In the United States, queer theory has been studied for several decades and has notable authors for nearly any demographic under the LGBTQ+ umbrella and that access to different viewpoints is something that is often taken for granted. While queer representation in western media is still in its infancy, the representation can be found without much effort by those who desire to engage in it. This luxury is not something that is found in other countries and most notably in China, a nation that is rife with censorship of queer people among other things, so overt depictions or studies of queer people are challenging to find. Academic studies about queerness within China have only begun to get their footing in recent decades as previously, any research conducted about queerness would be done through the lens of Eurocentric philosophy rather than through one of Chinese culture with special attention paid to socio-political lives, modern literature, arts, films, and television series1. This shift in focus to queerness as it relates to Chineseness and how queer Chinese people move through the world is promising for the future of LGBT+ studies within China and the rest of the world.
Continuing to explore the relationship between queerness and Chineseness, this research moves into previously uncharted territory to study queer readings of Chinese video games, specifically Genshin Impact (original Chinese: 原神 Yuánshén2, meaning Original God), and how that storytelling method might be the most effective way to tell queer stories to wider audiences while still avoiding suspicion from those who would seek to censor queer stories. Video games differ from films, novels, and tv shows in that they are an interactive experience at their core; a video game cannot tell its story without a player choosing the correct prompts and engaging with the world around them to learn new things about the characters and the storyline. 1 Jamie J Zhao and Alvin K Wong, “Introduction: Making a Queer Turn in Contemporary Chinese-Language Media Studies,” Continuum, April 1, 2021. “Genshin Impact,” Genshin Impact Wiki, 2020. This interactive give-and-take between the player and the story sets storytelling in video games apart from other methods. Genshin Impact does an excellent job of using bite-sized pieces of story and lore to keep the player engaged and connect the players to the game’s playable characters and their stories.
There are queer people all over the world and while it is statistically improbable that everyone who plays Genshin Impact is queer, there are characters within the game who are coded as queer. These instances of coding are unique to miHoyo’s game because they are distinctly Chinese in their stories. In Queer China: Lesbian and Gay Literature and Visual Culture under Postsocialism, Hongwei Bao (2020) mentions a visit to his hometown Xianyang where he encounters a street called ‘Rainbow Road’ and is lightly amused by the Western association between rainbows and the queer community and how the same association doesn’t exist within China. He states, “I was still pleased that queerness has already been part of the city’s architecture, and that Western queerness can lose its meaning and significance in the Global South.” The term ‘Global South’ refers to emerging global economies that are not associated with European and American cultural ideas and include nations such as India, Brazil, and China, among others. Western ideas are certainly popular in these countries but without Western cultural context, some of these ideas lose their power. This essay will take this idea of how removing a cultural motif from its original context removes some of its meaning and apply that to the queer coding of the characters in Genshin Impact. Within China, these codes and queer cultural records hold great significance and are easily recognized by Chinese people but when the audience becomes more global the meaning can be lost. It is not always lost, but many of the more subtle motifs will slip under the untrained radar.
What is Genshin Impact?
Genshin Impact is an ongoing open-world fantasy roleplaying game created and distributed by Chinese gaming company miHoyo3, now called Hoyoverse. The plot of the game follows the main character called the “Traveler” who is on a quest to explore Teyvat, the continent in which the Traveler wakes up at the beginning of the game, and recover their missing sibling. The gender the player chooses does not matter as the story does not change no matter what version of the Traveler is ultimately picked and as the Traveler, the player meets an ever-growing cast of characters that all seek to help them find their missing sibling. According to the site activeplayer, Genshin Impact has an average monthly player count of over 65 million players and an average daily player count of over 8 million players worldwide4. 83% of the game's player base are 25 and older5, a demographic that is often busy with full-time jobs, secondary education, or both, and does not have much time to dedicate to playing hours upon hours of a game–not that it stops many players. Where Genshin Impact’s playstyle excels is that much of the daily content in the game can be done during a short work break–fifteen to thirty minutes–or a commute to and from a destination on one’s phone. Longer content such as story quests can take around an hour to complete and can be done once the work or school days are done. This level of convenience as well as flexible playstyles is what makes the game so popular among its main demographic.
What is ‘Queer Coding’?
