes' to 'noodle sex'. The sheer number of tags, plus the author's determination to troll AO3's userbase, has led to the fic being removed from the platform several times.
In the PPC
Because of the popularity of Mo Dao Zu Shi and The Untamed, the fandom is undergoing a fanfiction explosion.
MDZS is getting an official English translation, and the first volume will be released by Seven Seas Danmei. You can preorder it here. In the meantime, most English-language fanfiction use unofficial fan translations. Based on the current volume of English-language fanfiction, those unofficial fan translations can be regarded as 'canon enough' for PPC use until the release of the official translation.
De-Glittered Gary Stu John Tsai is a native (technically) of Mo Dao Zu Shi. Surprisingly, Agent Liu Siyuan is not a native of Mo Dao Zu Shi, and suggesting that he is will only get you an unamused stare.
Unless you also have some significant magical or martial arts ability, it is inadvisable to pick a fight with a cultivator. Leave it to Agent Liu or ESAS.
The cultivator disguise on the D.O.R.K.S. gives an agent a golden core, and can also be programmed to give them the robes and abilities of any canonical cultivation sect. Cultivators should be careful on missions, as particularly bad writing can induce qi deviations. Badfic-induced qi-deviations can be temporarily alleviated by Emperor's Bleep, but the best cure for it is to do the Duty.
Missions in This Continuum
- "Rose Of The Dark Abyss", Agent Liu Siyuan (DBS) with Agents Christianne Shieh and Eledhwen Elerossiel (DMS, retired)
- First appearance of mini-Xuanwu, as well as John's origin mission.