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Genshin Impact: A Catalyst for the Diffusion of Chinese Culture by Akshaya S

Updated: Sep 16


Image Courtesy: The New York Times


Article: 18/2023


The hustle of fishermen and merchants alike permeates the atmosphere as the aroma of piping hot chop suey, nourishing bamboo shoot soup, and sizzling stir-fried fillets from food stalls wafts through the air. Playful children run around while adults rush to their workplaces. The symphonic duet of the erhu and guzheng cuts across the bustle of everyday life as the player enters Liyue Harbour—one among the various regions playable in the popular Chinese video game Genshin Impact.


Produced by miHoYo, a Chinese video game developer, Genshin Impact (原神 Yuánshén) is a free-to-play action role-playing game that is available around the world. Its anime-esque character designs, multicultural motifs, immersive open-world experience and compelling plotline have taken the gaming world by storm, grossing over $4 billion in revenue since its release in September 2020. The game boasted over 127 million in downloads across the App Store and Google Play globally as of December 2022, with a significant player base situated in East Asia and the United States. Such an accomplishment by a Chinese game is the first of its kind since big names from countries like Japan have historically dominated the gaming industry, the United States and South Korea. Genshin Impact’s noteworthy list of milestones does not end here. Apart from foretelling the rise of the Chinese video gaming industry, the game has turned out to be an effective channel for projecting Chinese culture, mythology, folklore and social values to a global audience. By incorporating positive elements of Chinese culture, Genshin Impact has gradually made a name for itself as a champion of China’s soft power. It would not be a stretch to claim that the game has contributed significantly towards a finer understanding and appreciation of Chinese cultural heritage and tradition.


Liyue—A near-perfect microcosm of China

Genshin Impact’s open-world environment allows its players to traverse the fictional continent of Teyvat, which comprises several regions (akin to countries) across its expanse. Among them is Liyue (璃月 Líyuè), the second region all players travel to. It is a near-perfect microcosm of China—excluding the authoritarian political dimension. Liyue excels in its representation of China by showcasing the best and most revered elements of Chinese culture in its plotline, characters, architecture, economic activities and geography.


Source: An in-game screenshot of Liyue Harbour (Genshin Impact)

The centrality of architecture and environment in the world-building of any game cannot be understated, and Genshin Impact’s developers manage to nail this aspect to the very last pixel. Every building is meticulously constructed, drawing great inspiration from ancient Chinese architecture. Most buildings are multi-tiered and supported by pillars—each tier separated by ornamented eaves—and gently curved roofs reminiscent of the Chinese imperial roofs. Vibrant colours such as bright red, lush green and golden yellow are standard in the colour palette of the buildings, and they come together to form a lively and festive atmosphere befitting of the port city. Liyue’s architecture also features intricate wooden elements such as latticework, carvings of animals and mythical creatures with gold detailing, and dragon motifs - enmeshing traditional Chinese architecture with modern-day elements. Even in its natural settings, Liyue borrows most of its designs and qualities from those in China. Much of the environment in Liyue is modelled after places in China, such as the Huanglong Nature Reserve in Sichuan, Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in Hunan, Guilin in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and the Tianmen Mountain. These places are some of China’s prized natural treasures—places that are known for their unfiltered beauty and tranquillity. The game’s developers capture the serenity of these regions through Chinese instrumental accompaniments and minute atmospheric details, piquing the player’s interest in the virtual world and its real-life counterpart even more.

Beyond the enchanting visuals of Liyue, the region captivates the players with Chinese mythologies, Taoist themes and legends through its storyline and characters. Rex Lapis, for instance, is a character who embodies Chinese reverence for dragons and the concept of earth divinity. Interacting with any of the non-playable characters (NPCs) in Liyue allows players to get accustomed to tales and anecdotes rooted in traditional Chinese mythologies and social values. Respecting tradition, honouring one’s ancestors, being in harmony with nature, taking care of one’s parents and elders, hard work, self-discipline, and unceasing intellectual pursuit are some of the Chinese values which are brought to life through various characters and storytelling elements. In addition to such aspects, the game also hosts an annual Lantern Rite Festival—a flagship event in the game—around the same time as the Lunar New Year to celebrate the latter within the game’s settings. Such details not only enhance the players’ gaming experience but also enables them to become familiar with Chinese traditions and values. In doing so, they dismantle misconceptions or stereotypes that players might have previously held about China.