The phrase queer coding is often misunderstood and incorrectly defined by online spaces. It is often confused for queer baiting and before delving further, it is crucial to differentiate the two and to note that it can be difficult to find definitions that agree with one another. For the purpose of this essay, queer coding happens when a character is not explicitly stated to be queer “The Secret behind Genshin Impact Advertising - Udonis,” Udonis Mobile Marketing Agency, 2021, but has enough subtext written into their backstory that their queerness is implicit to those who know how to pick out the cues. In contrast, queer baiting is when a character is hinted at being queer but there is nothing within the context of the media that actually represents queerness; queer baiting uses queerness as a draw for audiences but never fully follows up with explicit queerness or more delicate coding. Queer baiting also is used as a marketing technique to draw viewers in, which makes people feel even more betrayed when there is no payoff in the actual content. It is easy to understand why audiences have a tendency to compare the two as both queer coding and queer baiting lack any real confirmation of a character’s queerness, but the difference is fundamental in understanding intention when it comes to digesting media. Many online queer spaces debate about the harmfulness of queerbaiting in popular media, and they are right to do so, but cases of queer coding are often pulled into these debates because the distinction between the two might be easy to miss for the untrained eye. Queer baiting is at its core exploitative in its dependency on hunger for representation to succeed but queer coding allows queer audiences to see themselves in a way that is both comfortable and safe from suspicion.
In China, the term danmei (original Chinese: 耽美, meaning “indulging beauty”)6 refers to any media that displays romantic or sexual relationships between two men. Its closest cultural relative is BL in Japan, which is simply an abbreviation of Boys’ Love, and the opposite term for romantic or sexual relationships between two women is referred to as baihe (original Chinese: 百 合, meaning “lilies”)7. The popular Chinese danmei, The Untamed (2019) is adapted from the web novel Mo Dao Zu Shi and while the source material is overtly queer to an explicit extent, the show lacks such queer representation. There is one concrete answer as to why the overt queerness from the novel did not translate to its television adaptation: Chinese media censorship laws. Mo Dao Zu Shi’s popularity both in China and overseas made The Untamed feasible as a show but in order for it to be approved for mass consumption, certain overt actions between the characters had to be changed and overt flirtations had to be exchanged for something more subtle. One such flirt between the main character Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian is coded thoroughly within Chinese homoerotic media–the “cut sleeve” (original Chinese: 断袖, or duàn xiù). Wei Wuxian catches Lan Wangji’s sleeve between his fingers and playfully tugs, miming a cutting motion on the fabric with a cheeky smile. This action is in reference to the story of Emperor Ai and his relationship with his right hand and lover, Dong Xian, where Emperor Ai is called to court while Dong Xian is fast asleep on his shoulder; rather than waking his lover up, Emperor Ai cut the sleeve of his robe and slipped out to attend court8. This story has colored much of modern Chinese queer media because it is a story that many people would not be aware of outside of the queer community. There are some arguments for The Untamed being an example of queer baiting as the source material is overtly queer but the live-action show is not, but the queerness is still present so such arguments are baseless.
The scene between Lan Wangji (left) and Wei Wuxian (right). Source: wangxiians9 on tumblr.com
Supernatural (2005-2020) has within it what might be the most well-known example of queer baiting in modern fandom circles in the popular relationship Destiel (the combined names of the characters Dean and Castiel). The writers and showrunners of Supernatural have never been quoted in one way or another that they support or do not support Destiel but certain creative choices did hint towards the possibility of Dean and Castiel getting together. As the fandom grasped onto the relationship between Dean and Castiel and made it one of the most popular online relationships in any online fandom sphere (Destiel currently has over 109,360 fanworks in the online fanfiction website Archive of Our Own10, colloquially known as Ao3, and that number will certainly grow in the near future), showrunners started to lean into the fans’ preferences a little more in order to keep them watching. What was a deep platonic friendship between two men that was construed as romantic by fans soon became fodder to keep audiences tuning into Supernatural every week with little to no payoff in regards to the actual content of the show. This is what differentiates queer coding from queer baiting–marketing and intention of payoff in regards to queerness in the media.
