On December 26, the voice performances for Genshin Impact’s latest playable characters were shown for the first time. This included Yun Jin, the young leader of a Chinese opera company. The reaction from the Genshin community was mixed, but the moment also became an opportunity for people to experience an underappreciated aspect of Chinese culture they’d likely never seen before.
I’m from a little-known city called Beijing, which most Americans associate with government repression and overreach. The other thing we’re known for is the Peking opera, which is the most popular regional variant of Chinese opera. I’m broadly generalizing here, but performers generally sing it in a very high-pitched voice. The outfits and makeup are extremely exaggerated, and the dance movements involve a lot of pauses. Ours is the most famous one in China, and it’s listed as a UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
These aspects of Chinese opera were front and center during the recent Genshin Impact voice performances. Some fans enjoyed Yun Jin’s singing, while others reacted negatively to how she sang “Oh, Maestro” in a high-pitched voice (including a popular Genshin streamer, who later had to make an apology video). Some fans pointed out that laughing at a traditional Asian artform is kind of shitty at best, and racist at worst, especially for a game that’s made a point of incorporating non-western cultural touchstones throughout all its updates. But that’s not really what I want to talk about. On January 13, the official Genshin Impact YouTube account posted a video about Yun Jin that made it evident that the developers created the character with a genuine love for opera as an art form.
Growing up, every time I heard opera on my grandmother’s television, I hoped that my American friends would never find out about it. Unlike other Chinese cultural exports like food and fashion, the shrill sounds of the opera seemed impossible to make palatable for an American audience. And so, when I watched Yun Jin’s video for the first time, I was one of those viewers whose reaction was negative. My shoulders tensed up, and I clenched my teeth. I just wanted the song to end. You see, opera’s cultural significance was shaky even at home. Chinese opera was nearly decimated during the Cultural Revolution. Nowadays, even Chinese teenagers are more interested in Marvel movies. I was confident that opera was never going to become one of our cultural exports.
Well, millions of Americans discovered it from a series of Genshin trailers. And you know what? It wasn’t the end of the world. After the initial shock of listening to something unfamiliar, Yun Jin was received more positively on Twitter. The YouTuber changed his original opinion of her song, and I’ve seen players mention that they wanted to learn more about Chinese opera. That was mind-blowing to me: A single gacha character was able to change the public perception of something that I struggled with all my life. Before Yun Jin, my own feelings toward Chinese opera were still stuck in the previous decade. Some people move faster than culture does. I call these people artists. In the instance of the Genshin community, culture moves faster than people do.
As a video game critic, I expect most major video companies to be chasing trends. Fortnite is one of the more egregious examples of how gaming content tends to follow in the footsteps of what’s already popular. The developers of Genshin, however, have created global interest in an art form that even government efforts had struggled to popularize domestically. Popular video games should attempt to define the mainstream, rather than stay beholden to it.
And the developers were very intentional about wielding Genshin’s cultural power. According to Xiao Luohao, a developer on the Genshin writing team:
It is difficult to carry the profound accumulation of Chinese opera art over thousands of years. But if there is a way to use Genshin Impact, a form of entertainment that is easily accepted by others... to expose people to the artistic crystallization of Chinese traditional opera, and even generate interest in the art itself … to get in touch with the essence of the real opera culture… we felt that if the game can serve as a simple introduction, then our effort would be worthwhile.
Yun Jin had Chinese opera incorporated into almost every aspect of her design. An animator explained that her fluid attack animations were based on how performers would strike a pose on the stage and then pause. She was designed as a support character because of how opera relied on multiple performers.
Her character design also took inspiration from opera, such as the pompoms, feather plumes, and a cloud collar. The developers had intended to release her since Liyue was conceptualized, but Yun Jin’s design created a difficult development problem. Her large headdress had created camera distortions, but the staff decided not to take the easy route by compromising her design. Instead, they built custom tools to help polish her appearance. With a mischievous smile, the character designer TT joked that his only concern was that their game testers might confront him after work.
As the writer Dou explained that she went to the opera since she was a child, it occurred to me that the developers were also exposing something deeply vulnerable in themselves. I couldn’t help but feel charmed. They were bold enough to present something they loved to the entire world, regardless of whether or not its image was “cool.” That’s what art ought to strive for. Art isn’t defined by production value or the big-name artists attached to it. Art ought to present its creators’ hearts fearlessly, and with confidence.
A few weeks back, I streamed the main quest that featured Yun Jin. At the very end, she gave a full performance of a story that she was working on. I started watching rather anxiously, but I gradually eased into the song. The Genshin community had already moved on from “her music is weird.”
With every YouTube replay, I would also allow myself to be transformed.