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Literature / Mo Dao Zu Shi

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In the first year, nothing happened. In the second year, nothing happened. In the third year, nothing happened. In the thirteenth year, nothing happened either.

More and more people were starting to believe that, maybe, the Yiling Patriarch actually perished. Even if he was capable of turning the world upside down, it was finally his turn to be toppled over.

Nobody would remain at the top for all of eternity — legends are only legends.

Mo Dao Zu Shi (魔道祖师), translatable as either "Founder of Diabolism" or "Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation", is a danmei xianxia Web Novel by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, published first on the Chinese web novel site JJWXC.

Years ago, a young cultivator named Wei Wuxian rose to fame by discovering a new school of cultivation that involved the manipulation of dark energy and raising the dead (both of which had never been done or attempted before). He used said abilities to give the cultivation clans an edge over their common enemy, the tyrannical Wen Clan. Over time, however, Wei Wuxian came to be feared and hated, and soon he met his grisly end at the hands of the people who once trusted him.

Thirteen years after Wei Wuxian's death, Mo Xuanyu, a mentally-troubled cultivator, decides that he has had enough of his family's abuse. He casts a spell that summons Wei Wuxian's spirit — long thought to be scattered and destroyed — into his own body, in exchange for Wei Wuxian granting his wishes of revenge. Everything that happens after that, however, is up to Wei Wuxian to decide. But he's not alone in this journey that is his second life, as he finds himself accompanied by Lan Wangji, an acquaintance of the past whom he has a complicated history with.


Along the way, they encounter new mysteries that are more connected than they initially seem. At the same time, the mystery that is Wei Wuxian himself is slowly unveiled.

Is Wei Wuxian a hero or a villain? How much of the legends of the Yiling Patriarch are true or false? And how blurred is the line between good and evil?

The novel is 113 chapters long, with 13 extra chapters that detail events that take place either before or after the main story. A complete English translation is available at Exiled Rebels Scanlations. To those who are interested in reading the original draft of the novel, a translation of that version is also available, but is currently on a hiatus.

The novel eventually received the following adaptations:

  • Animated Adaptation: The donghua is produced by B.CMAY Animation & Film (the same studio behind the first season of The King's Avatar). The first season aired from July to October 2018 with 15 episodes, and the second season aired in August 2019 with 8 episodes. A third season has also been confirmed for release in 2021. The donghua can be found here, though a VPN or proxy is necessary to watch this outside of China. It has since been uploaded officially to Youtube as well with subtitles in 12 languages. You can find it here, although a VPN is still required in certain countries. The donghua has also been officially dubbed in Korean, and is available on the Korean streaming website Laftel. The donghua also received a Japanese dub, which started airing on January 10, 2021.
    • Spin-Off: An animated chibi series called Mo Dao Zu Shi Q aired on July 31, 2020 with 30 episodes. B.CMAY confirmed that the Mo Dao Zu Shi Q is Lighter and Softer in tone.
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  • Audio Drama: The audio drama is produced by Polar Penguin Studios and consists of three seasons. The audio drama is available at the Chinese audio streaming website MissEvan (Season 1 here, Season 2 here, Season 3 here). A Japanese version of the audio drama has also been green-lit by MimiFM and has started airing since January 24, 2020.
  • Audio Book: An official auditory narration of the novel is available at Ximalaya FM. The narrator is Zhang Zhen, who voiced Jiang Fengmian in the audio drama.
  • Comic-Book Adaptation:
  • Live-Action Adaptation: The live-action drama titled The Untamed aired on Tencent and WeTV from June 27 to August 20, 2019 (August 14 for those with VIP access to Tencent and August 7 for those who provided additional payment for earlier access); with a total of 50 episodes. Two spinoff web movies, The Living Dead and Fatal Journey, were released on November 7, 2019 and March 26, 2020, respectively.
  • There have been rumors that Mo Dao Zu Shi will also be adapted into a video game, although said rumors have yet to be confirmed.

Mo Dao Zu Shi contains examples of the following tropes:

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    Tropes with their own pages 

