Navigating Transmedia Storytelling and Franchising in
Chinese BL: Heaven Official’s Blessing

By Linshan Jiang

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August 2023)

Promotional poster for the first season of Heaven Official’s Blessing.

Danmei (耽美), or BL (Boy’s Love), refers to male-male romance. Although it originates from Japanese popular culture, it is now also immensely popular in China. In the Chinese market, successful and profitable cultural productions are referred to as IPs (intellectual properties), a concept aligned with Henry Jenkins’ notions of “transmedia story” and “transmedia franchise” (Jenkins 2006: 95, 96). These transmedia stories unfold “across multiple media platforms,” with each contributing uniquely to the overall narrative (Jenkins 2006: 95–96). At the same time, IP or “transmedia franchise” cater to market demands, and the latter can “[pitch] the content somewhat differently in the different media” (Jenkins 2006: 96). Notable IPs such as Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (魔道祖师), or the TV adaptations The Untamed (陈情令) and Guardian (镇魂) have garnered widespread attention in both popular media and scholarly discussions (Baecker/Hao 2021: 18; Wong 2020: 503).

What is special about the BL industry in China, as discussed in previous BL scholarship, is the double influence of censorship (both state and self-imposed) and market profitability (Hao 2023: 66; Hu/Wang 2021: 672; Wang 2019: 47; Xu/Yang 2013: 30). Due to its homosexual content, the BL genre faces continuous censorship from the National Radio and Television Administration. However, despite the strict censorship, the BL industry remains lucrative, leading to the continual emergence of adaptations of BL novels and other cultural productions. Producers and creators of BL transmedia franchises navigate the complexities of censorship while capitalizing on market opportunities.

This essay focuses on a renowned IP, Heaven Official’s Blessing (天官赐福), which has received comparatively little scholarly attention. As a transmedia story, it originated as a novel by Moxiangtongxiu (墨香铜臭) and was serialized into six volumes on the online literature website Jinjiang Literature City (晋江文学城) in 2017 and 2018. This novel had been listed as the top-ranked work for years before it was “locked” by the website and became unavailable to readers in October 2021 (Yanyupanghuang). The IP has since expanded to include manhua 漫画/comics on Bilibili Manhua (2019– ), donghua 动画/animation on Bilibili (2020– ), audio drama on MissEvan (猫耳FM) in 2022 (halted due to audience dissatisfaction), and TV drama (renamed Lucky Star [吉星高照] to evade censorship).

Specifically, I delve into the donghua version of Heaven Official’s Blessing, which navigates the complexities among state, market, and audience. The first season was released in 2020, with a second season currently in production (promotional videos are available online). The donghua version adopts the narrative strategy of “bromance-as-masquerade,” a term proposed by scholars Tingting Hu and Cathy Yue Wang, who draw on Mary Ann Doane and Joan Riviere’s theory of “masquerade” (Hu/Wang 2021: 674). Through “masquerade,” male-male romance is in the guise of bromance, a close yet non-sexual relationship between men, allowing for the depiction of male-male intimacy without explicitly associating it with romantic and sexual relationships. Given its premodern Chinese setting, the narrative also emphasizes traditional Chinese culture to legitimize the BL story. Furthermore, by collaborating with several Chinese “intangible cultural heritages” (非物质文化遗产), the donghua also showcases its function of cultural education alongside entertainment and its merchandising potential.

Xie Lian (left) and Hua Cheng (right)

Heaven Official’s Blessing narrates the life experiences of and love story between a male god named Xie Lian (谢怜) and a male ghost named Hua Cheng (花城) and spans over eight hundred years. The original novel is an explicitly homosexual story that includes flirting, kissing, and sexual intercourse. However, due to the more stringent censorship applied to animation compared to novels, the donghua adaptation of Heaven Official’s Blessing must remain implicit about the romantic and sexual relationship between the main characters. Instead, it employs the “bromance-as-masquerade” strategy, both in its narrative and in its marketing. In an interview, director Li Haoling (李豪凌) explains that the story concerns “a follower (Hua Cheng) pursuing his faith (Xie Lian)” and that it “transcends simple sentiment (ganqing 感情).” By using the word “ganqing,” the director blurs the true nature of the relationship between the two male protagonists while simultaneously glorifying it. However, the “bullet subtitles” (danmu 弹幕) ­(floating comments by spectators that are superimposed on the video [Jiang 2023: 158]) reveal that the audience generally disagrees with the director’s obscured depiction and that it sees the relationship as “precisely love.” The director’s choice to use the broad term “sentiment” aims to evade censorship and downplay the romantic love aspect of their relationship, whereas the audience’s response reasserts the term “love,” thus restoring the essence of the male protagonists’ relationship.

