Top 10 donghua that will hook you on the wondrous world of Chinese legends

Posters for Big Fish and Begonia, White Snake, and The Legend of Hei (left to right). Pic credits: IMDb

Donghua, the Chinese equivalent of Japanese anime, are less mainstream but no less remarkable than their Japanese counterparts. In fact, there are many films and series that are so wondrous that it’s a pity to pass them by, especially since they can often be accessed for free via YouTube and various Chinese video-sharing websites.

Now, the main issue may be subs and the quality thereof. Many of the freely accessible donghua feature fan subs, which are sometimes not stellar, but since we’re talking about a from-fans-to-fans service that’s free for all to enjoy — let’s not look the gift horse in the mouth.

Of course, some donghua are commercial — they can be accessed via paid streaming services (subscription- or fee-based) here and there online. Many donghua can be rented on Amazon Video, Google Play Movies, YouTube, Vudu, Microsoft Store, Apple iTunes, or Redbox online.

With more and more anime fans getting exposed to Chinese animation and live-action movies — notably through Netflix and (occasionally) Crunchyroll — and with the Chinese web novel market being abuzz with activity, let’s mention a couple of donghua that may prove interesting.  

Before you get started with donghua

Since Chinese culture remains a mystery to a great deal of non-Chinese people on pretty much all continents (with the exception of the East Asian cultural sphere), the references in donghua are often lost in translation. Certainly, there’s no way to explain in a nutshell the traditions and philosophies of one of the world’s two oldest surviving cultures, but there’s one concept you should familiarize yourself with.

That is self-cultivation (xiūshēn). The term “cultivation” is prominent in donghua, so let’s simplify it a bit. Basically, it portends self-development through personal efforts. The tradition is rooted in Taoism but draws on later influences as well. It is a vital part of Confucianism and other Chinese philosophies and is deeply embedded in all East-Asian ethical values.

The goal of self-cultivation is to reach the Xingming Shuangxiu, namely, to train the health of the mind and body (which the Chinese represent as the spiritual nature and the life-fate (vitality)). Cultivation practices include meditation, martial arts, exercises to optimize energy within the body, mind, and spirit (qigong), and living in harmony with seasons, among other techniques.

Introducing two more useful terms:

Xianxia — a genre of Chinese fantasy influenced by Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Chinese mythology, and other Chinese traditional elements.  

Danmei (dānměi) — a genre of literature and films originating from China that depicts romantic relationships between male characters (BL). It corresponds to Japanese shounen-ai as it doesn’t feature explicit scenes, due to Chinese censorship policies. That is to say, there’s no Chinese equivalent of yaoi.

Keeping this in mind, let’s move on to donghua recommendations. I’m hereby including a little something for everyone, with four different genres/tropes to get you started, in no particular order and without attempting to rank the works. Each to their own!

A trio of feature-length donghua inspired by Chinese legends and philosophy

1. The Legend of Hei (2019)

The Legend of Hei (罗小黑战记, Luo Xiaohei Zhan Ji) is a donghua film released in 2019. Not to be confused with the 40-episode flash animation series of the same name (2011) and the eponymous cartoon created by MTJJ (2021), The Legend of Hei follows the wood sprite Xiaohei, a shape-shifter depicted as either a cat or a catlike child.

The plot is a classic one, often seen in both Chinese and Japanese works: the usual conflict between humans and spirits and the compromises the spirits must make. Let’s put it this way: if you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, you’re going to love this film.

The characters are as curious as they are unique, the plotline is heart-warming, and the animation style is refreshing. Basically, the plot follows Xiaohei who goes to live in a city after his forest is destroyed by (wait for it!) humans, where he befriends the spirit Fengxi (Stormend) and his friends. However, there’s more than meets the eye about Fengxi, and Xiaohei soon meets another mysterious character — Wuxian,* who grows on him as the story progresses.

There’s a subbed and a dubbed version of The Legend of Hei available, so enjoy!

*Wuxian (wúxiàn) translates as “infinite” from Chinese. You’ll find many donghua characters with this name, which is always indicative of their astounding self-cultivation level.

2. White Snake (2019)

White Snake (白蛇, Bai She: Yuan qi) is a 2019 animated film inspired by the Chinese fable “The Legend of the White Snake,” which has been fictionalized in both major and minor Chinese films, operas, TV series, donghua, and other forms of art since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). It is, in fact, one of China’s Four Great Folktales (the remaining three being Butterfly Lovers, The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, and Lady Meng Jiang).

The White Snake animated film follows a young woman (Bai Suzhen/Blanca), the titular snake who suffers from memory loss. She is saved by a snake hunter (Xu Xian/Xian) and together they set out to unravel her identity. As you may guess, the two characters develop feelings for one another along the way, so they have to deal with the looming disaster that their identities forebode.

The film got a sequel in 2021 (Snake 2: The Tribulation of the Green Snake).