  • 13 Is Unlucky: Between his demise and his resurrection, Wei Wuxian was dead for thirteen years.
  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: It's expected for all spiritual swords to be this, especially if its wielder is notably more powerful than the rest.
  • The Ace: Cultivators are trained according to the standards of ancient Chinese gentlemen - almost like aristocratic warrior-knights. Most cultivators are expected to be the best examples of humanity.
    • Some others are especially noted to be even better, especially the top five cultivators of Wei Wuxian's generation. At the start of the story's timeline, the five top gentlemen in this cultivation world are, from top to bottom: Lan Xichen, Lan Wangji, Jin Zixuan, Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng.
  • Adaptation Deviation: While the audio drama is the most loyal adaptation of the novel, it still makes a notable change or two to how it adapts the plot.
    • In the novel, Lan Xichen noticed Lan Wangji rescuing Wei Wuxian and taking him away from the Nightless City in the aftermath of the battle and notified Lan Qiren about it only after hours of recovering from his wounds. In the audio drama, Lan Wangji took Wei Wuxian away in the midst of the bloodbath, and it was a random Lan disciple who witnessed what happened and immediately alerted Lan Qiren to them.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The animation rearranges and takes out plot points to better fit them into a TV show format.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The audio drama adds several scenes that weren't included the novel or were only mentioned in passing. To a lesser extent, the donghua also does this at certain points in the story.
  • Adults Are Useless: A running theme in the flashbacks is how the previous generation failed the next one. In particular, Jiang Fengmian's generation was too caught up in their own problems to raise their children well or address the Wen Clan's growing abuses. Their deaths forced a group of ill-prepared teenagers to clean up after their mess.
  • Affectionate Nickname: China has quite the detailed naming system, and one of them involves addressing either family or someone they're really close to by a shortened version of their birth or courtesy name, which is prefixed with "A-". For example, there's "A-Xian" (Wei Wuxian), "A-Cheng" (Jiang Cheng), and "A-Li" (Jiang Yanli).
  • Ambition Is Evil: A lot of tragedy could be traced back to a few people getting too ambitious and wanting to rule over the cultivation world, disturbing the peace and bringing strife in order to gain material power.
  • Anachronic Order: The novel constantly jumps back and forth between Wei Wuxian's current and previous lives. The donghua also does this, albeit not as much as the novel.
  • Analogy Backfire: When Su She accuses Wei Wuxian of being afraid of death, Wei Wuxian counters that fearing death is not the same as not wanting to die, much like how there's a difference with him not wanting to leave Lan Wangji's embrace and being afraid of doing such... before he retracts his statement by realizing that they're actually the same thing. Although this trope is invoked on purpose, as he was trying to piss Su She off.
  • Arc Words: "Thank you" and "I'm sorry", both of which are repeatedly echoed throughout the story.
    • Wei Wuxian tells Jin Ling that these are two phrases everyone must learn to say.
    • They're the last words Wen Qing said to Wei Wuxian before sacrificing herself to the Jin Clan.
    • They're also the words that Lan Wangji never wants to hear from Wei Wuxian as whenever they exchanged those words, they would always meet again under worse circumstances.
  • Arranged Marriage: This happens often between cultivation clans in order to forge more political connections, increase one's standing, and so that the clan leaders would have an heir.
  • Art Shift: The manhua is drawn by only one artist, although the art style goes through significant changes that are less of a result of Art Evolution and more of a deliberate choice on the artist's part. Initially, the manhua follows a grounded art style with an equally grounded and earthy coloring scheme, which soon becomes more shoujo-esque with much brighter colors when the manhua gets to the first flashback arc about Wei Wuxian studying in the Cloud Recesses. By the time the manhua starts covering the Yi City arc, the art style became a cross between the two.
  • Asshole Victim: Discussed In-Universe in the Iron Hook extra. After the juniors hear the entire story of the eponymous ghost, they agree that the blacksmith's wife (the Iron Hook's first victim) got her just desserts for killing him just because she was bored with being his wife.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: Any clan leader is bound to know how to fight like a badass. The one exception is the current leader of the Nie Clan Nie Huaisang, although that's because he's more of The Chessmaster than a fighter.
  • Back from the Dead: Technically, Wei Wuxian. Wen Ning as well. Both Nie Mingjue and Song Lan also apply, in similar fashion to Wen Ning.
  • The Beautiful Elite: All cultivator clans may be seen as such, being both long-lived and able to maintain their youth and able to fly and slay monsters. However, this is deconstructed in that cultivators are often isolated and sheltered which affects their ability to empathize with and understand the common folk (i.e. the people they are supposed to protect).
  • Beta Couple: Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli are the other couple aside from Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji whose relationship plays a significant role in the story.
  • Big Bad:
    • Wen Ruohan and Wen Chao during the Sunshot Campaign, although in the overall plot they're more of a Disc-One Final Boss.
    • After the Sunshot Campaign, there's Jin Guangyao and by extension, Jin Guangshan.
  • Bittersweet Ending:
    • The Yi City arc ends on this note, at best. Xiao Xingchen and A-Qing are dead but Song Lan is free and is Walking the Earth with the remnants of their souls. There is a slim hope that maybe one day, their souls can be repaired and they return to the living world; and with Xue Yang dead maybe they can have a happier life.
    • The overall story also ends on this note. The Big Bad is finally defeated, and Wei Wuxian clears his name and finds happiness with Lan Wangji, but it doesn't mean their loved ones get the same resolution. Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng's relationship is finally free of hatred, but there's still a lot left unsaid and unresolved and they can never go back to being the brothers they once were; Lan Xichen falls into a depression after the death of his last sworn brother, and doesn't seem to be recovering any time soon. If there are any upsides, Lan Sizhui regains his memories as Wen Yuan and becomes closer with Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji and Wen Ning; Jin Ling has forgiven Wei Wuxian and they begin to properly bond as uncle and nephew; and Lan Wangji makes sure to visit his brother every now and then.
  • Black-and-White Morality: From an objective point of view, the novel's plot is almost chock-full of Grey-and-Gray Morality (see below). However, many cultivators think with this mindset In-Universe, as for them there's no in-between between right and wrong. However, their beliefs are based more about what's more favorable to them and their clan and less on any genuine sense of ethics.
  • Book-Ends:
    • The prologue begins with some people gossiping about and decrying Wei Wuxian, who's mistakenly perceived to be the Big Bad, after his death. In the epilogue, Wei Wuxian overhears a few men doing the same thing regarding Jin Guangyao, the real Big Bad, after his death.
    • A meta-example involving the audio drama: in the trailer for the first season, the first spoken line was, "Lan Zhan. You're really great. I like you.", which is also the last spoken line in the trailer for the third (and final) season.
    • The audio drama begins with a mother and father proceeding to tell their son about the tale of the Yiling Patriarch as the evil bogeyman of the cultivation world, a tale that's eventually revealed to be exaggerated and false. In the final episode of the third season, Luo Qingyang starts telling her husband and her daughter a true story about Wei Wuxian that portrays not as an evil lunatic but as a kind and heroic man.
  • Boring, but Practical: The signal fireworks. While it's an extremely useful tool that allows cultivators to call for reinforcements in case a night-hunt turns out to be more dangerous than expected, it's said to be used only once every few centuries or so. This is shown when the Lan juniors only brought one set with them when they were sent to investigate the Mo household, but because they used it then, they're unable to call for help from Lan Wangji once again during the night-hunt at Dafan Mountain.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: Adding to the Gray-and-Gray Morality of the story is that some of the characters, regardless of whether they're bad or good or both good but with different viewpoints, make valid statements when they get in an argument with someone else based on certain topics. Unfortunately, many of the characters are either too proud, stubborn, or moral to make a compromise, which is when severe miscommunication kicks in...
  • Brick Joke:
    • After Wei Wuxian got rescued from the Xuanwu Cave, he realized he lost the pouch Mianmian gave him and wondered where it went. Chapter 112 reveals that Lan Wangji stole it from him and has been using it as his wallet the entire time.
    • In the Sunshot Campaign arc, Wei Wuxian introduced himself as "Yuandao" to Mianmian to tease her, as the names Mianmian and Yuandao make up part of a romantic poem. Lan Wangji even lampshades the play on words. Then in the epilogue, after their run-in into a grown-up and married Mianmian, Lan Wangji calls Wei Wuxian "Wei Yuandao" out of jealousy.
  • Cast Full of Pretty Boys: Only six out of thirty-two named characters are female, and most of the men, even the older ones (Lan Qiren) are noted to be rather handsome.
  • Casting Gag: This isn't the first time Zhang Jie voiced a main character in a danmei novel adaptation who's infamous for his flute-playing (although the reasons differ) and is feared in the battlefield. Bonus points since in the same adaptation, Guo Haoran played a major supporting character who serves as the former's closest friend and has his hands full dealing with him, except that they never fell out and remained as Vitriolic Best Buds throughout; and Yang Tianxiang played the bastard son of an emperor, although his character was readily accepted into the royal family after his lineage was revealed to him, in contrast to Jin Guangyao, who didn't have it nearly as easy.
  • Central Theme: One of the core messages of Mo Dao Zu Shi is that what is right and wrong doesn't automatically equate to what is acceptable and unacceptable.
  • Cerebus Rollercoaster: One of the most egregious examples in modern fiction. What is an otherwise lighthearted story of adventuring is overshadowed by the overarching plot of finding and piecing together parts of a dismembered body scattered all over northern alternate Imperial China. For example, the novel literally jumps from investigating a mass murder of a whole clan, to Lan Wangji getting drunk in the space of two chapters.
  • Changed My Mind, Kid: An inversion in that it's the kids who changed their minds. During the Second Siege, Wei Wuxian decides to use himself as bait to give all the other cultivators enough time to escape the Burial Mounds unharmed. The juniors are told to leave as well; but they decide to go back and help anyway.
  • Characters Dropping Like Flies: Compared to her previous work, the author doesn't hold anything back this time around, with the first chapter even starting with the statement that the protagonist is dead. By the time of the finale, it's easier to count the characters who survived than those who kicked the bucket.