However, in the animation itself, the audience can see that the director has made an effort to retain the plot of the original novel. The first season of the animation, in which the two male protagonists are still in the process of understanding each other, only covers a portion of the first volume of the novel. Their interactions are limited to flirting and displays of care, without explicit expressions of romantic love. However, for readers familiar with the entire novel, every gesture and action in the first volume, particularly those of Hua Cheng, can be interpreted as deep affection. In this sense, ambiguity serves as the best masquerade or guise: the director stages the novel’s storylines, but those storylines can be interpreted as either bromance or romantic love.

For instance, there is a significant storyline in which Xie Lian disguises himself as a bride and uses himself as bait to lure out a ghost bridegroom. Hua Cheng protects Xie Lian from various ghosts and carries him out of the bridal sedan, creating the impression that he is marrying Xie Lian. The scene marks their first encounter in eight hundred years and serves as the prelude to their romantic relationship. The donghua’s first episode vividly reproduces this storyline and even includes a flashback to their very first meeting eight hundred years earlier, a narrative element not yet revealed at this point in the novel. For viewers who have not read the novel, the scene creates an intriguing sense of suspense, leaving room for speculation about the relationship between the two protagonists. However, for those who have read the novel, these scenes are deeply moving because they depict their initial interactions when Xie Lian was a young prince and Hua Cheng was a destitute boy. What I just illustrated above is represented in the animation through visual scenes depicting their relations as well as through Hua Cheng’s voiceover. It is therefore clearly from Hua Cheng’s perspective and shows that he is pursuing someone he has admired for all these years, which echoes what the director says in the interview. What enhances the flashback to 800 years earlier is the well-written song, “One Flower, One Sword” (一花一剑), which also narrates Xie Lian’s experiences and Hua Cheng’s unwavering devotion to following in his footsteps.

In the “bullet subtitles,” the audience is so satisfied and moved by the plot that when those particular scenes appear in the animation, they recite the famous sayings by the two protagonists from the original novel. In this way, the director skillfully navigates state censorship while successfully catering to fans’ desires, eliciting their heartfelt response.

When Xie Lian and Hua Cheng have physical interactions with each other, even though it seems to be a bromance, the audience may interpret it as romantic love. For example, when they return to Xie Lian’s humble dwelling after completing a task, they sleep together on a straw mat. Some of the audience in the “bullet subtitles” refer to this as “consummation” (圆房) in the fifth episode following the “wedding” in the first episode. Similarly, when Hua Cheng carries Xie Lian in his arms in the ninth episode, viewers in the “bullet subtitles” label it a “princess hug” (公主抱), a gesture typically associated with heterosexual couples in a Chinese context.

In drawing from the novel, producers of the donghua reenact certain conversations and facial expressions depicted in the animation, which possess deeper meanings than they may initially convey. For instance, in the fifth episode, the two protagonists discuss the bone ashes of a ghost. In the story, the destruction of a ghost’s bone ashes leads to the ghost’s ultimate demise, making the ashes the most precious possession for a ghost. Hua Cheng explains that in the ghost realm, there is a custom where “if a ghost fully trusts in (认定) someone, he will entrust (托付) his ashes to that person.” Xie Lian is surprised by this custom and praises it as “daring and sincere” (至情至性). The three Chinese words highlighted in the quotes suggest something more than just bromance: Hua Cheng is expressing his affection for Xie Lian, and the “someone” he refers to is precisely Xie. Although at this point Xie Lian is unaware of Hua Cheng’s love, Xie’s expression also hints at romantic love rather than mere bromance. Subsequently, Xie Lian receives a ring-shaped object, which is revealed to be Hua Cheng’s bone ashes and which serves as their token of love. This ring foreshadows the depth of Hua Cheng’s commitment to Xie Lian, which takes some time for the latter to fully comprehend.

