Review: Word of Honor: Come for the Boys’ Love, Stay for the Wuxia

“Only those who have not seen the world want to be a hero. Those who have knows every stroke of the word hero is written with blood, if not their own then that of others. I’m past the days when I want to be a hero. I’m just a wanderer among the world. What do you want to be? “
“Let them have their gathering of heroes. For a wanderer among the world, you and I suffice for me.” 

– Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing, the leads of Word of Honor
Gorgeously cast, costumed, filmed, and written, Word of Honor is both a solid BL and a solid wuxia series.

Word of Honor 山河令 is super shippable and closer to boy’s love than bromance, but it’s also one of the best wuxia series recently.   The storytelling is the closest I’ve seen to Jin Yong in a long time, and the two leads are solid Gu Long lead material. While the rest of the world fights over the key to a cave full of wuxia secrets, our two lovebirds alone have no interest in what’s in the cave. One just wants to be left alone, while the other just want to watch the world burn.

There’s Zhou Zishu (Zhang Zhehan), the head of the secret police who commits self-timed suicide when he realized that his allegiance to Prince Jin had led to nothing but death and destruction.  With only three years to live, he hides his identity and wanders jianghu alone wasted. When a small act of kindness leads to him agreeing to help a newly-orphaned teen find safety, he finds himself in a new paternal position to someone in the eye of the incoming storm.

He’s joined by Wen Kexing (Gong Jun), the head of the Ghost Valley, a safe haven for crazies who were mostly forced there by the outside world.  Nicknamed by himself as “The Great Philanthropist  Wen”, he stirs up trouble in jianghu by fueling the ongoing search for the key to a cave full of martial arts secrets.  Wen Kexing is immediately fascinated by Zhou Zishu, and unabashedly chases after him romantically. Here I have to praise Gong Jun’s treatment of the character, who walks the thin line of sexual advances vs. sexual harassment. He could’ve easily felt like a creep, but luckily never does. 

Through their journey together, Zhou Zishu discovers that he doesn’t want to be left alone, and Wen Kexing finds out that he gains no joy from watching the world burn. Instead, they find solace and joy in each other and the small group of people they care for. Yet the world may not let them have even that little joy. 

The script is by Xiaochu, a former wuxia forum mod who graduated from the prestigious Tisch School of Arts. She worked on a few indie films before returning to China.  This is her first script written in Chinese, and it’s a good one.  

Somewhere in episode 2, when two minor characters decked in matching peach-pink and leaf-green showed up to mess with everyone, I knew this drama has got it.  The two come sweeping in as backup for the Beggar Clan, yet the first thing they do is pick a fight with one of the Beggar Clan’s allies because they couldn’t help but be sarcastic.  The way even two minor characters chose to follow their own rules instead of social decorum just makes it feel so wuxia.   Through their indiscriminating caustic words targeted at everyone on site, each of the supposedly righteous clan members is caught off guard and the audience quickly picks up that everyone in the scene has ulterior motives, although it’s uncertain exactly what they are.  Within a few lines, you could immediately tell apart most characters and become interested in the below-surface struggle between a large number of side characters. Xiaochu said that for a later scene in the drama, she watched every version of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils to study how to introduce so many characters and shift points of tension in a large scene. That scene has too much going on for me to write about, but let’s just say you can tell she did her homework.

Xiaochu gave an interview recently where she was asked whether women can write wuxia, and honestly, the most “wuxia” feeling dramas for me in the past five years have all been written by women- Word of Honor‘s Xiaochu,  Legends’ Jiulufeixiang, Yang Qianzi, and Peng Yunrui, and to a lesser degree Ever Night‘s Xu Run. They are able to create characters who are grounded in personality but enlightened in action, and worlds bound by honor and jianghu rules without binding the characters. Their characters feel alive and full of conviction of the world they believe they live in vs the world they are forced to live in, and it’s honestly refreshing after all the characters whose actions are all just reactions to the world around them.  I can’t wait for the day when this new group of writers (probably with years of fanfic experience behind them) is given reins over more serious wuxia as opposed to dramas whose main selling point remains the romance.  

The series is loosely based on the book Faraway Wanderers / Guests at the World’s Edge 天涯客 by Priest and streams one episode per day on Youku. You can also watch it delayed with English subs on Youtube here.

13 thoughts on “Review: Word of Honor: Come for the Boys’ Love, Stay for the Wuxia

  1. I was planning to write another review for this after the finale. The story is so close to perfect. It treated almost every side character with dignity. Scorpion’s arc was 100X better than the original. People who appear for two episodes have beautiful arcs. But the main ship left such a bitter taste in my mouth near the end that I don’t even want to watch it again. I don’t understand how they went from people who truly get each other when no one else in the world did to the only people in the world who didn’t understand each other at all.

    If I had to pinpoint a place, it’s when Zhou Zishu thanked the heavens for Four Seasons to have a future. Four Seasons only have three people left and he should know better than anyone that no place is worth more than the people in it. Did he not remember how all his brothers died for this exact goal? Chengling is not a tool to his redemption for his first failure of Four Seasons. From then on, it’s like the story lost the character profiles of the two leads.

