The single-log bridge: unpacking the layers beneath the romance in 'The Untamed'
On the Chinese drama 'The Untamed' (Chen Qing Ling)
Warning: This essay contains some spoilers for The Untamed and the novel on which it is based, Mo Dao Zu Shi.
There is a powerful scene about three-quarters of the way into the 50-episode 2019 Chinese drama The Untamed (also known as Chen Qing Ling) that refuses to leave my mind a week after I first saw it. In it, Lan Zhan and Wei Ying, the two protagonists in the story, are surrounded by guards on the steps of a palace while the powers that be in their world confront them. Wei Ying – demonised in his past life and unexpectedly resurrected from the dead but up until that point hid his identity from everyone except Lan Zhan – was finally caught out and accused of fooling everyone into helping him in his second life.
As Wei Ying moves to absorb yet another damaging narrative in order to spare Lan Zhan’s reputation, Lan Zhan finally, quite satisfyingly, speaks up. “He’s not right,” he declares his conviction loud and clear. “I have already known he was Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan, who is always less talk and more action, then stands right beside Wei Ying in an act of unconditional loyalty and, more importantly for his character development, of finally embracing a hard-to-swallow truth: that the world is not always self-evidently black and white. “The feeling of sticking to the single-log bridge until it’s dark is indeed not bad,” Lan Zhan tells a grateful Wei Ying.
This scene can easily be read as romantic – among many such moments throughout a show that had to drop the explicit queer romance from the source novel in order to skirt around Chinese LGBTQ+ censorship. Lan Zhan, beset with guilt and regret for 16 years (in the show’s timeline; 13 in the novel) for not standing with Wei Ying in his first life, seizes his rare second chance without hesitation. Alongside his evidently long-established quiet pledge, Lan Zhan finally publicly declares that he will stand by his ‘soulmate’ or ‘life-long confidant’ come what may. For a character defined by (and beloved for) his quiet nature, speaking up in this context at this juncture in the story is a major turning point. And he only does this because it is Wei Ying (the love of his life in the novel’s canon) he must defend.
But there is a parallel current running here that I am equally interested in. While driven by his devotion, Lan Zhan is also driven by his sense of justice. Lan Zhan recognises the weight of the moment: the time has come for him to follow his conscience, to divert from the “broad and crowded avenue” he once traversed and walk on his own single-long bridge, just like Wei Ying had done, even if it goes against everything he believed to be true all his life. He had probably long arrived at this bridge at some point during his 16-year grief over Wei Ying’s death, but this public moment is the consummation of his transformation, shedding all he was taught. On a single-log bridge, he lays down his own truth and walks with it.
How often do you find yourself in the middle of a crowded street, surrounded by people, and you suddenly become hyperaware of your place on that street, among so many fellow human beings, under the sky, on a blue dot in this one tiny corner of the universe? How often have you wondered, imagined, dreamed of walking a road less taken, in direct opposition to what you were told all your life? How often have you wished you had the courage to put one foot in front of the other and walk your own single-log bridge?
The metaphor of the single-log bridge versus the broad, crowded avenue to represent different paths in life is only one of the many layers that underpin the overarching romance in The Untamed, an epic xianxia fantasy tale that was originally a boys’ love web novel and is available on Netflix.
Chief among them is genocide and how people can turn against one another on the basis of their background. There’s an interrogation of how we should treat refugees, particularly the innocent simply caught in the political crossfire. The drama considers the meaningful and just ways to rebuild after war. Once the dust settles, how can everyone impacted by war move forward in a healthy manner towards a better future?
There’s something to be said, too, about the ease with which people alienate anyone divergent from the norm, whether that’s physical or mental disabilities or simply anybody that has different ideas or perspectives. In other words, the unpredictable, the uncontrollable, the untamed – pun intended.
Disinformation plays a major role in this drama as well. No matter the era – whether ancient China or today’s social media-mad world – The Untamed shows us that lies can latch on terrifyingly quickly. Fake news, it turns out, is a force even without smartphones.
Interestingly, there’s also a nod to the impacts of cognitive dissonance and unconscious bias. (Hint: pay close attention to Lan Xichen’s storyline.)
There is a throughline to the aforementioned scene from another powerful one midway in the series when Wei Ying and Lan Zhan are standing not beside each other but in confrontation. Rain pouring in the night, Wei Ying sets out to lead a group of refugees to safety after they’ve been imprisoned and forced into labour camps simply by association with the Wen clan, which had previously risen against all other clans.
Wei Ying is clear about his sense of justice from the start. He cannot accept innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of war being punished for the crimes and choices of their leaders, especially not when some of these very same people have saved his life in the past. So he acts to protect them. But Lan Zhan stands in his way.
It’s worth noting the story’s context here: Lan Zhan is still reeling from a significantly changed Wei Ying, who (for a major reason serving as a plot reveal towards the end) has veered away from the traditional cultivation path of swordsmanship and turned to ‘crafty tricks’ of controlling resentful energy with his flute. Meanwhile, Wei Ying is also still grieving the loss of his old self and his previous way of life – though this grief will likely not be known at all to the first-time viewer until the major revelation later on.