When it comes to queer coding, one might ask “why not make the character(s) explicitly queer?” This is not an inappropriate question to ask. It might make more sense to say “This character is queer. They experience same-gender attraction.” but different cultures have different standards when it comes to what is or isn’t socially acceptable. In the case of the subject of this essay, Genshin Impact is being created in China, a nation rich in conservative laws in regard to sexuality and gender. While Genshin Impact is a game with worldwide reach, the content it produces is still subject to Chinese censorship and the Chinese public opinions. The global reach is certainly influential when it comes to both inspirations for the in-game regions and events but it is remiss to expect the creators of Genshin Impact to wholly ignore the rules and expectations of their home country. Bigger cities in China, such as Beijing and Shanghai, (where Genshin Impact is currently being created) tend to be more LGBT+ friendly due to western influences as well as bustling neighborhoods where queer culture can thrive in clubs or cafes.
China has only recently begun to change opinions on queer people within its own borders. While recent years have slowly become kinder to an emerging queer identity in China, homosexuality was only officially taken off the list of mental illnesses in 2001 (it was previously decriminalized in 1997). There is a steadily growing number of queer community groups in China today and these groups not only fight for the rights that they believe they deserve but fight against the strict Chinese censorship laws that prevent explicit queer representation in popular media11.
So, with laws in place that strictly govern what types of media can and cannot be produced, queer coding becomes a creator’s greatest asset in making the kind of media they want to. Queer coding does not diminish the queerness of a character, it merely allows for that character to slip through the cracks unnoticed so that the ‘right’ audiences can see them for what they are. Queer coding comes in a variety of forms and the coding that exists in the characters of Genshin Impact is, in most cases, uniquely culturally Chinese. There are exceptions to this, as different regions within Genshin Impact are inspired by different real-life cultures, but much of the inspirations for queer relationships find their roots in Chinese culture.
Queer Coding and the Player
As previously stated, the main character of Genshin Impact is the Traveler who can either be the game’s short male model [hereafter referred to as “Aether”] or the short female model [hereafter referred to as “Lumine”]. In order to appeal to the desires of players all around the world, the story writers include various ‘fanservice’–scenes that can imply a close or even romantic relationship between the player’s avatar and the game’s characters–situations between the Travelers and the playable characters of Teyvat. Fanservice is a normal part of many video games on the market right now but where the fanservice is queer is that, in order to keep the storytelling consistent between players who chose Aether and players who chose Lumine, fanservice from the female characters to Aether is not altered in the least to make it seem more platonic when the playable character is Lumine and vise-versa. This choice is understandable from a writer’s point of view but it also creates unintentional queering of interactions between Aether or Lumine and certain characters.
One such instance is in the ‘hangout’–a mini storyline event that has multiple endings and rewards for players to pursue–for the character Shikanoin Heizou [hereafter referred to as “Heizou”] in which he, rather flirtatiously, says “Traveler, you’re so dreamy...” after the Traveler frees him from a cage he has been trapped in by enemies. The line, like others between playable characters that will be discussed later, is an easy-to-ignore flirt if someone is playing Lumine but when the player has chosen Aether, the flirt is now a romantic interaction between two male characters rather than a male and female character. As the character hangouts are played from the first-person point of view rather than the open, third-person point of view of the rest of the game, they have the potential to feel a lot more personal to many players. This personal connection between player and character can make these flirtatious lines and their queer code self-validating to players who may not be heterosexual but can still enjoy their favorite characters flirting with them.
Screenshot of Shikanoin Heizou saying “Traveler, you’re so dreamy...” Source: Genshin Impact.
Creating these intimate moments between queer players and their favorite characters maybe a happy accident in the writing room, but the fact that they do happen multiple times throughout the story is something that cannot be ignored. The probability that all of these lines are accidental throwaways between the different genders of the Traveler is low considering the further queer coding that occurs between the characters in the game without the involvement of the Traveler at all.
Ships and How They Sail
In fandom circles, relationships can be classified in one of two ways: popular ‘ships’ or rare ‘ships’ (often called rare pairs for a pleasant rhyme). The term ‘ship’ is short for ‘relationship’ and when certain ships have content within the source material, the phrases ‘my ship is sailing’ or ‘my ships have sailed’ are often said in celebration of canon content. Popular ships are popular in almost all areas of a fandom regardless of language or location and tend to have a solid foundation of canon content for their fans to base fanworks off of. Rare pairs, in contrast, often have little to no canon content–and often, the characters will have no actual interaction within the content at all–and tend to start from fan creators deciding two characters just look really nice together and would have an interesting romantic dynamic.