  • Cheaters Never Prosper: When the Sunshot Campaign was still ongoing, Jiang Yanli helped deliver food and would occasionally bring soup in secret to Jin Zixuan. In an attempt to earn merits, another female servant pretended to be caught red-handed by Jin Zixuan, who made her a guest disciple as a reward for her "efforts". But when Jiang Yanli is caught doing the same thing and is harshly accused for taking false credit, Wei Wuxian walks in on the scene and quickly resolves the issue by calling for the female servant and exposing her lies. Besides Jin Zixuan getting beaten black and blue, there's no mention of what happened to the servant afterwards. However, since her scheme got exposed, it's unlike that she got to enjoy her rewards for long.
  • Child Soldiers: One of the tragedies of the Sunshot Campaign was how so many of the main characters were forced to become soldiers and generals at an incredibly young age (Wei Wuxian's generation was 16-20 years old). Wei Wuxian's so protective of children because he wants to preserve their innocence, having lost his in the war.
  • Children Are Innocent: In contrast to the generation before them, the younger cultivators aren't involved in anything that involved either the Sunshot Campaign or the First Siege, and anything they know about it is simply from word of mouth of their predecessors. Because of this, they don't share their parents' flaws of ambition and prejudice.
  • Chinese Vampire: The really tall thresholds at the entrances and exits of ancient Chinese coffin homes (like a morgue, except storing corpses in coffins and all) is meant to prevent them from getting out. As Wei Wuxian explains, when the corpse is animated by natural energy, the body is still undergoing rigor mortis, so it can only hop, and it becomes difficult to hop over the threshold. So it hops, it trips, and it falls and stays on the ground until daybreak, where it could be discovered...
  • Class Trip:
    • The Yi City involves Wei Wuxian and a bunch of younger-generation disciples of multiple clans messing about in an empty zombie-filled city, learning about corpse poisoning and how to cure it, how to look at ghosts, a practical use of dark magic, and mundane-people methods of warding against the supernatural threats. It's basically an impromptu class-trip cum internship.
    • This is repeated later in the Iron Hook extra, with the juniors actually taking notes for future reference.
  • Code of Honour: Most clans have a code of etiquette and honor that its disciples are expected to follow.
    • No other clan matches the Lan Clan for scope: they carve all their rules on the giant Wall of Discipline at the entrance of the Cloud Recesses. In his time studying there, Wei Wuxian noted that there were three thousand-plus rules crammed onto the wall. In the thirteen years since he died, a thousand more were added; the audio drama even stated that the exact number is 4,019.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: The five most prominent cultivation clans are easily distinguishable by the colors they wear.
    • Gusu Lan Clan: Light blue and white.
    • Yunmeng Jiang Clan: Purple and black.
    • Lanling Jin Clan: Yellow and orange.
    • Qinghe Nie Clan: Dark green and olive.
    • Qishan Wen Clan: Red and white.
  • Compressed Adaptation:
    • The manhua, similar to the audio drama, closely follows the narrative of the novel; but it also skimps on a lot of details from the novel that the audio drama was able to include or expand on.
    • The donghua also condenses some plot points at times, particularly during the flashbacks which detail what happened to Wei Wuxian after the Sunshot Campaign ended. This becomes the case even more when the second season ends at the conclusion of the Xinglu Ridge arc, and the third season is confirmed to be the donghua's last, despite the fact that at least half of the noel's entire plot has not yet been covered.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror: Reconstructed. For the cultivators, this is more or less a must. As Wei Wuxian puts it best: ghosts use their appearance to scare people because it affects the people's consciousness in such a way that it becomes a lot easier to suck out their energy, and as such they're a lot weaker when faced against those who show no fear towards them.
  • Conveniently an Orphan: It's probably easier to list the characters in the main cast without dead parents.
  • Convicted by Public Opinion: Aside from ambition and miscommunication, another major source of conflict in the story is mob mentality. Whatever the masses agree with will be accepted as truth; anyone who has even a slightly different view is either ignored or seen as an enemy. Wei Wuxian faced the full brunt of this trope, and even when he finally clears his name, the cultivation clans don't learn their lesson and just move on to lambasting someone else.
  • Counting to Three: Well, counting from three to one, but it still counts. When Jin Zixun refused to reveal where the Wen survivors are being held, Wei Wuxian threatened to use Chenqing and started counting down to make it clear he's not going to wait all day for his answer.
  • Cowboys and Indians: While in Yueyang, Wei Wuxian sees a group of young boys playing "Sunshot Campaign", where each boy plays a prominent figure that contributed in the war against the Wen Clan, with Wei Wuxian being one of them.
  • Crippling Overspecialization: The book averts the Squishy Wizard trope since magic in the Chinese view is a technique analogous to Full-Contact Magic and Supernatural Martial Arts on some levels.
    • It is, however, important to note that apparently, nobody bothers to learn, say, protective magics or a magic shield. This is averted in the donghua, where the cultivators from the Jiang and the Lan Clans are able to conjure barriers for defense.
    • Wei Wuxian is the founder of demonic cultivation, being able to control corpses and ghosts with a flute, and his martial arts can take on any normal person. However, due to a missing or weak golden core, he is not arrow-proof, still needs to eat, and has much less tenacity than other cultivators.
  • The Dark Arts: What demonic cultivation is seen as. While it's proven to be very useful in many situations, it's still feared and hated by many cultivators since it makes use of resentful energy, which is usually supposed to be purified and exorcised, not harnessed and utilized.
  • Darker and Edgier: While it still has several comedic moments, the overall plot is considerably darker and more tragic compared to the author's previous work.
  • Death by Origin Story: The story starts from Wei Wuxian's death from all the cultivator clans uniting to kill him, and its aftermath. And given the novel's propensity to flashback to Wei Wuxian's previous life, a lot of the characters that show up in the past are dead in the present.
  • Death of a Child: Most of the deaths that occur in the novel are either teenagers or adults, but never children, in both the past and present time. There is one exception: Jin Rusong, Jin Guangyao's son, who's said to have been killed by one of Jin Guangyao's political enemies, although the truth is a lot darker than what most know. We're at least spared the details as to how the death happened.
  • Deconstructor Fleet: Of the xianxia genre as a whole, showcasing that even when granted the power to achieve immortality or slay other divine beings, humans aren't automatically Above Good and Evil; and sometimes the greatest threat is not the supernatural or the unknown, but human nature itself. Lan Wangji puts it best in a few words when he gently reminds the junior cultivators, "We are all human." While he's mainly referring to how everyone is bound to get exhausted sooner or later regardless of their cultivation level, it can also refer to how cultivators are still susceptible to Grey-and-Gray Morality.
  • Destination Defenestration: Played for Laughs during the flashbacks when an embarrassed Lan Wangji threw Wei Wuxian out of the Library Pavilion, and the latter was perching on the windowsill at the time. Wei Wuxian even laughed while falling mid-air.
  • The Dog Was the Mastermind: Nobody saw the vengeance of the supposedly inept and cowardly Nie Huaisang coming.
  • Dramatic Irony: Most of the flashbacks fall into this trope due to the Foregone Conclusion established in the first few chapters. The flashbacks for example goes to great lengths to establish Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian as Heterosexual Life-Partners when the reader knows that eventually they drift apart and become enemies.
  • The Dreaded:
    • Wei Wuxian, and by association Wen Ning, with the mere mention of their names causing many to almost literally wet their pants in fear.
    • On a funnier note, the Gusu Lan Clan's punishment involve copying (by hand, mind you) all four thousand rules of the clan. Serious cases involve copying while upside-down.
    • Lan Wangji is this to the younger disciples of the Lan Clan, for the very innocuous reason of being in charge of disciplining students.
  • Dress-Coded for Your Convenience: Much like how the major clans have their respective Color Motifs, the type of robes they wear are unique and distinct from the other, from the type of clothing down to the designs on their attire.
  • Dub Name Change: This trope has a page of its own (see above), although it's executed differently in the Japanese dub of the donghua and the audio drama. While the audio drama changes all the names of the characters, weapons, locations, and anything else, the donghua keeps the original pronunciations of the characters' birth and courtesy names but uses the alternate pronunciations for the rest (e.g. Iryou no Rouso instead of Yiling Laozu, Hijin instead of Bichen, Renkau instead of Lianhua Wu/Lotus Pier).
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: After twenty years of trials, losses, misunderstandings and various other obstacles, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji get together in the end and are now Happily Married.
  • Elemental Nation:
    • Excluding the Lanling Jin Clan (which is mainly characterized by their wealth) the other four main cultivation clans are associated with the four elements.
      • The Gusu Lan Clan represents air, as they reside on the top a mountain and their motif is a cloud.
      • The Yunmeng Jiang Clan represents water, since the clan resides near a lake, their disciples are noted to be adept swimmers, and their motif is a lotus (which is a flower that grows on water).
      • The Qinghe Nie Clan represents earth. While their clan isn't given much focus, at one point in the story the main characters ended up in the Nie ancestral hall, which is mistakenly known as a Man-Eating Castle due to being a tomb that "consumes" any unwanted visitors by burying them alive.
      • Lastly, the Qishan Wen Clan represents fire as their motif is the sun, and their favorite way of subjugating other clans is by burning their bases down. Ironically, when the clan met its end, its own base (the Sun Palace) was burned down by the other four clans.
    • However, going by China's "Five Element Philosophy", the Lanling Jin Clan would represent metal and the Gusu Lan Clan would represent wood, while the other three clans remain associated with the other three elements of water (Jiang), earth (Nie), and fire (Wen).
  • Evil Is Easy: Deconstructed. Demonic cultivation is considered to be the xianxia equivalent of The Dark Arts. After Wei Wuxian discovered it, many followed in his footsteps because demonic cultivation makes use of resentful energy, which is both readily available and abundant around all of China, and doesn't require the caster to cultivate a golden core (which requires plenty of time and effort). While there are some people who use demonic cultivation for sinister purposes, demonic cultivation isn't necessarily evil; and while dangerous, it can be used for good. In the donghua, Lan Wangji puts it best: like a weapon, whether a power is good or evil depends entirely on the intent of its wielder.
  • Evil Power Vacuum: The Wen Clan, led by Wen Ruohan, attempted to subjugate all the other cultivation clans, but was stopped and nearly eradicated during the Sunshot Campaign. Afterwards, the Jin Clan tried to take their place and nearly succeeded had it not been for Jin Guangshan's abrupt death. Then when Jin Guangyao died in the finale, a conversation between random bystanders hint that the Nie Clan may or may not be next. While their clan leader is confirmed by the author to not be a villain, any reader who reached the end of the novel still knows how ruthless they can be.