    Zhou Zishu went on to then, in his parting speech, tell Chengling to fight for the people and the country. This kid is already in charge of reviving a gazillion organizations, doesn’t he already have enough burden? Let him be. Also, Zhou Zishu, dude who fasttracked his own death for his one-true-love, has no right to tell others to live for anything other than love. Plus, why is he telling a kid to be a hero when he said a few episodes ago that the character hero is written with blood?

    And then for the two leads to take turns real and fake dying without telling each other shows their utter lack of trust and respect for each other’s wishes. They should know better than that.

    It was extra strange that for the last important conversation, the most important one-liner that should’ve elevated the whole show is a line from a similar situation in Return of the Condor Heroes? And it’s said by a guy who did not have the character arc to be able to believably give a lesson like that, so it has no impact.

    It’s extra bad because it provides direct comparison for the main couple. Guo Jing said that line and then defended a city to death alongside his wife. Guo Jing and Huang Rong are a couple who, days after meeting each other, knew that the other would rather die fighting next to them than live alone. It just makes the main couple’s relationship look extra weak that they either didn’t know the same.

    • To give you my opinion, in the last scene, Zhou Zishu says to Chengling, “The greatest xia serves his country and his people.”The word “xia” in this sentence does not mean hero. In the Chinese context, xia refers to a person with martial arts skills and faith.This sentence is only to hope that Chengling can make some contributions to the people and the country after he becomes stronger, instead of doing bad things. It is the good expectation of his elders, not a force or burden.
      As for the concealment from each other, I think it is an act of helplessness under the drama of conflict. It is still out of love, not a lack of trust.I have no doubt that Wen and Zhou would choose to die together when faced with the situation Guo and Huang found themselves in.In the drama, Zhou conceal Wen because he feels sorry for Wen. He doesn’t want Wen to feel more pain and guilt since the first half of his life is so painful.As for Wen Ke Xing’s behavior in the end, I think it is completely understandable that he could not face Zhou’s death without doing anything. When he knew that there was a way to save Zhou Zishu, he would definitely take a gamble.As it turned out, the bet paid off and both men survived.

  2. Wanted to check out the 1st episode for Gong Jun and then I am impatiently waiting for the rest of the show to be aired! I am impressed with Gong Jun – he is killing it here with his flirtatious and coy looks & touchy touchy & killer (Don’t F with me vibes) I love him!!!
    This brings back memories of The Untamed! SO very happy to get my fix (tho I am not much of a BL fan at first). I am an ardent fan of BL if done right.
    Hope to see more of these kinds of dramas wuxia/romance/supernatural – written by women and with women’s point of view! We are stellar/stunning/ and we ROCK! Happy Belated International Women’s Day!
    Thank you very much for sharing. :)

  3. This drama really shows how important the script is to a show. I have watched countless dramas with higher production values and budgets and acting and etc that were less engaging. I will admit that I was skeptical at first since BL shows have the reputation of being cheap–I almost quit the first episode for that reason–but there is something here that draws you in (and I was desperate for some wuxia). Each episode is better than the last!

    I only wish that the production company had a higher budget since some of the sets and greenscreening look kind of fake. The cuts, editing, and dubbing can all be improved as well. Even so, I can tell that they did the best they could with what money they had! Many of the costumes are tastefully done. The martial arts sequences are acceptable for the most part and exceptional at times, bringing back memories of the tv shows/movies of yore.

    Also, once again, I cannot emphasize this enough, major, major props to the scriptwriter. Beautiful lines and allusions to classical poetry with a solid overarching plot. Fingers crossed that this quality continues! It’s not the most intricate and groundbreaking thing, but it hits all the right spots. If you have a weakness for classic wuxia and pretty boys, this is for you.

  4. I came for the wuxia, and am staying for the wuxia. I know I’m nit-picking, but I wish there was less slow-motion in the action scenes. Speaking of new wuxia, one that really stood out to me in recent years is Love In Between (, but like all dramas these days, there was way too much focus on the romance.

    • You’re my twin! Drawn by the wuxia in the trailer, and it’s the wuxia that’s keeping me. Also wish for less slow-motion.

      Can’t believe we’re also on the same train of Love in Between!

      • Oh, and just want to add on women writing wuxia scripts that Love in Between’s screenwriter is also a woman. She’s also part of With You’s writing team, so perhaps that’s why the drama feels stronger on the character & character relationships writing.

    • Word of Honor so far has more jianghu scenes than most actual wuxia so far, and it’s pretty impressive. I never once felt compelled to skip any parts, and the romance parts are intertwined with the jianghu parts and rarely redundant. The episodes with the Gathering of Heroes are no small feat (entire episodes consisting mostly of a bunch of old men without sexual tensions talking in a bl drama!) , and it did a better job than all the recent Jin Yong adaptations in at least the past decade.

      I really wanted to like Love in Between, but ultimately couldn’t. It reminds me a bit of Wang Juan’s scripts? They’re in that weird spot for me where I love some of their plot details and lines and themes so I want to like them, but can’t because there are too many scenes where I can feel the show telling me I should be impressed when I’m not.

      edit: I only say better than Jin Yong adaptations because I would watch the major scenes in all the Jin Yong ones even if I don’t continue the show. The non-Jin Yong ones if I quit then I quit so I can’t compare.

  5. Thanks so much for the review! This drama totally went under the radar for me and I wouldn’t have thought to check it out at all, but now I’ll be sure to do that :)

Leave a Reply