Peking Opera & Genshin Impact—Spotlight on Chinese Art

What made Genshin Impact a true ambassador of Chinese culture was its inclusion of Peking Opera in one of its major storylines in Liyue. Performed by a character named Yun Jin, an acclaimed artist in Liyue Harbour’s opera scene, the performance proceeds in Chinese with the help of an orchestra while lanterns adorn the night sky. Titled “The Divine Damsel of Devastation,” the performance has been viewed more than 8.8 million times on YouTube as of May 2023 and the numbers speak for themselves. Its uniqueness and portrayal of Peking Opera were immediately adored by the players, who marvelled at the game’s initiative to include the performance as a seminal part of the story. The game’s approach towards intertwining traditional Chinese music with modern instruments, thereby imbuing new life to Chinese opera, was applauded by the players. Apart from the performance receiving unanticipated fanfare, it also shined a light on the existence of such an art form to players from various places of the world. Thus, this single episode exponentially popularised the Chinese art and truly allowed the game to emerge as a distinct product which was truly conceived and made in China. Beyond a doubt, it highlighted the fact that unofficial instruments like video games are much more successful than official initiatives of the government to boost awareness about China’s immaterial wealth and history—a crucial tool for asserting soft power.


Genshin Impact—a Tool of China’s Soft Power

At a glance, it becomes unmistakable that the game draws tremendous inspiration from diverse real-life cultures when portraying each of its regions. It imbues them with their conventions, folklore, legends and social values to add a touch of realism and verisimilitude. This is particularly true for Liyue which stands as the poster child of China and its culture to the world. The availability of Genshin Impact across different platforms like the App Store, Play Store, PlayStation and other consoles bolstered the creation of a massive player base and tight-knit community around the globe, thereby extending its reach well beyond the boundaries of China and making in hugely popular in countries like the United States, United Kingdom, India, Philippines and Singapore. To players from such regions unfamiliar with China and its society, Genshin Impact has elevated their curiosity about the country, its fine tapestry of cultural heritage and the beautiful sceneries it offers. By leveraging intangible and visual facets of the Chinese culture instead of the oft-criticised political exports such as communist or socialist thought, the game effortlessly appealed to its players, many of whom actively engage in discourses online pertaining to Chinese lore and traditions with others from the gaming community. Such discussions attempt to deconstruct and comprehend Liyue’s plotlines and history, which sometimes happens with aid from blogs or comments from the Chinese Genshin community. In addition, the vastness of its player base and the visual appeal of the game also raked in billions of dollars into the country within a short span of time. This equation has signalled the rise of China’s gaming industry. Such a feat is worth noting owing to the current climate where most games and mobile applications from China are being banned over fear of cybersecurity risks. Hence, somewhere along the line, the game gradually evolved into an effective tool for projecting China’s image and its cultural heritage to the world. This is especially significant since Genshin Impact is spoken in the same breath as K-Pop and Anime—the quintessential cultural exports from South Korea and Japan, respectively.


The game’s integral role as a soft power tool has been reinforced by its increasingly close ties with the Chinese authorities. China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism honoured Genshin Impact’s developer miHoYo for its achievements in disseminating Chinese cultural heritage and tourism promotion last October. Previously, it had also been acknowledged as a key enterprise of cultural export by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce in July 2021. Once considered “spiritual opium,” online games like Genshin Impact have altered this long-held view of the Party as it increasingly encourages China’s gaming industry to promote the nation’s culture whilst upholding social values. Liu Wei, the co-founder and president of miHoYo, has also pointed out that the integration of Chinese culture into the game is part of an effort to interpret traditional culture while pursuing innovation.