Lan Zhan clearly knows that Wei Ying is right, but he struggles to reconcile the means and the cost of Wei Ying’s decision. In saving the refugees, Wei Ying effectively stands against his own Jiang clan and their world’s ‘orthodoxy’. Lan Zhan also likely considers the political power play as a major figure in his own Lan clan, with all remaining clans hell-bent on quashing the Wen clan once and for all.
Lan Zhan, born and raised in an environment of very rigid rules to delineate between right and wrong, is paralysed and understandably confused when all the lines become blurred and entangled. Suddenly, up is not down; what’s good and bad is not so definitive. He expresses this internal conflict a couple of times, including earlier to his elder brother Lan Xichen, as he enquires about how a person can be evaluated against what he believes to be exhaustive rules set for the world. Later on, he comes back to it when he is punished for defending Wei Ying: “Who is right? Who is wrong? What is black? What is white?”
In the confrontation scene, Lan Zhan takes both a literal and a metaphorical first real step toward the pursuit of a new truth forged entirely on his own judgment. He steps aside to let Wei Ying pass, effectively letting him go and allowing him to pursue his own path (this will hit differently once you learn about Lan Zhan’s family history much later). But this is also representative of him taking a step back to confront and reassess all he knew and then reconsider what his next step should be.
The reason Lan Zhan’s carefully considered sidestep, along with his lone teardrop, lands so well is also because we were served a prior scene that foreshadowed it: when Lan Yi, the only female master of the Lan clan, and Baoshan Sanren, her close friend and Wei Ying’s master, faced each other many years earlier. In their confrontation, Baoshan Sanren physically tried to stop Lan Yi from her goal of using the Yin Iron for good. Lan Yi, unable to control the Yin Iron’s power, failed and ended up alone for the rest of her life. Unlike Baoshan Sanren, Lan Zhan’s choice to willingly give way to Wei Ying opens the door for them to ultimately work together on the same side.
How often do you question something you thought you knew? How often do you consider where, when and how you learned what you believe to be true? How often do you make a conscious choice to unlearn what you think you know and seek truth informed by your own interactions with the world?
Beyond Wei Ying and Lan Zhan’s deep relationship, The Untamed to me ultimately is an interrogation of morality. What, to anyone, is good or bad?
As I touched upon earlier, Wei Ying’s character is very illustrative of how people can almost never be painted as either just black or white. He has good intentions but is unafraid of getting things done using divergent means. He is also unafraid of paying a high price to uphold his vow to “always stand with justice and live with no regrets”. In protecting the Wen clan refugees, he is exiled not just from the cultivation world but from his family and all that he once held dear. Eventually, he is also demonised (largely through disinformation tactics), made out to be an unforgiving, soulless outcast and used as a scapegoat for everything that went wrong.
But as is ultimately revealed in the story, Wei Ying wouldn’t necessarily choose darkness or conflict if he knew he had other options. Only when he has exhausted all possibilities will he resort to whatever is available to him, even if that entails a dance with darkness. Does this make him right or wrong, good or bad?
Every person is complex with diverse experiences and perspectives, and that means we can occupy the whole spectrum of colours at any given time. This calls for nuance in any efforts to connect with and understand one another. This is Lan Zhan’s character arc. He learns this lesson the hard way through Wei Ying’s death. But Wei Ying also learns something from Lan Zhan: that he does not have to traverse his single-log bridge alone. We see this when he does not hesitate to express his need for Lan Zhan’s help as he turns himself into live bait to protect the clans from raiding puppets at the Burial Mounds.
Wei Ying proves at every turn that he is more than capable of embracing acceptance, of dealing with what’s in front of him, of making do with what he’s got no matter how limited, and of letting go in spite of his pain or loneliness. So it is especially poignant and satisfying that in his return to the home he lost, Lotus Pier, he’s got Lan Zhan and Wen Ning alongside him – his chosen family, the ones who stuck with him and trusted him since his fall from grace. He even has Wen Yuan (essentially his adopted son) with him, though he doesn't realise it yet. At one point, overcome by memories of his past while on Lotus Lake, he hallucinates his late older sister, the first person outside of his biological parents to love and trust him unconditionally. But he quickly snaps out of it to find Lan Zhan and Wen Ning, his new family, right beside him. He is no longer alone.
Lan Xichen, in answering Lan Zhan’s enquiry about how to judge a person, leaves us with his very honest wisdom.
“What makes us human can’t be judged simply as right or wrong. It lies within ourselves. As we evaluate others, we shall not label them as black or white but know their deep intentions inside.”
Meanwhile, the climate crisis…
If you haven’t read my welcome post, I mentioned that I’d like to conduct an experiment: for every essay, I will include a piece about the climate crisis I also encountered that we all might want to know about. So here we go.
There’s a lot of discussion around how any solutions to the climate crisis must be feminist in nature, particularly since a feminist approach is inclusive of marginalised groups (and, I would argue, beings). This interactive piece from CarbonBrief is from last year, but it’s a very useful and insightful resource for understanding through data how women are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis. It’s staggering to look at hard facts, but I figured this might be a good place to start.
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See you down another rabbit hole!