BeiGuang and T and P Dynamics
Beidou and Ningguang, referred to in fandom circles as BeiGuang, are one of the most popular ships in the online Genshin Impact community. They are two powerful women who are pillars within their home country of Liyue, an in-game region that takes its inspiration from Chinese culture and mythology, and their position in society grants them a certain level of freedom that is appealing to audiences around the world but more specifically, Chinese audiences. Their dynamic—two powerful people on seemingly opposite ends of the political spectrum—is one shared throughout the most popular relationships the game presents fans with, but that opposition does not mean the couple is at odds with each other.
Due to lower class upbringings, Beidou and Ningguang both lack family names to tie themselves to, leaving them to essentially act as agents free of traditional family expectations—more specifically, the Confucian expectation of a daughter to marry a man of high rank to improve the status of their families. Confucian influences on modern Chinese society have created a world where women are expected to be wives and mothers above being women as individuals with desires, likes, and dislikes and it would be remiss to assume that those influences do not extend to media created within China’s borders. However, removing familial ties from Beidou and Ningguang’s stories removes that expectation. Societal expectations still exist, of course, as demonstrated by numerous denied prepositions that are mentioned in Ningguang’s character stories from the men within Liyue12. More than this freedom from marriage expectations, without people holding them back from their goals and aspirations, Beidou and Ningguang are free to pursue careers that are traditionally masculine in nature: Beidou is a pirate, and more than that she is the Captain of Liyue’s most well-known pirate fleet, and Ningguang is the Tianquan (original Chinese:天权, meaning ‘heavenly power’) of Liyue’s Qixing, a title that denotes her station as the most powerful person in Liyue second only to the nation’s deity, Rex Lapis (original Chinese: 岩王帝君, Yánwáng Dìjūn). These positions provide both women a degree of choice free of judgment as they are perceived as too popular to disagree with–a sentiment mirrored in how many modern queer women in China conduct themselves.
Understanding Beidou and Ningguang’s individual histories are crucial to understanding their potential dynamics within a romantic relationship. Ningguang as an adult woman and an ally of the Traveler is shown to be the veritable apple of Liyue’s eye as the political leader of the nation; she is absolutely central to the community that has gathered in Liyue Harbor for both wisdom in regards to business dealings and commerce but more than that, she is an older sister to 12 the youth of Liyue. In Zhongli’s, the human alias of Rex Lapis, voice line about Ningguang, he speaks about her upbringing:
“Despite the multitude of affairs she deals with in a day, Ningguang always continues to press on. A rare gem indeed. I'm reminded of the time that she used to walk barefoot from Yaoguang Shoal to the south wharf, trying to sell her wares as she went. Time is cruel to humans.”13
The Tianquan of Liyue is the richest woman in Teyvat but she was not born into that wealth–she earned it after years upon years of hard work. As a child living in what one can only assume to have been something closet to poverty, Ningguang spent many of her days trekking along the busy wharves of Liyue harbor selling whatever wares she could get her hands on to make enough money to raise her station. She becomes a shrewd businesswoman at a young age and fights to eventually win her position at the top of Liyue’s cultural and political food chain. The obvious reason she would do this is to better her overall chances at life–the more money and power Ningguang possesses, the less struggle she would endure in time–but her determination to separate herself from her poor circumstances can also provide her with enough power to hide her desires behind.
Character Cards of Ningguang (left) and Beidou (right).
Beidou holds no station within Liyue politics but her unofficial title is Uncrowned Lord of the Ocean14, a title she earned from her legendary slaying of the sea monster Haishan without the aid of a Vision. The title of ‘Lord’ is an interesting one as Beidou identifies and is recognized by those around her as a woman, and implies that her power is something other than traditionally female in the eyes of the people of Liyue–her power is one that would traditionally be attributed to a man. Despite the respect and love she commands as an adult to the people of Liyue, Beidou had her own difficult upbringing. Beidou and her family were horribly destitute and she often had to result to stealing food to survive. It is implied that at some point she becomes separated from her parents, though the reason why is unclear, and Beidou finds herself in a small shipping village where she is taken in by the village chief against the wishes of the inhabitants. Shortly after her arrival to the village, the chief who had taken her in passes away, and with his death, the harvest and fish hauls began to decline–eventually, the people blame Beidou for their ill fortune and claim that her very presence was bad luck and a curse, an accusation that she fought with “I am not a curse, I’m just Beidou.” It is with this declaration that Beidou learns the true meaning of her name as the villagers drive her out with cries of “Beidou controls death!”:
Before then, all I knew about my name was that it had something to do with the stars. It wasn’t until then that I realized that Beidou was a constellation [Beidou is the Chinese name for the Big Dipper constellation], and the Alcor, one of its stars, was an omen of death.
