review, TV/movie adaptations

Word of Honor: More Than Just A New “Wuxia Adaptation”

Shan He Ling ‹‹山河令››, or Word of Honor in its official English title, is last year’s webdrama adaptation of Tian Ya Ke ‹‹天涯客››, a danmei wuxia novel written by Priest. It was, and is still, hugely popular domestically and internationally. This widespread fame might be purely due to its main genre, which is in itself very popular and not rarely used to make money by television production companies in China; on the other hand, however, it might be purely due to its very well written, engrossing, epic jianghu story―the journey of heroes in the pugilistic world and their romance.

Audiences who are fans of, or at least familiar with, classic wuxia stories (either in movie/drama or novel form) would definitely notice after the first few episodes that this drama has the formula of Jin Yong ‹‹金庸››’s works, especially that of Xiao Ao Jiang Hu ‹‹笑傲江湖››―or, The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, as is usually entitled in English. It’s not only the appearances and mention of the orthodox sects like Shaolin, Wudang, Emei, the Beggar Gang and the Five Mountains Sword Alliance (particularly Huashan, Taishan and Hengshan Sects), but most importantly the premise: how those orthodox sects (and, of course, those under the Five Lakes Alliance, which is the main player here) being self-righteous, hypocritical and power hungry as they’re tirelessly fighting for a treasure which is said to enable the owner to become tian xia di yi ‹‹天下第一›› and rule the (pugilistic) world. This treasure is usually a certain gongfu manual or weapons, but here in this drama it’s the Glazed Armor, the so-called “key” to an armory containing the secret gongfu of all sects in wulin.

This hypocrisy and power hunger are always at the core of Jin Yong’s stories; this is the people’s mentality that the late author always wants us to see through his characters: greed is a human nature that no one can escape from―it’s not only the nature of evil villains, but also of “righteous” people who claim to be on the “bright” side of the world. And while evil people fight for power in an open and “honest” way, “righteous” people do it secretly in ways which are not any less evil. So who is actually evil and who is actually righteous? This makes the world not clearly black and white; this makes the world so laughable, hence his novel’s title Xiao Ao Jiang Hu―which literally means “laughing proudly at the (pugilistic) world”. This is what Wen Kexing saw with his own eyes and experienced himself so badly. This is also what Zhao Jing sort of summarizes in episode 23 through his dialogue with the Scorpion King―something he decides to take advantage of.

Zhang Zhehan as Zhou Zishu

The dichotomy between righteous vs evil then takes us to Jin Yong’s favorite romance trope: the star-crossed lovers. We have the famous Guo Jing – Huang Rong couple (of Legend of the Condor Heroes), Zhang Wuji – Zhao Min couple (of Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber), and even Yang Xiao – Ji Xiaofu couple (also of HSDS novel)―who are the most obviously in opposite and the most tragic. But Wen Kexing – Zhou Zishu couple in this drama is more like Linghu Chong – Ren Yingying couple of Xiao Ao Jiang Hu. Seeing Zhou Zishu (who is of the upright, orthodox sect Four Seasons Manor) leaving the Window of Heaven with his body severely injured is almost like seeing Linghu Chong being expelled from Huashan Sect with an equally severe, incurable injury. Meanwhile, Wen Kexing is almost similar to (or, in this case, the male version of) Ren Yingying, in that he is the leader of the Ghost Valley (the evil side and the common enemy of jianghu) just like Ren Yingying is the “leader” of the evil Sun Moon Sect instead of her missing father and on behalf of Dongfang Bubai.

Gong Jun as Wen Kexing

However, interestingly, their characterization is in converse. People might look at Zhou Zishu as sort of a replica of Linghu Chong―drowning himself in wine while waiting for his time to die; but, in fact, it is not him but Wen Kexing who has the similar character as our wandering swordsman: funny, carefree, mischievous, flirting Zhou Zishu non-stop the way Linghu Chong teasing Ren Yingying whenever they are together. On the other hand, Zhou Zishu is the one who has Ren Yingying’s character: calm, wise, smart, with solid integrity and strong leadership.

The differences do not stop there, though; because unlike Linghu Chong and Ren Yingying who simply stand side by side against the (pugilistic) world and challenge anyone who dares to question their love, Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing’s relationship goes so much deeper. They’re not merely a pair of two people coming from different backgrounds and opposite sides. They each have their own journey and development. Zhou Zishu is indeed an “upright” person from an upright sect, but as the leader of the Window of Heaven, just how much blood he has in his hands? How much guilt and regret he has on his shoulders? Upon his “first” meeting with Wen Kexing, he’s like half-dead already, waiting for his last two years to take him away from the mortal world so he can leave all his sins behind. And Wen Kexing himself is no better (if not worse)―being a man with tragic childhood and evil upbringing, whose every action is driven solely by revenge, he wants nothing else but destroy the entire pugilistic world with himself in it.