3. Big Fish and Begonia (2016)

Big Fish and Begonia (大鱼海, Da Yu Hai Tang) is one of the most beautiful animated films I’ve ever seen and also one of the most original. It is inspired by three Chinese classics: “The Zhuangzi” (a quintessential Chinese Taoist text), “In Search of the Supernatural,” and “The Classic of Mountains and Seas.”

If you’re unfamiliar with “The Zhuangzi,” suffice it to say that it helped shape Japanese Zen Buddhism (a mixture of Daoism and Chinese Buddhism, known as The Chan School of Buddhism in China). “In Search of the Supernatural” is a compilation of Chinese legends and stories concerning Chinese gods and other supernatural beings. Finally, “The Classic of Mountains and Seas” is a compilation of mythic geography and beasts.

With this impressive fusion of philosophies and influences, it is only natural that Big Fish and Begonia provide a curious plotline coupled with bits and pieces of ancient legends spectators may or may not be familiar with.

Visually, the film is out of this world and is a treat to all senses. The plotline follows a 16-year-old girl (Chun) who lives in an otherworldly realm beneath the human world populated by supernatural beings. As part of a coming-of-age ritual, Chun is being transformed into a dolphin and sets out to experience the human world. Thereupon she meets a boy who later sacrifices himself to save her life. Chun then determines to use magic to bring him back to life, but soon learns that this power comes at a costly price.

A trio of rom-com donghua series

1. The Demonic King Chases His Wife (2019-2022)

A Xie Wang Zhui Qi poster. Pic credit: IMDb.

The Demonic King Chases His Wife (邪王追妻, Xie Wang Zhui Qi) is a typical Chinese rom-com donghua and also a good starting point for newbies to Chinese animation. So far, there are three seasons, with speculations about the fourth emerging left and right. Scilicet, unlike anime, new donghua seasons have no clear deadlines even though the upcoming season is traditionally announced in the closing credits of the last episode of the ongoing season.

The Demonic King Chases His Wife is one of the donghua series available via BiliBili and YouTube, with subs that will require mobilization of all of your brain cells. The first season features short episodes (ca. 12 minutes, opening and closing credits included), whereas seasons 2 and 3 are full-length (ca. 20 minutes per episode).  

Xie Wang Zhui Qi is a Chinese take on isekai and follows a female special agent of the 21st century (Su Luo) who is betrayed and killed by her lover. Thereupon, she finds herself being reincarnated in Bi Luo Land as the useless Fourth Lady in the Su Residence.

Everyone is determined to mistreat her, except for prince Jin, who is perceived as an emotionless tyrant (which, of course, he isn’t). With the help of prince Jin, Su Luo starts her journey of becoming a renowned cultivator. Thereupon many rivals emerge and there’s also prince Jin’s complicated condition to take into account. Not to mention that the prince is determined to marry Su Luo, which she adamantly refuses (hence the title).

Xie Wang Zhui Qi is based on the web novel “The Demonic King Chases His Wife: The Rebellious Good-for-Nothing Miss” (2013) that has 11745 chapters, so there’s plenty of material for many more donghua seasons to come.  

2. Psychic Princess (2018)

A Tongling Fei key visual. Pic credit: YouTube.

Psychic Princess (通灵妃, Tongling Fei) is set in a similar setting (princes, cultivation, etc.) but has a different vibe. The plotline follows Qian Yunxi, a 16-year-old girl who was expelled from her family home and sent to the mountains at the age of eight due to her “unnatural abilities.” However, years later, her parents summon her back — only to marry her off to an enemy prince (Ye You Ming) in place of her younger sister.

Qian Yunxi can see ghosts and spirits, who are a welcome addition to the donghua as they often provide comic relief. However, keep in mind that romance is slow in developing (but fast in escalating). Nevertheless, Psychic Princess makes for a fun watch and there’s just one 16-episode season to boot (S2 was announced in 2018, but there have been no follow-ups since).

The series is available via Crunchyroll and Anime Planet.   

3. Cinderella Chef (2018-2022)

A Meng Qi Shi Shen key visual. Pic credit: BiliBili.

Of the three rom-com donghua series mentioned here, Cinderella Chef (萌妻食神,Meng Qi Shi Shen) is my favorite. It is lighthearted, easy on the eye, and educational (if you like Chinese cuisine, that is). Don’t watch it on an empty stomach! Like Pixar’s Ratatouille, it will make you hungry. 

Cinderella Chef is another isekai donghua series but, seriously, to go back in time because you messed up a dish!  

That’s exactly what happens to the series protagonist, a celebrity chef, who emerges in ancient China as a magistrate’s daughter (Ye Jin Xuan). She wakes up only to be kidnapped by a band of bandits led by Xia Chun Yu, who is actually an undercover agent for the king. For various reasons, the two get engaged but are soon temporarily separated thanks to the turmoil brought about by Xia Chun Yu’s mission.

Throughout the series, Ye Jin Xuan is only trying to open a restaurant, but things keep happening.

Cinderella Chef provides a fine mixture of comedy, romance, and a bit of drama, and is an entertaining watch.