Beidou, an innocent child, was blamed for the misfortunes of a village that were likely nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence and was thrust into the fringes of society in an attempt to take care of herself. She reclaimed the omen of death, the Alcor, by naming the ship that leads the Crux fleet after it and made a name for herself that permanently altered the association with both names. As a grown woman still operating on the fringes of society, Beidou commands the respect of those around her with her charming personality and raw strength.
The dichotomy between Ningguang and Beidou–the dignified, feminine woman versus the tomboyish, masculine woman–is something that is commonly seen amongst queer Chinese women in the real world. In queer Chinese communities, lesbians will typically sort themselves into one of three categories: T, short for ‘tomboy’, P, a shortening of po which is the Chinese word for ‘wife’, and H, which is short for ‘half’ or women who feel like they straddle the line between T and P15. Ningguang is practically a textbook example of the P-type lesbian with her high-profile career, her sensual and beautiful stylized qipao, and her long white hair and delicate makeup. She conducts herself with feminine grace and commands respect because of her femininity. In contrast, Beidou is somewhere between a stern T-type lesbian and H. Beidou exhibits all of the typical traits of a tomboy: she is loud and boisterous in a way that is not considered appropriate for women, a heavy drinker, and any title she is referred to with is a masculine one (Beidou is commonly referred to by NPCs in the game as Lord Beidou for her earlier mentioned defeat of the sea serpent Haishan). The T and P dynamic in Chinese Lesbian circles is one that may, from a Western point of view, simply be a redressing of traditional gender roles in a queer setting, and in some ways that is in fact the case, but T and P relationships require a financial independence that is not often seen in a traditional heterosexual relationship.
Queer couples in China, whether they are lesbian women or gay men, have to work hard in order to have financial independence from their families due to a presumed distaste for non-traditional lifestyles within the Confucian philosophy16. The logic here is easy to understand: the richer and more successful one is, the less likely your family or neighbors are to complain about one being unmarried at an older age17. This philosophy is clearly represented in Beidou and Ningguang’s financial situations and statuses at the top of their separate halves of Liyuen society. These women have placed themselves in positions where their authority is seldom in question and with that, their potential choice of partner will likely not fall under much scrutiny.
Beidou and Ningguang have two voice lines about one another and their tone is commonly perceived as annoyance with each other’s morals and the way they conduct business. For some time in the game canon, Beidou and Ningguang actually had no in-person interactions until January 2022 and players could only assume their relationship was something akin to a reluctant respect for each other’s ability to cultivate loyal followers within their ranks. Outside of these permanent voice lines, Ningguang in particular had several throwaway dialogue lines that hinted at a more intimate relationship with the Crux captain– “I also compensate Beidou in other ways... Ehe,” is a line the Tianquan says to the traveler in regards to paying for Beidou’s help in rebuilding her Jade Chamber. This line is easily construed as Ningguang hinting that she has forgiven quite a few of Beidou’s past legal transgressions and will continue to do so but to many fans of the ship, this line comes across as Ningguang fondly remembering more intimate moments with Beidou. However, in Genshin Impact’s 2022 Lantern Rite event–Lantern Rite is the game’s interpretation of Chinese New Year, a holiday that is typically spent with family and one’s romantic partner–there is a cut scene that is almost impossible to construe as anything other than Beidou and Ningguang flirting with one another. The two women share a moment under the Lantern Rite fireworks, Ningguang smoking her pipe in a new dress against the outside of the Jade Chamber when Beidou approaches her, appraising her new look with a faint smile:“Hey, check you out... Looking pretty fancy.”
“Only a true treasure catches the eye of Captain Beidou; seems like I’ve struck gold with this one.”
This moment is brief, only about twenty-three seconds in total, but it is heavily charged with an energy that is hard to excuse by claiming the women are ‘just friends’. One certainly could, of course, but the flirts the women exchange is something that is hard to ignore.