  • Fair Weather Friend: Almost everyone in this in the political circle of the cultivation world. You're liked and respected if you have the status and wealth, and as long as your actions benefit their goals. As soon as either of those are no longer the case, expect to be dropped like a hot potato.
  • Family of Choice: The novel shows through Wei Wuxian's various relationships that family doesn't necessarily consist only of the people you're related to by blood, but also the people who you love and loves you in kind and stick by your side no matter what.
  • Fantastic Fighting Style: Each clan has a unique fighting style, to the point that it's easy to tell which fighting style one's using. Nie Mingjue could easily tell that Jin Guangyao used the Wen Clan's swordsmanship in killing his commanding officer, and Wei Wuxian figured out that the corpse he and Lan Wangji are investigating is Nie Mingjue from his attempt at swinging a weapon.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: In the Koi Tower arc, Jin Guangyao mentions that Suibian sealed itself after Wei Wuxian died and as its owner, only he can unsheathe it. Then the Sunshot Campaign arc reveals that Jiang Cheng lost his core, but while they were being sheltered by Wen Ning, Wei Wuxian tells Jiang Cheng that there is a way for him to regain his core, and not long after Wei Wuxian founded demonic cultivation. The reader soon realizes that all these events are connected the moment Wen Ning confronts Jiang Cheng and tells him to unsheathe Suibian.
  • Flashback Arc: The novel has a lot of these, but aren't necessarily presented in a chronological order. The first season of the donghua compiles a few of these flashbacks into a single arc, covering Wei Wuxian's life from his first days in Gusu to when he became the Yiling Patriarch.
  • For Want of a Nail: Wei Wuxian himself notes that everything may have played out differently had he not saved Su She from the Waterborne Abyss.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble:
    • The Jiang family: Jiang Cheng (Melancholic), Jiang Yanli (Sanguine), Jiang Fengmian (Phlegmatic), Yu Ziyuan (Choleric).
    • The (named) junior disciples: Lan Sizhui (Phlegmatic), Lan Jingyi (Leukine), Jin Ling (Choleric), Ouyang Zizhen (Sanguine).
    • The top five cultivators of Wei Wuxian's generation: Wei Wuxian (Sanguine), Lan Wangji (Melancholic), Jiang Cheng (Choleric), Lan Xichen (Phlegmatic), Jin Zixuan (Leukine).
    • The leaders of the Four Great Clans after the Time Skip: Jiang Cheng (Choleric), Lan Xichen (Leukine), Jin Guangyao (Phlegmatic), and Nie Huaisang (Melancholic). After the finale, it becomes: Jiang Cheng (Choleric), Lan Xichen (Melancholic), Jin Ling (Leukine), and Nie Huaisang (Phlegmatic).
  • Framing Device: Employed a lot due to the first-person construction of the novel, requiring plenty of use of channeling to get the other segments of the story. Flashbacks are also used egregiously as one, mainly because Wei Wuxian has such a bad memory it's a wonder he remembers anything.
  • Freudian Trio:
    • Between the three, Wei Wuxian is the Ego, Lan Wangji is the Superego, and Jiang Cheng is the Id.
    • The main three junior disciples: Lan Sizhui (Superego), Lan Jingyi (Ego), and Jin Ling (Id).
    • The Venerated Triad: Lan Xichen is the Ego, and Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao often switch positions in being the Id and the Superego.
    • Among the Yi City group, Xue Yang is consistently the Id. Between him, A-Qing, and Xiao Xingchen, A-Qing is the Ego while Xiao Xingchen is the Superego. But between Xue Yang, Xiao Xingchen, and Song Lan, Xiao Xingchen becomes the Ego whereas Song Lan is the Superego.
  • Full-Name Basis: This is China we're talking about, so it's a given. However, one must pay attention to whether someone is addressed by either their birth name or their courtesy name, as it generally indicates the state of someone's relationship or how serious a situation is.
  • Functional Magic: Cultivation works in a similar fashion to this.
  • Gender Is No Object: Zigzagged. Sexism is still existent in the novel's setting, although there's no rule against women becoming cultivators. Women can also become clan leaders, but that's extremely rare.
  • Glory Seeker: Many of the cultivators who participated in the Second Siege that either have no personal spat with Wei Wuxian or lost a relative to him are only in it for the renown they'd get upon felling who many see as a famed villain. Except that unlike in the First Siege, their attempt to kill Wei Wuxian isn't nearly as successful, especially when it's Wei Wuxian who ends up saving them instead — much to their embarrassment.
  • Gossip Evolution: The novel occasionally shows how the common folk repeats exaggerated versions of either the truth or a simple lie.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: With a few exceptions, almost the entire cast is difficult to peg as simply good or evil. Those who lean more on the side of good still have some flaws, and those who lean more on the side of evil have a few sympathetic edges. Everyone has reasons behind why they act like they do and why they perform certain actions, and said reasons make their motives understandable, but not always justifiable. Then again, there are others who do certain actions just for the sake of doing it.
  • Heel Realization: Averted with the cultivators that conspired to kill Wei Wuxian in both the first and second sieges. Almost none of them experience any shame and remorse for their actions and just repeat their mistakes of slandering other people and acting like they're in the right the whole time.
  • History Repeats: Almost. When the Wen Clan became too oppressive, all the other clans united to take them down. But when the Jin Clan started following in their shoes, none of the other clans noticed. And even if they did notice, they chose to do nothing about it, either to avoid getting into any political spats or because they simply didn't care as long as they could profit from the chaos. Worse yet, the clans persecuted the only person who saw the truth for what it was, and never realize that they were Not So Different from the despots they defeated.
  • Honor Before Reason: The novel brutally deconstructs and examines notions of honor, righteousness and selflessness. Honor without wisdom becomes naivete and recklessness which can bring more suffering either by being manipulated and taken advantage of, or by simply not considering or understanding the consequences of your actions. Just because it's the honorable thing to do, doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. But at the same time, doing nothing is not the right thing to do either.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: The Grey-and-Grey Morality is one of the most front-and-center themes of the novel, but the story doesn't shy away from the fact that sometimes it's the humans who are the most fearsome and difficult enemies to deal with. The likes of ghosts and demons are a straightforward evil to which cultivators unanimously unite to defeat, but it's a much trickier deal when they start dealing with each other, especially when politics or revenge is involved.
  • If You Ever Do Anything to Hurt Her...: Discussed between Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng regarding Jiang Yanli's (rearranged) marriage to Jin Zixuan. When Wei Wuxian expressed his disapproval by pointing out that Jin Zixuan might end up like his philanderer of a father and cheat on Yanli, Jiang Cheng coldly responded that he can just try.
  • I Have Many Names: With the story's setting being an alternate version of Imperial China, all notable people have at least three names: a birth name, a courtesy name, and a title.
    • Notably, the trope applies for the male characters, since the female characters are introduced with only one name and it's never confirmed if it's either their birth or their courtesy names. In Real Life, women in ancient China are granted both, but their courtesy names are rarely, if ever, recorded in history.
  • Improbable Age: Most of the clan leaders are incredibly young. Justified in that the turmoil of that last twenty or so years killed a lot of powerful cultivators. The Wen Clan in particular targeted clan leaders to weaken their enemies.
  • Inelegant Blubbering:
    • Wei Wuxian breaks down into hysterical sobbing in an attempt to avoid being taken into the Cloud Recesses, where excessive noise is not allowed. It doesn't work.
    • The junior disciples accompanying Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji in Yi City cry loudly after Wei Wuxian tells them of what happened to A-Qing and Xiao Xingchen.
    • Jiang Cheng does this a few times throughout the story, and the reason is always tragic.
  • Ironic Echo: When Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji argue about demonic cultivation in Chapter 62, Jiang Cheng ends the fight by reminding Lan Wangji that Wei Wuxian is of the Jiang Clan and wherever he'd return to, it wouldn't be with him. Cut to more than a decade later, where Wei Wuxian marries Lan Wangji and now lives in the Cloud Recesses. And beforehand, Wei Wuxian had already found himself estranged from his old home, with Jiang Cheng driving the final nail in the coffin by spitefully telling him that he's not welcome in Lotus Pier. There are hints that he regrets saying that, but the words have already left his mouth.
  • Ironic Name: The house where Lan Wangji resides is called the Jingshi (translates to either "Silent Room" or "Room of Tranquility"). After he and Wei Wuxian get married, at night the house is anything but silent.
  • I See Dead People: The existence of ghosts and their exorcisms are a central point in this story.
  • Junior Counterpart: It's not far-off to see Lan Sizhui, Lan Jingyi, and Jin Ling as the younger versions of Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian, and Jiang Cheng, respectively — who were either raised in a more well-adjusted and non-dysfunctional environment (in the case if the former two) or were able to reconcile with their personal problems sooner and in a healthier manner (in Jin Ling's case).
  • Kangaroo Court: The entire cultivation world runs on this; they'll judge anything and anyone based on how they want to judge them, not on how they should be judged.
  • Karma Houdini: With the exception of Jin Guangshan, Jin Guangyao, and Nie Mingjue (who died for different reasons), most of the other (currently living) cultivators that participated in both the Nightless City attack and the First Siege don't get any proper comeuppance for their actions after Wei Wuxian's innocence was finally proven. While they feel greatly humiliated when their attempt to start another siege ended with them being saved by the one they had set out to kill, with part of the younger generation essentially calling them out on their nonsense, that's all the requital they get and even then it doesn't stick for long. Though by that point, Wei Wuxian doesn't care anymore as long as they leave him alone. Also, Wei Wuxian's name has been cleared of the charges he's falsely accused of, and since he's now the partner of a cultivator nobody would dare speak up against, they're at least guaranteed to be unable to backtalk him again and expect to gain anything from it.
    • However, there are a few other exceptions in that they don't die but don't get off scot-free either. For example, there's Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen — who were undoubtedly and voluntarily involved in the aforementioned events. Jiang Cheng doesn't lose his clan and his last blood relative, and a few things between him and Wei Wuxian are resolved, but whether or not they'll reconcile is left up in the air and he's likely going to be regretting many of his actions for a long, long time. The very latter could also be said for Lan Xichen, who didn't willingly pardon any of Jin Guangyao's crimes, but in the end he's still consumed with guilt and despair over trusting the wrong person and all the tragedies it led to, and secludes himself as a result.
  • Karmic Jackpot: Lan Wangji and Mianmian are the only ones who publicly defended Wei Wuxian (and the Wen survivors, by extension) when all the other cultivators did the opposite and deemed Wei Wuxian a menace. Everyone turned a deaf ear and overruled their statements, but the two both ended up coming out on top compared to everyone else. Lan Wangji, through his own merit and by distancing himself from politics as much as possible, becomes one of the most renowned living cultivators and ends up getting married to the love of his life; and Mianmian, by leaving her clan and becoming a rogue cultivator, gets Happily Married and has a loving family of her own.