Meng Qi Shi Shen is inspired by the eponymous web novel by Ziyi 281.

Yuewen Animation, the studio that animated the donghua, has made Season 1 freely available on YouTube (there are three seasons in total; Season 3 is ongoing).

A duo of donghua series focusing on the Imperial Court

1. Memory of Chang’an (2020-2021)

Memory of Chang’an (拾忆长安, Shi Yi Chang’an: Mingyue Jishi You) follows a typical story of Imperial China. There is a princess (Mingyue) and one of many princes (in this case, the ninth prince named Li Qiang) who are forced into an arranged marriage in the name of peace in their respective kingdoms.

Over time, the pair grows more attached to one another, but their lives are a study in court intrigues, vicious plots, attempted assassinations, and jealous concubines. The donghua is a must-see for anyone interested in this period of Chinese history, though keep in mind that there are many characters and many unfamiliar names to keep track of.

Shi Yi Chang’an: Mingyue Jishi You has two seasons (Season 2 is titled Shi Yi Chang’an: Mingyue Jishi You Er), amounting to a total of 24 episodes. S2 is available on YouTube (member-only).

2. No Doubt in Us (2021)

The No Doubt in Us (两不疑, Liang Bu Yi) donghua series brings the Chinese concept of body swapping to a whole new level because this time the protagonists are the Emperor (Li Jie) and the Empress (Eu-funh). Needless to say, the protagonists have contrasting characters, which makes the whole affair more complicated (and more hilarious).

How did this come to pass?

The Emperor and the Empress accidentally fall into a pond in the middle of an argument and wake up the next day in each other’s bodies.

As is customary with works dealing with this topic, the pair will learn to appreciate one another’s efforts and deepen their bond in the process.

No Doubt in Us has one 24-episode season (short 10-minute episodes), which is available via BiliBili. The second season has been announced.

A duo of danmei (BL) donghua series to spice things up

1. The Founder of Diabolism (2018-2021)

The Founder of Diabolism’s final season trailer

The Founder of Diabolism (魔道祖师, Mo Dao Zu Shi) is a BL donghua series that has attained stellar popularity, both in China and abroad. It is based on the namesake light novel that’s a phenomenon of sorts.

Namely, the novel was originally serialized on the Chinese online platform Jinjiang Literature City (2015-2016). While still being serialized, it instantaneously attained a devoted fan community both in China and abroad, with fan translations being credited for making the light novel famous internationally — before a single licensed translation appeared.

Multiple groups had shared free translations into several languages online, encouraging their distribution.  As foreign publishers acquired the licenses, these translations were willingly taken down.

The light novel has so far been officially translated into 10 different languages (English, Japanese, Russian, German, Portuguese, Hungarian, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, and Burmese). The first two volumes of the ongoing official English translation are New York Times bestsellers.

Mo Dao Zu Shi set in a xianxia world where cultivators apply various Taoist practices to boost their spirituality. Cultivator Wei Wuxian* diverges from the conventional path, inventing “demonic” cultivation.

The donghua follows two parallel plots — Wuxian’s past and present life, all the while unraveling the mysterious circumstances of the titular demonic cultivation.

Mo Dao Zu Shi focuses on the love story between Wei Wuxian and his fellow cultivator Lan Wangji, but don’t expect any explicit scenes.

The art is beautiful, the story profound, but be prepared to deal with a whole slew of characters as is customary with xianxia works.

The Mo Dao Zu Shi donghua series has three seasons and a chibi series, all of which aired on Tencent Video.  

2. Heaven Official’s Blessing (2020)

Heaven Official’s Blessing (天官赐福, Tian Guan Ci Fu) is another brilliant danmei donghua series, also based on a web novel. It was released on Bilibili and Funimation in 2020 and has been pending S2 since.

The Tian Guan Ci Fu web novel by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (The Founder of Diabolism author) has had a similar fate to that of Mo Dao Zu Shi. It has a vivid international fandom who has diligently translated the entire novel.

The plot centers on the love story between the Crown Prince Xie Lian who ascended to the Heavens multiple times (and got banished multiple times as well) and the ghost king Hua Cheng. Due to his banishments, Xie Lian is known as the “laughing stock of the three realms” among the gods, but being headstrong as well as righteous, he couldn’t care less.

The donghua is heartwarming, fun, and thoroughly enjoyable to watch, albeit it covers only a small part of the novel, focusing on Xie Lian’s adventures after his third ascension. The novel itself doesn’t follow a chronological order of events in Xie Lian’s 800-year-long life, but rather connects the dots at its own pace.

The Tian Guan Ci Fu Season 2 will depict Xie Lian’s adventures in the Ghost City (one of the best chapters in the novel), so hopefully it will air soon.

And there you have it: 10 donghua for everyone’s taste. Pick your favorites and see where they lead you, for — make no mistake about it — there are many great donghua out there just waiting to be discovered. I wish they were marketed better so that we wouldn’t have to consult obscure recommendations, but it is what it is.

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