Genshin Impact’s Opera Controversy Is A Big Cultural Moment

Genshin Impact's Opera Controversy Is A Big Cultural Moment

Yun Jin performs Chinese opera in front of an audience at Liyue Port.

Screenshot: miHoYo / YouTube / Kotaku

On December 26, the voice performances of the latest playable characters in Genshin Impact were shown for the first time. This included Yun Jin, the young leader of a Chinese opera company. Reaction from the Genshin community was mixed, but the moment also became an opportunity for people to experience an underappreciated side of Chinese culture that they had probably never seen before.

I come from a little-known city called Beijing, which most Americans associate with repression and government excess. The other thing we are known for is Peking Opera, which is the most popular regional variant of Chinese Opera. I’m broadly generalizing here, but the performers usually sing it in a very high pitched voice. The outfits and makeup are extremely over the top, and the dance moves involve a lot of breaks. Ours is the most famous in China and is included in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

These aspects of Chinese opera were front and center during Genshin Impact’s recent vocal performances. some fans appreciated Yun Jin sings, while others reacted negatively to the way she sang “Oh, Maestro” in a high pitched voice (including a popular Genshin streamer, who was later to make a apology video). Some fans have pointed out that laughing at a traditional Asian art form is kind of crappy at best, and racist at worst, especially for a game that has made a point of incorporating non-Western cultural touchstones into all of 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 which showed 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 my American friends would never find out. Unlike other Chinese cultural exports like food and fashion, the shrill sounds of opera seemed impossible to make acceptable to an American audience. And so, when I first watched Yun Jin’s video, I was one of those viewers who had a negative reaction. My shoulders tensed and I gritted my teeth. I just wanted the song to end. You see, the cultural significance of opera was fragile even at home. Chinese opera was almost decimated during the Cultural Revolution. Nowadays, even Chinese teenagers are more interested in marvel movies. I was convinced that opera would never become one of our cultural exports.

Well, millions of Americans found out from a series of Genshin trailers. And you know what? It wasn’t the end of the world. After the initial shock of hearing something unfamiliar, Yun Jin was received more positively on Twitter. The YouTuber changed his initial opinion of his song, and I’ve seen musicians mention that they want to know more about Chinese opera. It was mind-blowing to me: just one gacha character was able to change the public’s perception of something I’ve struggled with all my life. Before Yun Jin, my own feelings towards Chinese opera were still stuck in the previous decade. Some people move faster than culture. I call these people artists. In the case of the Genshin community, the culture is changing faster than the people.

As a video game reviewer, I expect most major video companies to chase trends. Fortnite is one of the most egregious examples of how gaming content tends to follow in the footsteps of what’s already popular. The Genshin developers, however, sparked 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 be beholden to it.

And the developers were very intentional about using Genshin’s cultural power. According to Xiao Luohao, a developer on Genshin’s writing team:

It is difficult to carry the deep accumulation of Chinese opera art over thousands of years. But if there’s a way to use Genshin Impact, a form of entertainment easily accepted by others… to expose people to the artistic crystallization of traditional Chinese opera, and even spark interest in the art itself… getting in touch with the very essence of true opera culture… we felt that if the game could serve as a simple introduction, then our effort would be worth it.

Yun Jin incorporated Chinese opera into almost every aspect of his design. An animator explained that his smooth attack animations were based on how performers strike a pose on stage and then stop. She was intended as a supporting character due to the way the opera relied on multiple performers.

Her character designs also drew inspiration from opera, such as pom poms, feather plumes, and a cloudy collar. The developers intended to release her since Liyue’s conceptualization, 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 tweak its look. With a mischievous smile, the TT character designer joked that his only concern was that their game testers might confront him after work.

As writer Dou explained that she had been going to the opera since she was a child, it occurred to me that the developers were also exposing something deeply vulnerable within themselves. I couldn’t help but feel charmed. They were bold enough to present something they loved to the world, whether or not its image was “cool”. This is what art should strive for. Art is not defined by the value of production or the great artists attached to it. Art should present the hearts of its creators fearlessly and confidently.

A few weeks ago, I streamed the main quest featuring Yun Jin. At the end, she gave a full performance of a story she was working on. I started watching rather anxiously, but gradually eased into the song. The Genshin community had already moved on from “his music is weird”.

With each YouTube replay, I also let myself be transformed.


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