  • Last of His Kind: By the time the final arc ends, four of the five main cultivation families are killed off with the exception of one surviving member: Jiang Cheng for the Jiang Clan, Nie Huaisang for the Nie Clan, Jin Ling for the Jin Clan (not counting any other possible illegitimate children Jin Guangshan may have had who are still alive), and Lan Sizhui/Wen Yuan for the Wen Clan.
  • Leave the Two Lovebirds Alone:
    • This occurs in the aftermath of the Second Siege arc. Exhausted after a long and grueling fight, Wei Wuxian collapses in Lan Wangji's arms, who lets him lie on his lap and gently tends to him. The juniors, who are in the same boat as the two, suddenly get flustered as they watch the tender scene unfold and are overcome with the need to leave the boat cabin and get some fresh air. After Wei Wuxian loudly professes his love for Lan Wangji, they, Jin Ling and Lan Xichen are taken inside the Guanyin Temple. The latter two make sure to sit as far away from the former two as possible since they know that Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji still have plenty to discuss about their feelings for each other.
  • Lineage Comes from the Father: A running undercurrent. Being Imperial China, everyone expects sons to inherit from fathers and continue the family line. The novel examines how this affects succession, bastards and expectations born of the Like Father, Like Son trope.
    • Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian are victims of this trope as both take after their mothers. This causes strife because Jiang Cheng is viewed as an Inadequate Inheritor because he doesn't act as the ideal leader of the Jiang Clan as embodied by his father. Wei Wuxian is constantly gossiped about as being a son of a servant and acting above his place because no one seems to remember that he's still the son of a talented and famous cultivator.
  • Low Fantasy: By xianxia standards, Mo Dao Zu Shi counts as one. While cultivation still plays an important role in the story, the novel focuses less on cultivation lore and more about human conflict.
  • MacGuffin:
    • Nie Mingjue's body parts.
    • The Yin Tiger Seal, which Wei Wuxian created during the Sunshot Campaign. After the war with the Wen Clan, everyone targeted it until half of it was lost. Then after Wei Wuxian's death, it was the target of the Lanling Jin Clan, and their reason for protecting Xue Yang was because he could recreate the other half.
  • Magic Music:
    • Wei Wuxian uses a flute to control corpses. Simple whistles work just as fine, but he prefers using a flute because its sound reaches greater distances, and consequently has more power in its commands.
    • The Lan Clan is famous for their musical guqin skills, which can be used to summon spirits, interrogate spirits, forcibly silence people, and even nullify magical powers — albeit temporarily.
  • Meaningful Echo: Several things that occur or are mentioned early on in the story are featured or brought up again near the ending.
    • When Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji leave the Cloud Recesses to investigate the mystery of the vicious severed arm, Wei Wuxian jokingly announces that they can finally elope. Then around eighty-or-so chapters later, shortly after the Guanyin Temple arc, the two leave to actually get married.
    • During their encounter in Qinghe, when Jiang Cheng asks Wei Wuxian if he has anything to say to him, the latter replies that he doesn't. Then in the finale, when Jin Ling asks Jiang Cheng if he had something to say to Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng also says that he doesn't.
    • In Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan's final argument, Jiang Fengmian calls his wife by her name instead of "My Lady" like he always would when Yu Ziyuan's accusations get too vicious. Years later, when Jiang Cheng forces Wei Wuxian into a confrontation in the Jiang ancestral hall, Wei Wuxian calls his former friend by his courtesy name instead of his birth name when Jiang Cheng starts to drag Lan Wangji into their argument and mock him and his relationship with Wei Wuxian.
    • In one of the earlier flashbacks, Wei Wuxian invited Lan Wangji to hang out with him in Yunmeng, with the latter refusing. The last extra chapter is all about them finally going on a date in Yunmeng.
  • Meaningful Name: The entire event covering the fight between the Wen Clan and the rest of the cultivation world is known as the Sunshot Campaign (射日之征), with the "Sunshot" (射日) in the title referring to the legend of Hou Yi, a famed archer of Chinese mythology who's well-known for saving the world by shooting down nine out of the ten suns when they nearly burned away the earth, and the Wen Clan's motif is the sun.
  • Medium Blending: As per B.CMAY's style, the donghua combines 2D and 3D animation, with the latter animation mainly reserved for inanimate objects, background sceneries, large monsters, and crowds of people.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: Downplayed since majority of the female cast die as well, but many casualties in the story also consist of male characters, including the protagonist himself, at least before he was brought back to life.
  • Might Makes Right: The entire cultivation world is classist, even when excluding the Wen Clan and their attempts to subjugate all the other clans. While they won't admit it, almost everyone acts on the notion that those in power and have wealth are immediately the ones who are in the right, and anyone who challenges them is immediately wrong and villainous even if they raise fair points.
  • Missing Mom: Almost every significant character either never had a mother to raise them since birth or loses their mom at an early age. For the former, there's Jin Ling and Lan Sizhui. For the latter, there's Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji, Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli, and Jin Guangyao, just to name a few.
  • Moral Myopia: Most of the characters judge what's right and wrong based on what makes them feel like, instead of actually makes them, the good guys. Thus, they can support something one moment and then decry it the next, painting them as complete hypocrites. Wei Wuxian lampshades the trope best when he confronts the other clans just when they were planning to ambush him.
    Wei Wuxian: If he wanted to to kill me, he didn't have to think about whether it was a fatal blow or not, and if I died, it'd be my own bad luck. If I wanted to protect myself, however, I had to think about this and that not to harm, unable to take even a single strand of hair away from him? In conclusion, you all could pull a siege on me, but I'm not allowed to fight back, am I right?
    • This trope also contrasts them with the protagonists, who may have flaws but are always loyal to their principles and care more about doing the right thing than being seen a hero.
  • Murder Mystery: The plot is constructed as one, except: Nobody except one character suspects murder, and; nobody else save for Wei Wuxian can prove it, and he's dead. So begins the race to bring back Wei Wuxian...
  • Must Be Invited: In the Intrusion extra, it's revealed that the very concept of houses is enough to repel both humans and non-humans to some extent without supernatural reinforcement. Of course, once the nasties get past the really tall gate thresholds, they can then come in at any time. Luckily, most houses in Imperial China are constructed with three 'gates': the main gate, the main hall door, and the main bedroom door. And a virgin boy may or may not be required to guard the last one if necessary...
  • My God, You Are Serious: When Wei Wuxian jokingly suggests that Lan Wangji carries him by piggyback, he gets shocked when Lan Wangji prepares to do so.
  • My Kung Fu Is Stronger Than Yours: While never fully explored, many cultivators oftentimes choose to spar with each other as a way of both testing their skills and showing off said skills to others. One of the reasons many continued to get on Wei Wuxian's case for never bringing his sword is because they're robbed of the opportunity to duel him.
  • Mythology Gag: In an audio drama episode where Lan Wangji helps Wei Wuxian get ready to sleep, the latter asks for the former to narrate "The Resentment of Chunshan" to him, which is an In-Universe slash fiction from Ren Zha Fan Pai Zi Jiu Xi Tong.
  • Named by the Adaptation: The audio drama gives a name to some of the bit characters who are otherwise nameless in the novel.
    • The Iron Hook extra never revealed the name of the Hook Hand's wife, but the audio drama gives her the nickname "A-Die" or "Xiao-Die".
    • The novel briefly mentions a servant girl who tried to steal credit from Jiang Yanli by claiming that she's the one who's been cooking and delivering soup to Jin Zixuan during the Sunshot Campaign, and the audio drama refers to said servant girl as Lady Song.
  • Named Weapon: It's all the rage in this genre of novels. Every notable character has a personal blade (sword/jian or sabre/dao), maybe another magical treasure as well, all of them named. All in all, there are fifteen named weapons in the story.
  • Never My Fault: A recurring conflict throughout the story and one of the principal reasons why Wei Wuxian got the shortest end of the stick in his past life. When a conflict rises or tragedy strikes, most of the characters tend to shift the blame onto someone who isn't clearly guilty, because either they're unable to admit that either they're at fault or nobody was really at fault, they need someone to vent out their anger on, or they're finding an opportunity to castigate or justify their hatred for someone they're ready to point the finger at.
  • New Powers as the Plot Demands: Because of the plot's setup, it can seem like Wei Wuxian has new abilities out of nowhere. However, from a purely chronological point of view, Wei Wuxian actually lost his abilities along with [[spoiler: his golden core, and then spent three months without a weapon in the Burial Mounds, so what we see as new powers is actually a lot of improvisation done on the spot based on half-remembered theory.
  • Non-Malicious Monster: Not every supernatural being is a threat, as sometimes there are spirits born from virtue instead of resentment. Such an example is the Damsel of Annual Blossoms. The Lotus Seed Pod extra also shows that while most water ghouls are commonly known to drown people who enter its territory, there are some who just swim around without wanting to harm anybody.
  • Nothing Is the Same Anymore: Implied to be the reason why Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng aren't able to reconcile in the ending. From Wei Wuxian's perspective, he and Jiang Cheng have hurt each other too much and they are too different; and he believes that they shouldn't be stuck in the past as they now have their own paths to follow. From Jiang Cheng's perspective, there's the knowledge of what Wei Wuxian had sacrificed for him and why he broke his promise and the subsequent guilt he feels; he sees that Wei Wuxian is now happy and content by Lan Wangji's side and decides not to intrude on that; and he believes that there's nothing more to say between them.
    Wei Wuxian: Right now, I do really think... it's all in the past. It's been too long. There's no need to struggle with it any longer.
  • Numerological Motif: Combined with Rule of Three; the number three is featured a few times in the story. For example:
    • Thirteen (13) years of Wei Wuxian being dead.
    • Thirty-three (33) whip marks.
    • When Wei Wuxian was thrown into the Burial Mounds, he was stuck there for three months.
    • The Venerated Triad.
    • Three characters of the Yi City arc lost their sight, with Xue Yang playing a role in it.
    • Part of Jiang Cheng's title (Sandu Shengshou), which is also the name of his sword (Sandu), translates to "three poisons".
    • Yu Ziyuan is also known as "Third Lady Yu" due to being the third-born child of the Meishan Yu Clan.
    • If you want to get meta, the novel itself has, as stated above, 113 chapters with 13 additional chapters.