In addition to the nuanced interplay between romance and bromance, Heaven Official’s Blessing incorporates aspects of traditional Chinese culture while carefully avoiding any association with “superstitions,” which have long been denounced by the Communist Party. This strategic approach can be seen as a means of navigating censorship by redirecting attention away from homosexual connotations toward other elements. The story introduces Chinese mythological traditions of “immortality and chivalry” (仙侠), featuring gods, immortals, demons, and ghosts, as well as drawing from Chinese martial arts (武侠) fiction and “tales of the strange” (志怪). Notably, the depiction of diverse ghost and god figures serves as a focal point within the story. However, when some of the major ghost figures appear in the animation, the Chinese character “ghost” (鬼) is replaced by the homophonic character “sly” (诡) in the subtitles, even though the character “ghost” itself is actually used elsewhere in the animation. For example, the name of the first major antagonist is altered from “ghost bridegroom” in the original novel to “sly bridegroom” in the animation, and the title of Hua Cheng, who is the “ghost king,” is switched to “sly king,” though the English subtitles retain the terms “ghost bridegroom” and “ghost king.” This change in Chinese subtitles reflects a prevalent trend in Chinese popular culture, following state censorship; however, the accurate English subtitles demonstrate a subtle resistance to such censorship.

The production team has sought to integrate the promotion of traditional Chinese culture into its brand identity. A key approach to achieving this objective has been through collaborative efforts with various intangible cultural heritages. In this way, a BL story serves not only as a form of entertainment but also as a vehicle for education. An illustration of this can be found in episodes 8 to 10, wherein the two principal protagonists of the animation introduce the audience to several examples of China’s intangible cultural heritages, such as “dough sculpture” (面塑), Chengcheng (澄城) embroidery, and “oil-paper umbrella” (油纸伞) from Fujian province. Furthermore, on the webpage for the second season of the donghua, one of the promotional videos also features a collaboration with “shadow play” (皮影戏), which showcases how traditional culture interacts with contemporary animation technology. When the oil-paper umbrella is being introduced, the master creates an exact replica of the one used by Hua Cheng in the donghua, which even prompts audience members to inquire, through “bullet subtitles,” about how to purchase one. Thus, the promotion of traditional Chinese culture in Heaven Official’s Blessing not only enriches the animation’s content but also has an impact on its merchandising potential.

The increasingly stringent censorship measures imposed on BL productions in China have raised concerns among fans regarding the future of the genre. Specifically, doubts have been raised about the possibility of releasing the second season of Heaven Official’s Blessing. However, the innovative strategies implemented by the production team, together with the tenacity of Chinese BL producers, offer promising prospects for the continued success of Heaven Official’s Blessing, as well as other BL productions.


Linshan Jiang is a Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University. She received her Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she also obtained a Ph.D. emphasis in Translation Studies. Her research interests include modern and contemporary literature, film, and popular culture in mainland China, Taiwan, and Japan; trauma and memory studies; gender and sexuality studies; queer studies; as well as comparative literature and translation studies.


Baecker, Angie, and Yucong Hao. “Fan Labour and the Rise of Boys’ Love TV Drama in China.” East Asia Forum Quarterly 13, no. 2 (June 2021): 17–20.

Hu, Tingting, and Cathy Yue Wang. “Who Is the Counterpublic? Bromance-as-Masquerade in Chinese Online Drama—S.C.I. Mystery.” Television & New Media, 22, no. 6 (Sept. 2021): 671–86.

Hao, Yucong. “Transmedia Adaptation, Sonic Affect, and Multisensory Participation in Contemporary Chinese Danmei Radio Drama.” Global Storytelling: Journal of Digital and Moving Images, 3, no. 1 (July 2023): 65–86.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Jiang, Linshan. “Queer Vocals and Stardom on Chinese TV: Case Studies of Wu Tsing-Fong and Zhou Shen.” In Jamie J. Zhao, ed., Queer TV China: Televisual and Fannish Imaginaries of Gender, Sexuality, and Chineseness. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2023, 145–60.

Wang, Cathy Yue. “Officially Sanctioned Adaptation and Affective Fan Resistance: The Transmedia Convergence of the Online Drama Guardian in China.” Series – International Journal of TV Serial Narratives, 5, no. 2 (Dec. 2019): 45–58.

Wong, Alvin K. “Towards a Queer Affective Economy of Boys’ Love in Contemporary Chinese Media.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 34, no. 4 (Aug. 2020): 500–13.

Xu, Yanrui, and Ling Yang. “Forbidden Love: Incest, Generational Conflict, and the Erotics of Power in Chinese BL Fiction.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 4, no. 1 (June 2013): 30–43.

Yanyupanghuang 烟雨彷徨, “Moxiang de Tianguan cifu ye bei suowen le, tongyi Shijian xiajia de remen xiaoshuo gong wu bu” 墨香的《天官赐福》也被锁文了,同一时间下架的热门小说共5部 (Heaven Official’s Blessing by Moxiang was also locked; five popular works were taken down at the same time).” NetEase (Oct. 31, 2021).