Beidou and Ningguang during the 2022 Lantern Rite limited event.
Zhongli and Gender Expression
The god of Liyue has a great number of monikers and epithets, but he is most commonly referred to as either Rex Lapis, Morax, or the god of contracts. He is called Rex Lapis by his people as this is a title that refers to his role as guardian and protector of Liyue and Morax by most foreigners because he created the currency of Teyvat, Mora, but this essay will refer to him primarily by the human name he has chosen for himself: Zhongli. Zhongli reigned as the god of the nation of contracts for 6,000 years and kept it safe as their warrior and protector for all of that time and was considered a true father to the country. He is as traditionally masculine of an archetype as one could get any further than that, as the sovereign of the nation he is the only character within the entirety of the cast who wears dragon scales as a motif on his clothing as traditionally, only Chinese emperors could wear the dragon motif as a symbol of his power and authority over his country. Presumably, the weight he bears on his basalt shoulders must be great as he bears the expectations of his nation on them.
Zhongli’s Character Card.
Zhongli chooses to shed the moniker of Rex Lapis by staging his own death and with this choice, sheds the traditional expectations of a strong god to simply become a man. A lot about this can be construed as queer–stepping down from his divinity can be seen as Zhongli divorcing himself from a hegemonic ideal where his godhood and personhood were defined by how he was perceived by the people he governed. Stepping down from being an object of worship is not inherently a rejection of traditional gender roles and heterosexuality but it is a rejection of the role he was put in as the god of his nation. The refusal to be defined by terms that have kept one in place for years is at its core a queer narrative.
As the god of Liyue, Zhongli was responsible for the safety and prosperity of the nation. He is loved by his people and when the player first enters the city of Liyue Harbor, NPCs are talking about Rex Lapis with such reverence that they boldly speak about the gods of other nations with disrespect so blatant that it is close to blasphemy.
There is an in-game text called Rex Incognito which tells the tales of Rex Lapis on several ‘incognito’ excursions amongst the people of Liyue; it is described as a fantasy novel that blends both fact and fiction to tell each tale. There are four different volumes of Rex Incognito and each volume tells a different story about how Liyue’s god of contracts interacted with his people. It is important to note that at no point does Zhongli fully refute any story told within the four volumes of the novel, though he does imply that some of them are a bit embellished for entertainment value.
Volume 2 of Rex Incognito details a story about a playful merchant who is commissioned by a disguised Rex Lapis to carve a plaque that bore on it the likeness of the Lord of Geo with the one condition being that “[the merchant] must carve the true likeness of our Lord relying on what [he has] seen with [his] own two eyes.18” This may seem innocuous but the likeness that Rex Lapis chose for himself was that of a woman. This female form is described much like his male form is–tall, cloaked in black, with amber eyes–and carries herself with the same confidence that Rex Lapis is said to carry himself in other volumes. The merchant accepts her request and they agree that he will return the plaque to her in three days' time.
When she returns, she is surprised to see that the likeness of Rex Lapis carved within the jade is that of a woman–a woman similar to herself. There are numerous ways to interpret this story, and many fans brush it off when it is brought up in forums, but the clearest one is that this merchant knew within his own being that this woman was still the deity of his land. More than that, he is not struck down in any way for depicting Rex Lapis as a woman.
This story lets players into a curious aspect of Zhongli as a character. He is a traditionally masculine figure in both his role as Liyue’s patient patriarch and as a warrior god but he is also comfortable traversing Liyue in a female form that is nearly identical to his own. This gender fluidity is not mentioned outside of Volume 2 of Rex Incognito but Zhongli is seen several times within canon disputing stories within Rex Incognito and oral histories regarding Rex Lapis. It would not be wholly out of place for Zhongli to refute this story if it were something that offended him and this lack of argument implies that he sees his female form as something natural and so a part of himself that it does not bear arguing about.
ZhongChi and Cultural Exchange
A screenshot from a Zhongli promotional video of Childe (left), Xiangling (middle), and Zhongli (right).