  • One Steve Limit: Played with. Some characters' names sound the same when written in romanized form, but not when written in the original Chinese characters. Such names that serve as examples are Ziyuan (from the Yu and Mo families) and Yuan (from the Lan and Wen Clans). The latter is revealed to be a bit of subversion as Wen Yuan and Lan Yuan/Sizhui refer to the same person.
  • Only in It for the Money: It's noticed In-Universe that most cultivators only take the night-hunts where they would receive either a hefty sum or a reputation boost. Only a few would go on any night-hunt, even if it netted no reward, as long as it involved helping the people (i.e. Lan Wangji and Xiao Xingchen).
  • Only Six Faces: Zigzagged. Every main and supporting character who has a name has a unique and distinctive appearance; although the nameless background characters look like cut-and-paste versions of each other. The only way to tell them apart is the color in their robes or if they are wearing commoner clothing or the uniforms of their clan.
  • Out of the Frying Pan: In an audio drama extra, Wei Wuxian was being harassed by a dog before Lan Wangji drove it away. Wei Wuxian was initially relieved, but started moaning about how he's finally free of the dog, but now he's stuck with Lan Wangji — who might punish him again for sneaking in alcohol.
  • Parental Substitute:
    • Jin Ling was raised by his maternal and paternal uncles due to losing his parents when he was still a baby.
    • Lan Wangji turns out to be this for Lan Sizhui a.k.a. Wen Yuan. Although they're not legally or technically recognized as father and son, their relationship is familial in nature, and there is no doubt that the two are very close. Wei Wuxian starts taking on this role as well for the younger boy after the events of the epilogue.
  • Pietà Plagiarism: One of the covers for the audio drama features Wei Wuxian cradling a dying Jiang Yanli.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: In order to fulfill the requirements of summoning a villainous ghoul to take revenge, Mo Xuanyu had to scatter his own soul and die for good (as in, beyond any possibility of coming back as a ghost, even). Mo Xuanyu thus had to die for Wei Wuxian to reenter the world and get the plot rolling.
  • Poor Communication Kills: What causes some of the conflicts in the story is the characters' tendency to keep to themselves or their inability to express their true thoughts, hear the other party out, or even have a proper and civil discussion about anything.
  • The Power of Trust: The story shows a few times that there are severely negative ramifications if someone either trusts the wrong person or doesn't put enough trust in the right person. However, if one is steadfast in their loyalty to a person who has proven to be worthy of their trust, both are eventually able to overcome their difficulties and face against any odds together.
  • Power Source: A golden core (jindan) serves as this for the cultivators. It is what gives them the ability to cast spells, battle ghosts, and fly on their swords; as well as enhancing their physical strength and endurance. Once a golden core is fully cultivated, the holder completely stops aging and essentially reaches immortality. However, cultivators are not born with one and must form it by training through various cultivation stages (five in common xianxia lore) before the golden core reaches its final stage of formation.
  • Product Placement:
    • There's a Cornetto commercial (with the characters promoting said ice cream brand) in almost every episode of the donghua. One episode also features Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng at a dessert shop in Caiyi Town, eating what's unmistakably a Cornetto ice cream cone; and another episode has Wei Wuxian eating a similar dessert in Qinghe.
    • An advertisement for Zhen Guo Li (which is a brand of yogurt drink products) is always played at the beginning of every episode of Mo Dao Zu Shi Q. There's an additional advertisement in the post-credits scene of Episode 8 and the ending of Episode 10 is an In-Universe advertisement of the product.
  • The Promise:
    • This plays a vital role in Wei Wuxian's relationship with Jiang Cheng. When Jiang Cheng confided in him about how he always felt overshadowed by Wei Wuxian, Wei Wuxian promised to serve by Jiang Cheng's side once the latter becomes the clan leader, and he also promised to Yu Ziyuan that he would protect Jiang Cheng with his life. He makes sure to fulfill the latter promise, at the cost of the former. Although From a Certain Point of View, one could say that he fulfilled both promises.
    • The reason Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan got engaged was because their mothers made a promise in the past. If their children were both boys, they would be sworn brothers; if both were girls, they would be sworn sisters; and if one was a boy and the other was a girl, they would be in an Arranged Marriage.
  • Reality Ensues: Mo Dao Zu Shi reflects reality all too well in its portrayal of society and relationships between people who have their fair share of trauma and personal issues.
    • Not everyone will learn their lesson from a humbling and humiliating experience; sometimes they will choose to not learn it at all so as to not admit that they are in the wrong and have faults they need to work on. Wei Wuxian saved the lives of all the cultivators that conspired to murder him again, his name is cleared of the many crimes he's falsely accused of with the Jin Clan being revealed to be the ones who are actually responsible for them. Even then, the cultivation clans simply continue their penchant for cruel gossip and mob mentality and start badmouthing other people.
    • Even when two people bare out everything to each other and exchange apologies or other genuine sentiments, sometimes it's far from enough to repair a relationship that's already long broken. At best, all it will do is just wash off any lingering resentment and provide closure. Such is what happens between Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng, since after their final confrontation in the Guanyin Temple they go their separate ways, this time for good.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Played with. Xianxia is for all intents and purposes a High Fantasy-esque genre; although while homosexuality is a huge no-no in Real Life China both then and today, it was still more accepted in the country centuries prior — and the setting of the novel is inspired from ancient rather than modern China. However, there are several characters in the story — be they named or background characters — who express homophobic behavior, and the reader should expect to see the word "cut-sleeve" (the Chinese derogatory slur for "homosexual") more than once.
  • Realpolitik: The novel shows how the politics of the cultivation world works, and how dirty and ugly it can be. Most of the people who have seats in it listen only to the people with either the loudest voice and/or the deepest pockets, quickly scheme to eliminate anyone or anything they disagree with, and they discuss solely about anything related to their feuds or other corrupt matters.
  • Recycled Animation: The donghua tends to reuse some key frames or shots once or twice.
  • The Reveal:
    • Early in the story, Wei Wuxian sees whip scars and a brand mark on Lan Wangji's body. He doesn't recall seeing this before, so he wonders how Lan Wangji got them. Lan Xichen explains that he received the whip scars as punishment for defending Wei Wuxian and fighting against his own clansmen to do so. A few chapters later, a flashback reveals that the brand scar was self-inflicted by Lan Wangji when he grieved Wei Wuxian's death.
    • As also stated in the Wham Line trope below, there's how Jiang Cheng regained his cultivation despite his golden core being melted off: Wei Wuxian gave him his own golden core via a painful transplant with Wen Qing and Wen Ning's assistance.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Wei Wuxian goes on one against the Wen Clan after he escapes the Burial Mounds.
  • Romantic Rain: A variation. It rains while Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are being held hostage in a temple, which is also where they properly confess their love to each other.
  • Scenery Porn:
    • The Cloud Recesses' description, despite being the setup of a long punchline, veers on this.
    • The donghua doesn't hold back with this, showing just how well-drawn and detailed every place is, even in the bleaker and more lifeless areas like the Burial Mounds.
  • Separate Scene Storytelling: Most of the story is told through Flashbacks and possession/Empathy.
  • Seven Deadly Sins: Almost every conflict in the story occurs because of the characters being guilty of this.
    • Pride:
      • Wei Wuxian, because he gave his golden core to Jiang Cheng, continues to practice demonic cultivation despite Lan Wangji's protests and the increasing scorn he's receiving from the cultivation world, strongly believing that he has it all under control. Sadly to say, that wasn't the case.