Wen Kexing – Zhou Zishu’s own “us against the world” moment

But their chance encounter (and their journey together, later) changes the way they look at the world and themselves inside. While Zhou Zishu becomes more and more optimistic about life, Wen Kexing can finally see that he was wrong all along. Knowing Wen Kexing’s true identity and fragile heart, pain and misery, Zhou Zishu sees a chance to redeem himself by saving his soulmate from falling even deeper into the abyss of darkness―because he knows it’s not yet too late. Wen Kexing, besides trying to find a way to cure Zhou Zishu’s self-inflicted injury, is all-out in his attempt to save Zhou Zishu from bearing another huge regret on his shoulders―that particular scene when he’s draining out his internal energy to keep Han Ying alive for Zhou Zishu is one of the most heart-wrenching moments of this drama.

But being basically star-crossed lovers cannot be without the process of accepting each other first, not only their backgrounds but also their pasts. It is so much easier for Wen Kexing to accept Zhou Zishu and all his past sins ‘cause he himself would naturally have no qualms about killing anybody; however, in his mind, he fears that Zhou Zishu wouldn’t do the same with his Chief of Ghost Valley status and what a mess he has done in jianghu. This is in line, back again to their similarities, with Ren Yingying being afraid of Linghu Chong discovering that she is the shen gu of the evil sect. And for Wen Kexing, this process is even more complex seeing that it’s already difficult for him to accept himself and the “mistake” he had previously done―which leads us to the wrongly planned mass-killing revenge action.

Zhou Zishu questioning Ye Baiyi’s conscience

It might not take a long time for Zhou Zishu to accept Wen Kexing as he is, but it does take a necessary confrontation with Ye Baiyi for him to show clearly to Wen Kexing that he can fully understand what he has been going through and why he’s stranded in the path that he is now.

That backstory of Wen Kexing, in all fairness, is what actually drives the entire narrative of this drama, what makes this drama as it is. The jianghu community can just fight against each other over the Glazed Armor all they like and kill each other the way Wen Kexing wants them to, but without his tragic past there will be no solid reason for the mass-killing plan which culminates in the Heroes Conferences, for the display of pathetic hypocrisy of the entire pugilistic world and of all the schemes and betrayals that are so typical of being “heroes”; and, of course, there will be no solid foundation for his romance with Zhou Zishu where they accept each other the way they are and save each other from the utter fall. Wen Kexing’s story is deeply embeded in the drama’s story; Wen Kexing’s story is Word of Honor’s story.

Speaking of a story, especially of BL genre, having it written by, from, and for women (audience) doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll be feminist, or at least women-friendly―if you just know how sexist and misogynistic Addicted ‹‹上瘾›› is in its narrative and dialogues and how it portrays women as two-dimensional annoying people. The episode 5 of this drama when Zhou Zishu roughly saying to Zhang Chengling that “men cannot cry” makes it look like it’s going to the same direction; and Cao Weining’s male heroic syndrome doesn’t help it, either. As badass as Gu Xiang is, the gender vibes of the story still doesn’t make it comfortable enough to watch at first. Only after Luo Fumeng’s and Liu Qianqiao’s backstories are revealed does this drama give itself so much more balance. And the moment the Scorpion King says to Liu Qianqiao that “cheating is not about gender, women can also cheat” is when this drama clearly shows to the audience that it goes for gender equality.

This is something that doesn’t exist in classic wuxia stories. Although Jin Yong often presents us with “strong female characters”, they always look almost like a mere “tool” for the hero’s (a.k.a their lover’s) success. And there’s always this “one hero surrounded by many girls” trope, to boot. Feminism, or gender equality, or even a “decent” women representation is something that we never see in any of classic wuxia literary works. This, and the male-male romance (with a deeper, far widely-encompassing love story than in those classics), is the modern twist the original writer and scriptwriter have given to this based-on-classic-formula wuxia drama. This twist makes Word of Honor more than just a new “wuxia adaptation”.

Left: Linghu Chong & Ren Yingying of CCTV’s 2001 Xiao Ao Jiang Hu adaptation. Right: Zhou Zishu & Wen Kexing of Youku’s 2021 Tian Ya Ke adaptation. Fate or not: the two dramas were produced by the same production company.

It can be an “adaptation”, a tribute to, or it can be a fanfiction (with all those similarities and same formula it almost feels like a “copy”) of―once again, in particular―Xiao Ao Jiang Hu. They even start off the drama with Zhang Chengling’s family tragedy the same way as how Xiao Ao Jiang Hu begins with the disaster that befalls Lin Pingzhi’s family caused by the treasure that everyone is struggling to get their hands on. And if it is not enough, one of the songs on the drama’s soundtrack list is called Xiao Kan Jiang Hu ‹‹笑看江湖››―and that’s only one word different title from our late author’s masterpiece.

Well, whatever it is, Word of Honor can really capture and reflect the “essence and spirit of wuxia” that not even the “most decent” wuxia remake could do these days. People keep remaking the same classic source materials without doing them any justice―with stupid changes from the originals and no proper plot, not even a proper fighting scenes choreography. This drama, on the other hand, has its own story―properly using the classic formula―and gives us what a wuxia drama should be, what a wuxia drama must be.

Rating: 4.5/5