Zhongli’s queer coding within Genshin Impact does not end with his gender fluidity but does in fact extend to his relationships with other characters. Zhongli’s most popular relationship is Childe and it is the most popular ship within the Genshin Impact online fandom with 11,43019 fanfics out of the 108,560 works20 underneath the Genshin Impact tag. For comparison, BeiGuang only has 2,476 fanfics and is the most popular female/female ship in the fandom tags. There are three popular ways to refer to Zhongli and Childe as a ship nickname depending on the fans’ preferences on who is the more dominant party in the relationship–ZhongChi, TartaLi, and ZhongChiLi, the latter of which denotes that a fan has no particular preference on the dominant party–but for the purpose of this essay, when Zhongli and Childe are being referred to in a romantic light, ZhongChi will be used. Childe is a young foreign diplomat stationed in Liyue when the Traveler meets him and has cultivated a business relationship with Zhongli that he depends on for information in regards to Liyue’s local traditions.
Childe’s character card.
One of Childe’s most amusing character traits is that he has a difficult time using chopsticks despite having spent a significant amount of time in Liyue and learning the culture from locals and more importantly, from Zhongli. In the video ‘Character Tales – “Zhongli: An Additional Expense”’, a receipt from a visit to Liyue Harbor’s famous Wanmin Restaurant is shown to include a 128,000 mora purchase of ‘dragon-and-phoenix-patterned chopsticks’ that Zhongli purchased for him to practice using chopsticks with. To the untrained eye, this might be construed to be an expensive gift shared between friends in order to encourage one to be better at using the utensils but from a Chinese cultural perspective, the dragon and phoenix symbols on the chopsticks mean far more than that. Dragons in Chinese culture are most commonly associated with the emperor–and as previously stated, Zhongli is both a dragon in human form and the only character to wear dragon scales as the emperor in Chinese culture also would–while phoenixes are associated with the nation’s empress. Furthermore, when dragons and phoenixes are depicted together on an item, the united image is meant to denote a harmonious union between a married couple21. As previously stated, Liyue is based closely on pre-modern China and has been shown in game lore to share much of the same cultural references so it is easy to assume that motifs such as this would hold the same cultural significance. Zhongli’s status as the archon and Lord of Liyue, and as the one man old enough to hold everyone’s stories inside himself, makes it clear that he would not be ignorant of the cultural significance of such a symbol on the chopsticks. As a foreigner dependent on Zhongli’s guidance in regard to Liyue customs, it is likely that Childe does not know about the significance of the chopsticks that he was given and simply admires the pattern engraved on them. The price of the chopsticks is no issue for the diplomat and does not belay any hidden meaning behind them–Zhongli is shown in the aforementioned ‘Character Tales’ video to have what the average individual might call expensive taste–so Childe is likely to have understood the purchase to simply be another indulgence of Zhongli’s.
As miHoyo is a Chinese company with Chinese writers and developers, it is unlikely that they are unaware of the significance of these two symbols being present on a gift from one person to another. Even one search of ‘dragon and phoenix symbolism in China’ provides a user with a multitude of sources that all state that the dragon and phoenix are used to represent marital harmony and the heavenly balance between the emperor and empress of China2223. So, why include that little detail in a throwaway video about Zhongli’s character unless the relationship between himself and Childe was something more than just a pleasant comradery between two friends? After all, only a few people would be able to catch the reference.
The receipt from Zhongli and Childe’s visit to Wanmin Restaurant. Source: Genshin Impact Official Youtube Channel.
Zhongli and Childe later become adversaries in the Liyue chapter of Genshin Impact’s story quest, but they still have voice lines about one another that give some players pause in regard to the nature of their relationship. Outside of Beidou and Ningguang, Zhongli and Childe are the only playable characters to have two voice lines about one another, and these voice lines act as proof to many fans that there is more to their relationship than meets the eye. The push and pull of a strong friendship turned strained animosity acts as its own sort of queer coding to fans of the game. The fact that Zhongli and Childe still think of one another despite falling out of each other’s favor sends many fans into hours upon hours of speculation on what might have happened outside of what the players see in the story quests.
ShenLan and the ‘Impact’ of Fan Interpretation
It isn’t enough for queer coding to simply exist within a media, the coding has to be picked up by those who engage with that media–the ‘fandom’. As previously stated, fandom allows people of all ages to engage in creating fanworks–usually art or fanfiction (stories written by fans about a media without the express consent of the original creators)–about a media that they enjoy and can be oversimplified into two categories–popular ships and rare pairs. As Genshin Impact is a large intellectual property that is constantly updating its character roster, fans get to flex their creativity by making characters who might never have met within the game canon partake in a romantic relationship. What makes rare pairs so unique in Genshin Impact is how some of them, perhaps unintentionally, mimic the dynamics of some of the more popular ships within the fandom and how some of those dynamics can be contrived entirely in the minds of the fans with no canon evidence to back them up.
