The year was 1991 and the release of a brand new video game was about to revolutionize the industry. The game in question, Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, had been designed with a groundbreaking framework, high-speed special moves, and a wide range of characters each armed with their own unique fighting style. Before long, the release of Capcom’s new game would revive the one-on-one fighting genre, and bring the arcade scene back from the brink of collapse.
But Street Fighter’s cutting-edge design wasn’t the only thing that had gamers talking. Among the hulking wrestlers, green-skinned mutants, and fire-breathing yoga masters in the World Warrior line-up was a striking new addition: a fast-punching, lightning-kicking, Chinese martial artist of the highest order—who also happened to be a woman. Her name was Chun-Li.
Today, you can’t make a list of video game’s greatest characters without nodding to Street Fighter’s iconic heroine. In the game’s nearly 30-year history, Chun-Li has evolved from a grainy 2D graphic to a worldwide symbol of female excellence, a mighty warrior who has smashed both nefarious villains and gender stereotypes with a deadly throw. Over the years, Chun-Li has become one of only a handful of characters from the Street Fighter pantheon to be depicted in live-action feature films, with Ming-Na Wen starring in 1994’s Street Fighter and Kristen Kreuk taking the lead in 2009’s Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. And when it comes to cameo appearances in games outside of Street Fighter, Chun-Li is tied at the top with the game’s main protagonist, Ryu. In 2013, Complex described Chun-Li as “arguably the most popular female video character ever created.”
To put Chun-Li’s legacy into context, we have to travel back to the 90s, where gender representation on screen mostly amounted to a scantily clad woman at your service. Video games as a whole had few female characters, and those that did were riddled with sex and farce. It’s most explicit in adult-oriented games from the early part of the decade: take the pouting women in Bubble Bath Babes (1991), the “gas pump girls” of Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 (1991), and Spellcasting 301: Spring Break (1992), in which the protagonist, Ernie Eaglebeak, has his way with an array of beautiful, submissive women. By 1995, the gratuitous sexualization of women in video games had reached its peak.
There were plenty of damsels in distress, too: ditsy, distracted characters who had many disadvantages drawn into their design, and, as a result, needed rescuing from peril. Take the beatific Princess Zelda (1994) or the permanently kidnapped Pauline in Donkey Kong. One notable example is the wide-eyed Princess Peach in Super Mario 64 (1996), whose only defence against enemy attack came in the form of a dimpled, smiling heart.
Then there were the sexy fighters—the gun-slinging Jill Valentine in Resident Evil (1996), Samus Aran in the Metroid series, and the global phenomenon of Lara Croft (1996)—whose unnaturally large breasts and extraordinary physical prowess revealed a desire for female characters to be both eroticized and lethal.
In the midst of this digital world designed, developed, and dominated by men, Chun-Li defied expectations about women in games entirely. She wore an athletic modified qipao, combat boots, spiked cuffs around each wrist, and had massive, impressively toned muscles. Plus, she was one of the best competitive Street Fighter characters; her speed, agility, and match-ending Super Combos proved a devastating mix for her opponents, and ensured top-tier dominance throughout the series.
While Chun-Li emerged as an irrepressible action hero, the creation of her character was anything but straightforward. The Street Fighter artists were tasked with making Chun-Li “cute,” “graceful,” and “beautiful,” and one of the game’s lead designers, Yoshiki Okamoto, even wanted to give her a shorter life bar to show that women were the physically weaker sex (he was thankfully overruled). Chun-Li’s identity and backstory also proved a great source of deliberation for the team. At one point, she was going to be called “China Daughter,” while her original design was an army soldier, based on Vasquez from Aliens. When it came nailing down the visuals, character designer Akira Yasuda was extremely particular about the rendering of Chun-Li’s legs and stockings. According to Akira Nishitani, the original Street Fighter game director at Capcom, he redesigned them three times, causing the team to nearly miss deadline. (It’s even been reported that Yasuda had a major thigh fetish, but in any case, fans have been pleased that her extraordinarily muscular thighs helped redefine the model of femininity in gaming.)
Chun-Li finally made her debut in 1991. An expert martial artist and undercover Interpol agent seeking to avenge the death of her father, her mission was to bring down the criminal organization Shadaloo and its villainous leader, M. Bison. As the series progresses, we learn that she is a strong advocate for social justice committed to honouring her father’s legacy and protecting the good-hearted citizens of her world. In Street Fighter III: Third Strike, she retires from street fighting to teach children martial arts, only to return to law enforcement to rescue one of her students who has been abducted by the evil, genetically modified super fighter Urien.
Chun-Li immediately shot to popularity as the franchise’s first playable female character. And by giving her the same depth of backstory and combat ability as every other player, Street Fighter set the bar for female characterization. From her skillful strikes and powerful air throws to her infamous Spinning Bird Kick, Chun-Li’s offensive capabilities proved she was a woman who could finally fight on an equal playing field with her male counterparts. Chun-Li was so popular that two years later, Street Fighter introduced the supercharged military soldier “Delta Red” Cammy in Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers. A member of the elite British special forces team, Cammy would frequently team up with Chun-Li on investigations.
“It is possible that for many young men and women of the early 1990s,” writes Bryan J. Carr in 100 Greatest Video Game Characters, “Chun-Li might have been their introduction to the idea that a woman could be as capable as a man both in the virtual world and outside it.” Other Street Fighter fans fondly remember practicing her signature lightning kick, feeling inspired by her sense of justice, and in the words of one gamer, enjoying beating a “tournament full of over-muscled men” as well as her fellow male players in one sitting.
Thanks to the success of the Street Fighter series, Chun-Li has enjoyed immense crossover appeal in pop culture, with live-action American and Chinese films, comics, animated TV shows and chart music inspired by her legacy. Most recently, Chun-Li made headlines after Nicki Minaj announced a new single named after her, with cover art evoking her powerful legs and signature ox-horn buns. Like her muse, Minaj has long been representative of female strength in a male-dominated industry. And she’s no stranger to being the first important player in her field either, as the current most-awarded female rapper of all time. Listen to Chun-Li cry “Yup” each time she delivers her lightning kick, and you can almost hear the future Ms. Minaj laying down her own lyrical legacy.
More importantly, Chun-Li showed that video games could benefit from having female protagonists. Without the influence of Street Fighter II, it’s likely that female characters would have languished in supporting roles for far longer than they did. Progress has been painstakingly slow, but most fighting games now have at least one or two playable female characters, if not a female character taking center stage.
“Street Fighter pioneered feminism in the video game industry through the character of Chun-Li”, wrote Patricia Sarkar in 2016. “ Video games as a whole were relatively sparse on female characters, and they still are to this day. Much like every other entertainment industry, the main roles are primarily dominated by male, white characters. Chun-Li was the exception to this rule, and started the move towards a more diverse line of characters. Chinese and a woman, she was perhaps one of the greatest first female characters of all time”.