      • Jiang Cheng lived almost his whole life with an inferiority complex due to being Always Second Best to Wei Wuxian. While he was able to set it aside for a while, the other clans — who resented his quick rise to power — preyed on his insecurities to turn him against his martial brother. One of Jiang Cheng's greatest drives is to prove himself to everyone, although his circumstances and overall personality caused that drive to earn him a great deal of grief.
    • Wrath: Pride aside, Jiang Cheng is also extremely vindictive. His short temper causes him to get narrow-minded and have difficulty seeing the bigger picture or empathize with others, and he's capable of holding onto his hate towards someone for a very long time. There's his hatred for the Wens, which — while mostly justified — made him unable to tell apart the guilty and the innocent; and more notably, there's his resentment towards Wei Wuxian, which is one of the core conflicts of the story for a good reason.
    • Envy:
      • Jiang Cheng has self-worth issues from being constantly overshadowed by Wei Wuxian, and the Jin Clan takes advantage of this, as previously mentioned in the Pride section.
      • Jin Guangshan branded Wei Wuxian as an enemy because he wanted his power of controlling corpses to advance his plans of taking over the cultivation world.
      • Jin Guangyao reveals that this is the real reason the cultivation clans turned on Wei Wuxian, not because they fear that he's turning evil, as that's simply their excuse. At a young age, Wei Wuxian had founded a completely new path of cultivation and consequently achieved so much in such a short time, and he had the aid of a young clan leader also achieved a lot in only a few months even though his clan was razed to almost nothing by the Wen Clan. None of the other clans, big or small — as they had been fighting over who gets the biggest shares from the aftermath of the Sunshot Campaign — liked the prospect of such youngsters gaining a huge advantage, especially since one of them isn't noble-born, and the cultivation world is extremely classist.
    • Greed:
      • Jin Guangshan shared Wen Ruohan's goals of ruling over China, but was more low-key about it and only started making his move after the Sunshot Campaign ended. His ambition caused him to target Wei Wuxian, whose powers are both a threat and an asset, and while he succeeded in instigating the First Siege, he never got to see the day when he would be crowned Chief Cultivator.
      • Likewise, due to his past Jin Guangyao is driven to climb the ranks of the cultivation world, and he'll do anything and everything to achieve that. However, power that's earned through blood and trickery is only going to last for so long and in the end he loses everything, including his own life.
    • Sloth: It would be difficult to associate just one character with this vice. With the exception of the protagonists and a few supporting characters, the rest of the cast are guilty of Bystander Syndrome for different reasons. Either they aren't involved in the first place and thus wouldn't have sufficient motivation to act, are heavily involved but are afraid of doing anything due to being stuck between a rock and a hard place, are unknowingly or willfully ignorant of the truth to want to take action, or everything in between.
    • Gluttony: After Wei Wuxian came back from the Burial Mounds, he targeted Wen Chao and tortured him by making him eat his own flesh, and the latter is so traumatized that he more or less developed a fear of meat.
    • Lust: One thing Jin Guangshan is infamous for is that he isn't able to keep it in his pants whenever he encounters attractive women. This ends up causing his death and the downfall of his clan in the long run, since one of his illegitimate sons decides to kill him, whereas another is used as as a vessel to bring back the person he had set to wipe out.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: In the audio drama, any time Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are about to have sex, the scene segues to a music track.
  • Shout-Out: The protagonist gets pushed down into an abyss where they gain both immense power and a dark personality change. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Most of the sibling pairs serve as Foils to each other.
    • Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli take after their mother and father, respectively.
    • Lan Wangji is stoic and aloof while Lan Xichen is a genuinely open and nice person.
    • Wen Qing is direct and fierce, in contrast to Wen Ning who is quiet and nervous.
    • Nie Mingjue is a Blood Knight warrior who prefers fighting to poetry and politics while Nie Huaisang is weak at cultivation, prefers gentlemanly pursuits and is more cunning and better at politics. They also turn out to be Not So Different as both deeply value their family and are willing to go to great lengths for revenge.
    • Jin Guangyao and Jin Zixuan are an interesting case. Jin Zixuan is the only legitimate son of Jin Guangshan. Despite his arrogant exterior, he's honorable and kind once you get to know him. Jin Guangyao is an illegitimate son who worked his way up and despite acting kind and self-effacing, is actually the novel's main villain.
  • Sidequest: The Yi City arc, where the main plot-relevant character (Xue Yang) only goes to highlight the following: the Yin Tiger Seal, and the extent Jin Guangshan went through when he protected Xue Yang.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: The novel contrasts the lofty goals of cultivators with the mundane and dirty realities of politics and war. Cultivators try to strive to be beyond base and material concerns but they ignore that at their own peril and the most honorable and powerful cultivators often end up crushed by reality. The novel lands somewhere in the middle. While it is good to strive to be virtuous, one must keep in mind that not everyone is and that no matter how powerful you are, cultivation power and justice cannot solve everything. So one must always keep an eye on the mundane world and understand and recognize evil at least enough to avoid its traps.
  • Society Is to Blame: Wen Ruohan and Jin Guangshan aside, Mo Dao Zu Shi is blunt about how another villainous force that drives most of the plot is society itself. Cultivators and non-cultivators alike treat others differently depending on their social status, do anything solely for their own personal profit even if it comes at the detriment of the well-being of others, easily look the other way at any injustice as long as it doesn't involve them, and are quick to paint anyone as a public and/or political target because of either envy, pride, spite, or sheer sadism.
  • Squishy Wizard: Downplayed. A cultivator can gain more durability, strength, speed, and once they have achieved mastery of their powers, even agelessness. But in the end, they're still mortal and thus are just as susceptible to death, injury, or illness as any non-cultivator.
  • Status Quo Is God: While there are some changes to the cultivation world in the ending (such as who's running the Jin Clan now and who will possibly be the next Chief Cultivator), overall nothing much has changed and most clans haven't improved their mindsets or the way they run things. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are wise enough to stay out of the big clans' business and stick to either helping the little people or assisting the juniors in their night-hunts.
  • Stealth Pun: In one of the flashbacks, after Lan Wangji steals Wei Wuxian's First Kiss, Wei Wuxian (who was blindfolded, and thus didn't see who it was) comes across Lan Wangji, who is lierally punching trees out of romantic/sexual frustration - or, in other words, he's beating wood.
  • Supernatural Repellent: The Iron Hook extra shows that salt is also effective in holding off ghosts or beings of resentful energy in general.
  • Sword Beam: Cultivators can create these by sending spiritual energy through their swords.
  • Tamer and Chaster: The animated adaptation tones down a lot of the overt eroticism and gorn from the novel, due to Chinese censorship regulations. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji's romance also goes from being a major plot element to a subtle hint that could be dismissed as simply friendship. On the other hand, Mo Dao Zu Shi Q is not as subtle as it shows plenty of Ship Tease between the two.
  • That Old-Time Prescription: According to Wei Wuxian, glutinous rice is one of the most effective cures for corpse poisoning. It can be applied directly on bites or scratches from fierce corpses, or ingested as congee if the victim breathed in corpse poisoning powder.
  • There Are No Therapists: Granted, therapy wasn't existent back in ancient China. If it was, one can only think of all the tragedies that could have been avoided and the misunderstandings that could have been cleared up quickly, or at least more efficiently.
  • There Is Only One Bed: Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are faced with this issue when they stop by an inn in Yunping City.