A screenshot taken from the Genshin Impact second anniversary Livestream showing Yelan (left), Shenhe (middle), and Chongyun (right).
The relationship between Shenhe and Yelan is entirely fanmade. There is not a shred of canon evidence to back up the fanart and fanfiction that make up their slice of the Genshin Impact fandom, but it is steadily growing in popularity within Chinese fan forums24. The appeal of the ship comes from a few places. First, Shenhe and Yelan are incredibly compatible with one another within the mobile game’s combat system as they have complementary elements and playstyles that deal heavy damage when paired together–Shenhe is a Cryo (ice) support character who can boost Yelan’s Hydro (water) damage in what players of the game refer to as a ‘Freeze’ team composition. This is something that they share with a popular ship consisting of the characters Chongyun and Xingqiu and leads us to what might be the second reason for their popularity–the similarities and relations the two couples share, Shenhe is canonically Chongyun’s aunt and Yelan shares a number of visual similarities to Xingqiu, though there is no familial relationship with Xingqiu, though she does have a voice line about him. Chongyun and Xingqiu have a relationship that is young, boyish, and playful but Shenhe and Yelan are grown women and their fanmade dynamic is closer to that of Beidou and Ningguang.
A game screenshot of Xingqiu (left) and Chongyun (right).
Shenhe and Yelan do have much traction within the western sides of the Genshin Impact fandom due to the lack of canon content but the pair does have a rather impressive following in Chinese discussion boards related to the game as well as pockets of Western fandom that are dominated by Chinese fans of the game. There is not much to investigate as to why they are so popular on one side of the fandom rather than the other, but T and P dynamics come into play again when one sits down and begins to examine Shenhe and Yelan as separate entities rather than one romantic unit. Unlike Beidou and Ningguang, who operate in broad daylight within the parameters of Liyue laws and with widespread respect by the populace, Shenhe and Yelan are two women who protect Liyue by remaining on the fringes of society. Yelan works under Ningguang’s employment in the Jade Chamber but she does so as a spy, every action she does is in the shadows of Liyue Harbor society but she has amassed enough personal wealth that no one would dare question what she does and who she does it with. She shares this luxury with her employer. Despite her boyish haircut, her short qipao and tight-fitting pants are very feminine and she represents the P portion of this couple.
Yelan (left) and Shenhe’s (right) character cards.
Shenhe, despite being a human, lives outside of Liyue society with the adepti–the nature spirits and lower ranking deities of Liyue–and is stronger than any of the human characters in the world. She is hard-pressed to express emotion outside of rage or distance interest but she is shown to care deeply about those to who she has grown close. She does not interact with humans on a regular basis but she does work at protecting them from the fringes with her strength and Cryo powers. She, much like Beidou, has a very feminine figure and her long snow white hair is gathered back from her face in a loose braid. Her more masculine grasp of power and emotions put her in the T position in this potential dynamic.
The freedom that these women hold where they reside almost entirely outside of the expectations of their culture is tantalizing to young women who are examining the two characters in a romantic lens. There are so few people that they need to report to and, in Yelan’s case, the people they report to are like them, so there is no judgment as to who they are and who they love. Exploring the potential for a relationship between Yelan and Shenhe has given young, queer Chinese women an outlet to work out their own romantic issues and that is what makes their fan conjecture so important.
The international reach of Genshin Impact has made it possible for certain aspects of Chinese culture to reach an international audience in ways that were previously unheard of. Genshin Impact is an app that’s on the phones of many young people around the globe–including my own–and some people lack the cultural context to realize what some turns of phrase or symbols might mean in the context of the original, Chinese writers and what may be their lived experiences. This research has given me the opportunity to look further into something that I already enjoyed playing and looking into and examine it through a more critical lens and I hope that in the future, more research will go into topics such as this. Queer readings of same-sex relationships in other media are popular within China and Chinese queerness, but it is about time that video games receive the same sort of attention.
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