Heaven Official’s Blessing

In ancient times, Xie Lian was the crown Prince of the kingdom of Xian Le, a benevolent ruler whose concern for the welfare of the people made him greatly loved. Such was his merit that he was awarded with ascension to the realm of the gods at an early age, there to become the Crown Prince of Heaven. However, Xie Lian’s tenure in this role was less than successful: twice in a period of 800 years, he was exiled back to earth in order to atone for misdemeanours and accumulate sufficient merit to warrant his return to heaven. But upon his third ascension, he causes such a ruckus that he offends two of the most powerful military gods, incurring such a debt in the process that he has no choice except to return once more to earth in the guise of a Taoist priest. With the assistance of two quarrelsome deputy gods, Fu Yao and Nan Feng, Xie Lian is tasked with subduing the Ghost Bridegroom, an evil spirit said to inhabit Mount Yujun who kidnaps brides on their way to their weddings. Xie Lian completes his assignment, in the process discovering that the “Bridegroom” is, in fact, the demented spirit of a woman who was rejected by one of the military gods before their ascent to heaven. He also uncovers the fact that the Ghost Bridegroom is just the servant of a far more powerful entity, a Ghost King known as the Crimson Rain Sought Flower. Xie Lian sets out once more to confront the Ghost King, encountering a mysterious young man known as San Lang, who seems to know an awful lot about ghosts and demons, as well as the tragic fate of what used to be called the Half Moon Kingdom. As their mission continues, Xie Lian comes to suspect that San Lang is none other than the Ghost King himself; but he also becomes aware that the affection between himself and San Lang is also more than that of two close friends…  

Based on the novel by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu and produced by Shanghai-based animation studio Haoliners Animation League, “Heaven Official’s Blessing” (天官赐福, Tiān Guān Cì Fú) premiered in China in October 2020.  Beautifully animated in a style that evokes both the historical artistic schools of East Asia as well as showcasing modern animation techniques, “Heaven Official’s Blessing” is both a folkloric and mythological fantasy whose roots lie deep within Chinese culture, as well as a modern-day wu xia romp replete with martial arts action, comedic sidebars and a complex narrative underscored by characters with multiple (and shifting) identities. But it is also a primary example of contemporary danmei (耽美, “indulging beauty”) fiction which, like its yaoi counterpart in Japan (from which it emerged in the 1990s after integrating the perspectives of the Chinese same-sex community), is mostly produced by women for women and emphasises the romantic rather than the sexual aspect of the main protagonists’ relationship.  Indeed, the relationship between Xie Lian and San Lang is treated sensitively and with care (no doubt, in part, to get past the Chinese government censors) with enough oblique references in place to make clear the nature of their relationship. Non-Mandarin-speaking viewers may experience some difficulty keeping up with the dialogue, especially in the early episodes, as it whips past at a speed that makes reading the subtitles occasionally difficult; you may find yourself pressing the pause button more than once just to keep up. Likewise, not all the narrative threads are drawn together in a way that will make immediate sense to a Western audience; it might only be after you’ve finished watching this series that the relationship of characters to events begins to make sense. Nonetheless, “Heaven Official’s Blessing” is an engaging tale that is also wonderful to look at, a fascinating glimpse into a minority culture in China whose voice is only starting to emerge from behind the wall of government sanction and cultural disapproval.

Text ©Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2021. All rights reserved.