Censorship for Cultural Dissemination in Genshin Impact

In projecting China’s image and culture to the world, the Chinese Government is also complicit in its efforts to censor character designs when they transgress its image of culture. For instance, the character outfits in Genshin Impact, including those of Amber, Jean, Mona and Rosaria, were deemed inappropriate as they revealed “too much skin” and were indecent according to Chinese standards. It is speculated that the rationale behind such a decision was fuelled by the Government’s fear that these designs might corrupt the morality and innocence of the Chinese youth. As a response to the objection, developers at miHoYo redesigned and released alternate outfits which were less revealing, conservative and modest. The characters received these alternate designs as the default choice of outfit in an update for the Chinese version of the game. However, for the global version, the newly redesigned outfits were released as an add-on to the already available ones, and players retained the choice of choosing between the outfits at any given point. This incident makes it evident that while catering to the preferences of the global audience, companies like miHoYo also bear the onus of appeasing the Party’s requirements since they are seen as tools of China’s soft power. Thus, adhering to strict yet vague regulations while developing their games becomes an unassailable imperative. Such regulations make it obvious that cultural dissemination and censorship work—hand in hand—and companies like miHoYo tread this line cautiously to avoid the Government’s gruelling gaze.

Genshin Impact: The First of Many

Despite drawing a slew of criticisms concerning colourism, racial discrimination and whitewashing of characters following the release of Sumeru, a region based on South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, Genshin Impact has nonetheless ushered diverse aspects of Chinese culture to the global stage in an effortless and inconspicuous fashion. This is an objective that also lies at the heart of the Chinese Dream enunciated by President Xi Jinping in 2013. In the pursuit of that dream, it is only natural that such achievements will be not just acknowledged but pursued more actively by the Government by incentivising Chinese video gaming companies and relaxing norms around the gaming industry. If such efforts come to bear fruit, the future is bound to be marked by the presence of more Genshin Impact-like Chinese video games carrying forward the rich traditions of Chinese culture to the world.


References

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Genshin Impact. (2020, November 25). “Travels Afar” Scenic Spot Collaboration Documentary - Huanglong Chapter | Genshin Impact [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8g6FNA7oVpI.


Majumdar, R. (2023). Genshin Impact’s $4 Billion Success Hints at the Rise of China in the Gaming Industry. Essentially Sports. https://www.essentiallysports.com/esports-news-genshin-impacts-4-billion-success-hints-at-the-rise-of-china-in-the-gaming-industry/.


Obedkov, E. (2022, October 10). miHoYo honored for promoting Chinese culture and tourism through Genshin Impact. Game World Observer. https://gameworldobserver.com/2022/10/10/mihoyo-genshin-impact-honored-for-promoting-chinese-culture-tourism.


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Cao, A. (2023, January 4). Genshin Impact bags US$4bil in sign of rising power of China’s video gaming industry. The Star. https://www.thestar.com.my/tech/tech-news/2023/01/04/genshin-impact-bags-us4bil-in-sign-of-rising-power-of-chinas-video-gaming-industry.


She, Y. (2022, November 7). On the Video Game Genshin Impact. MCLC Resource Center. https://u.osu.edu/mclc/2022/11/07/on-the-video-game-genshin-impact/#:~:text=Genshin%20takes%20advantage%20of%20the,elements%20to%20the%20global%20stage.


Tassi, P. (2022, January 28). ‘Genshin Impact’ Players Discover Censored Chinese Outfits Are Permanent Story Additions. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/paultassi/2022/01/28/genshin-impact-players-discover-censored-chinese-outfits-are-permanent-story-additions/?sh=518377263e9b.

(Ms. Akshaya S is a research intern at C3S. She is pursuing Master of Arts in International Relations from Stella Maris College. The views expressed are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)

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