Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, also known as Mo Dao Zu Shi, is a story with an incredible number of adaptations and formats. The story originally comes from a novel written by an author with the pen name Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (though she also is called MXTX, MX, or Moxiang). Since its serialization in 2015 and 2016, the story has been adapted into a drama, an animated series, a live-action web series, a mobile game, and a webcomic / manhua, which this review focuses on. In all cases, Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation is an entry within the Xianxia (仙俠 or “immortal heroes”) genre. Xianxia refers to fictional stories involving mythical figures and heroes interacting with the world. Within these stories, the main character tends to find themselves wrapped up in supernatural issues and calamities involving gods, heroes, spirits, and the like. To compare it to Japanese anime, a similar kind of story would be that of the Fate series or of Noragami.
Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation follows the journeys of a man named Wei Wuxian through his life, death, and, critically to the story, rebirth. This story is within a particular subgenre of Xianxia dealing with “cultivation,” a set of actions concerned with controlling corpses and spirts, achieving immortality, and generally arriving at incredible inhuman levels of power. Wuxian is seen as a dangerous cultivator in the world of the story because of his forbidden methods. Thirteen years following his murder by the Four Great Clans of the world, a man named Mo Xuanyu performs a self-sacrificial ritual and summons the spirit of Wuxian into his body. From then on, Wuxian lives in this new body and re-acquaints himself with the world while fulfilling the ritual’s condition: enact revenge on his summoner’s behalf or lose his soul. Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation also focuses a lot on male-male romance (this is a danmei story, comparable to BL stories in Japan) and that is woven into a quite supernatural plot.
This is a spoiler-free review — the only information from the comic it goes into is information present in synopses and/or promotional blurbs.
A Unique and Parallel Story
The webcomic for Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation jumps right into the story and definitely approaches the details of it with a “show as you go” sort of mentality. Being immediately thrust into things can be a bit jarring — at times in the beginning I felt that I was missing crucial context. But, as the story continues, it becomes quite clear that the comic seeks to make Wuxian’s re-entrance into life run at the same beat as the reader’s introduction to the world in general. While Wuxian learns more about his host and people’s reactions to him, he explains critical knowledge from the past and corrects misconceptions from others about who he is, speaking directly about his reputation as a dark, evil cultivator. Even more, the details he lays down are from his (prior) life, giving the reader multiple parts of the timeline to work through from the outset.
Personally, I found this way of storytelling quite interesting. Wuxian’s inner monologue, which we as readers exclusively get to see, acts as a source of validation against the things other characters in the story do and say. Simultaneously, those other characters tend to have rather consistent views about Wuxian, making me doubt his reliability as a narrator and protagonist. Like studying a series of historical texts from different sources and translators, Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation mixes in scenes from the past with long flashbacks and thoughts on them, giving different angles to understand the story’s present-day from differing perspectives and times. It’s also pretty funny to watch someone who was a legend in their lifetime contend with being reduced to basically an old legend talked about in the same way as horrors like Baba Yaga or Slenderman. Art is bright, colorful, and well-purposed. Facial expressions come through clearly and the webcomic manages to make ample use of every page, even showing excellent presence from characters who barely take part in a scene.
The Start of Intriguing Relationships in Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation
Without going to a level of spoiling, the first volume of Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation is, expectantly, only the beginning of the romantic plotlines within the overall series. The man that Wuxian is incarnated within is described as a “cut-sleeve,” a word with an incredibly rich literary history (seriously, it could be the sole subject of a university lecture) which serves as a euphemism for a homosexual man. The word references the rather adorable story of an emperor who, upon finding his lover (a government official) sleeping on his sleeve, cut his sleeve so as to not wake him. In a somewhat similar fashion to that story, Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation mixes elements of class and power into interpersonal relationships. Wuxian was incredibly powerful while alive and is now incarnated into the body of an illegitimate child of little positive renown.
The story constantly juxtaposes the knowledge Wuxian has of the world around him with the little practical weight his current body’s position allows him to put behind that knowledge. Interactions between characters are often like little mind games, with someone playing dumb or carefully conveying information in order to control the tide of interaction or push characters in the right direction of a mystery. The Four Great Clans care a great deal about jurisdiction, respect, and propriety so their interactions too are many-layered, making even brief scenes between them satisfying.
The main downside to how much detail and care is on each page is that this is not a comic one can languidly flip through and expect to understand. Volume 1 has a glossary at the end with a variety of terms specific to Xianxia and cultivation stories. But, even with that, many characters have multiple names and titles they go by and the story seldom stops to explicitly break down a scene to the reader. The expectation is that a careful eye reads through and digests each panel carefully. The payoff from doing so is great, but expect to have to pay attention. Personally, I think it’s quite worth it. The first volume of the Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation manhua (webcomic) adaption was released on March 7th, 2023. The second volume is set for release on June 6th, 2023. You can find info on both via the Seven Seas website and Seven Seas’ danmei website.
Images courtesy of Seven Seas Entertainment
© Mo Xiang Tong Xiu and Luo Di Cheng Qiu