  • To Be Lawful or Good: Many characters, including the protagonists, struggle with choosing to either do the right thing or uphold the peace and stability. Part of the problem is that as heirs and sons of the major clans, anything they do reflects on their clan which at best damages their reputation and at worst brings disaster as the clans bear the consequences of their actions. The fact that the characters are so young means that they lack to experience and wisdom to successfully balance these concerns.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: In this story, any character who is kind and selfless is guaranteed to die in a horrible way, as was the case with the likes of Xiao Xingchen and Jiang Yanli.
    • Ironically, Wei Wuxian's first death could be seen as this, albeit not by anybody in-universe.
  • Tragic Bromance:
    • Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan's friendship is the epitome of this trope. Long story short, everything went downhill for them after they apprehended Xue Yang, who would soon get back at them both. It ultimately ends with the former's suicide and the latter's resurrection into a fierce corpse. Eventually, Xue Yang gets killed, leaving Song Lan free to roam the earth with his friend's soul and weapon, and only time will tell whether they'll reunite once again.
    • While Wei Wuxian came back to life, his complicated relationship with Jiang Cheng still qualifies. Their relationship always had some tension due to Jiang Cheng's Inferiority Superiority Complex towards Wei Wuxian, and his parents' deaths was only the first of many events — alongside a ton of miscommunication — that would cause them to turn from friends to enemies. By the finale, they're no longer enemies, but at best they're still strangers who aren't talking to each other.
    • There's also the Venerated Triad (Lan Xichen, Nie Mingjue, and Jin Guangyao). Before they became Blood Brothers, they deeply trusted and respected each other, although things started to go south after Nie Mingjue caught a glimpse of Jin Guangyao's true nature. And that's only scratching the surface, but it all ends in betrayal and bloody deaths, with the last surviving brother falling into despair.
  • Undying Loyalty: It's featured a few times in the novel.
    • A cultivator's sword is loyal to its master and its master only. Such is the case with Wei Wuxian's sword Suibian, which sealed itself after Wei Wuxian's death; and even when he reincarnated in the body of a weaker cultivator, Suibian still responds to his command and his command only. Jiang Cheng is the only other cultivator who can unsheathe Suibian, but that's because he has Wei Wuxian's golden core.
    • The Wen survivors that Wei Wuxian saved from the Jin Clan's concentration camp are loyal to their rescuer to the very end. Case in point, when Wei Wuxian returned to the Burial Mounds in the present time and was nearly overwhelmed by an army of zombies, the Wen survivors briefly came Back from the Dead to fend them off before disintegrating into ashes.
    • A-Qing is determined to help Xiao Xingchen and hinder the man who killed him even after her death.
    • It quickly becomes apparent that no matter what Wei Wuxian does after coming back to life, Lan Wangji will support and protect him. Even if it means going against his own clan and risking becoming the cultivation world's enemy.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Those who are familiar with Chinese culture and history might notice that the donghua's second visual rendition of the opening song features four different flowers, also known as the Four Gentlemen.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: As embodied by the younger generation, the four clans struggle to get along. When they lack a powerful common enemy (like the Wen Clan or the Yiling Patriarch), the clans either go their separate ways or descend into petty politics and infighting. Even nominally close alliances ( like the Venerated Triad) are fragile at best.
  • Wham Line:
    • Chapter 25: "Wei Ying." While there were already a few hints beforehand, this line confirms that Lan Wangji knew who "Mo Xuanyu" was early on and was merely playing along with his act.
    • Chapter 88: This exchange between Jiang Cheng and Wen Ning, which turns part of the plot in the flashbacks over its head.
      Jiang Cheng: What do you mean the sword took me as Wei Wuxian? How?! Why would it be me?!
      Wen Ning: Because the golden core that is revolving inside you right now is his!
    • There's another in Chapter 108, hinting that there might someone else besides the Big Bad who's been pulling the strings all this time.
      Jin Guangyao: Huaisang, you're truly impressive. How unexpected for me to fall in your hands like this... [...] No wonder... It must've been quite hard to have hidden yourself for so many years!
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: While the Koi Tower arc reveals that the Jin Clan kept Wei Wuxian's sword Suibian as a war trophy after the First Siege, nothing is mentioned about the current whereabouts of Chenqing, Wei Wuxian's other prized weapon. The finale reveals that the flute was in Jiang Cheng's possession, and he returns it to Wei Wuxian during the fight with an undead Nie Mingjue in the Guanyin Temple.
  • Whole Episode Flashback: Whole-Season Flashback, rather. With the exception of the first two episodes and the latter half of the final episode of the first season, which serve mainly to introduce the viewer to the plot, the rest of Season 1 focuses on the past to chronicle how Wei Wuxian became the Yiling Patriarch.
  • Wizarding School: If you tilt your head and squint, the Cloud Recesses seems like this, boasting a top-level book collection, famed and strict teachers, too many rules, and the practical side of cultivation on the side.
  • Won the War, Lost the Peace: Powers and personalities that were even celebrated during the Sunshot Campaign often fared badly during the post-war peace and qualities that make a good fighter or cultivator aren't entirely well suited towards politics. In general, honor and cultivation power are good for night-hunts and war but it is forethought and diplomacy that matters for politics and peace.
  • Working Out Their Emotions: In one scene, Lan Wangji kissed a blindfolded Wei Wuxian. He backs away before the blindfold can be removed and when it is, all Wei Wuxian noticed is Lan Wangji punching trees. This is extremely abnormal as the latter doesn't outwardly express his emotions and Wei Wuxian's inability to connect the dots made the situation all the more awkward.
  • World of Jerkass: Plainly speaking, in the cultivation world, 10% are truly righteous and selfless, 20% are not bad people but still have several deep-seated flaws and thus are prone to making terrible decisions, and the remaining 70% are self-serving hypocrites who would gladly screw others over for ambition, pride, glory, or plainly for the kicks.
  • Would Be Rude to Say "Genocide": If anyone knows anything about the First Siege second-hand from what the cultivators of the senior generation would tell them, they would think that what happened was a glorious battle that culminated in the defeat of the purely evil Yiling Patriarch. What they would not know, in turn, is that Wei Wuxian died by no one's hands but his own when he attempted to completely destroy the Yin Tiger Seal, and a group of innocents (who were also the remnants of the Wen Clan) were brutally slaughtered and their corpses dumped into a pool of blood as a means of both Desecrating the Dead and hiding any evidence of what they did. The junior cultivators reactions upon seeing the Wen refugees' corpses coming to life clearly indicate that their parents had completely neglected to tell them about the latter action.
  • Written by the Winners: The reader realizes that this trope comes into play when they learn of the complete story of the Yiing Patriarch and what most people In-Universe are saying about him, with said people either spreading the tales due to simple ignorance of the truth (in the case of the townspeople) or to glorify themselves by painting Wei Wuxian in a bad light (in the case of the cultivators).
  • Wuxia: Technically classified as xianxia, or a cultivation novel involving people who are practicing magical skills to work towards immortality. However, Mo Dao Zu Shi is remarkably toned down on the degree of fantasy involved here — for example, most fantastic creatures still adhere to some idea of biology as commonly understood by the ancient Chinese, and walking corpses can be differentiated from living corpses because the latter still breathe.
  • "You!" Exclamation: It happens a lot in Mo Dao Zu Shi, although it's just par the course for any work from China.
  • You Owe Me: Comes in tandem with I Owe You My Life. A recurring theme in the novel is debts, and both the positive and negative aspects of these tropes are explored. Anyone who is helped by someone naturally wants to help their benefactor/savior in return. Sometimes, this helps either side in the long run when they need it most or when they least expect it. Other times, this can damage a relationship when said relationship can easily be summed up with the questions "How much do you owe me?", "How much/little have you done for me?", and/or "How much have you wronged me?".


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