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Character Study: Chun-Li, Strongest Woman in the World and True Hero of the Best Fighting Game Ever

Yet somehow, y’all let her lose to Donkey Kong

Bri Neumann

“No, my dear, I know women,” purrs the great Raul Julia (and I believe him), portraying, in his final film role, the pompous drug lord and military dictator M. Bison in the lousy 1994 video game adaptation Street Fighter (I still can’t believe this). “And you”—he points a long, malevolent finger—“are harmless.” Do not believe this. He’s pointing at Chun-Li.

And then Chun-Li kicks him in the head a bunch of times, kicking dudes in the head a bunch of times being Chun-Li’s whole deal.

She is widely regarded as the First Lady of Fighting Games; she self-identifies as the strongest woman in the world. Her name means “spring beauty” in Mandarin. She works for Interpol and seeks revenge for the death of her father at the hands/feet of the villainous M. Bison. She is a cosplay icon. She is a B-minus Nicki Minaj song. As of this week, she is a Fortnite skin, a development I look forward to not discussing with my Fortnite-addled young children. She is the breakout star of 1991’s cataclysmic Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, the best fighting game ever made, which conquered arcades and Super Nintendos and Sega Genesises and has since spawned, like, 10,000 multiplatform updates and sequels. Don’t be intimidated, though: If you spam any of the kick buttons in any of those games, she’ll probably whirlwind-kick your opponent in the head a bunch of times.

Yes, Chun-Li, who as I type this is getting housed in The Ringer’s Best Video Game Character bracket in Round 2 by fuckin’ Donkey Kong, endures. [Ed. note: Donkey Kong won, you heathens.] She is the primary reason Street Fighter II as a whole endures, a legit global phenomenon of cartoonish medium-gnarly violence beloved by clueless amateurs and steely proto-esports superstars alike. To refresh your memory, Street Fighter II started out in arcades with eight playable backstory-rich characters with different movesets, and your personal favorite said a whole lot about you, whether you picked Ryu (dullards), Ken (dullards with shittier haircuts), Blanka (weirdos), Zangief (steakhead jocks), Dhalsim (cultural appropriators), Guile (military fetishists), E. Honda (steakhead cultural appropriators), or of course Chun-Li (sexy geniuses).

The superior Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, which hit arcades in 1992 and soon dominated home consoles as well, added four new playable characters: Vega (perverts), Balrog (Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! obsessives), Sagat (height fetishists), and of course M. Bison (cheaters). I imagined, as a 14-year-old, that playing pretty much exclusively as Chun-Li made me a progressive and soulful and fascinating person, and of course I was right.

Chun-Li’s signature move is the Spinning Bird Kick, in which she flips upside-down and shouts her iconic line that for 20-plus years I misheard as “Spinning hurri-cane!” and ardently helicopters forth, the better to kick her opponent in the head a bunch of times. This move, too, has stayed somewhat consistent across 20-plus years of Street Fighter sequels and spinoffs, a devastating attack indeed, though it does inevitably expose both her head (to dullard Flying Dragon Uppercuts and whatnot) and her underwear (to perverts). Yes, as with Sonya Blade in 1992’s first installment of the super-gnarly Mortal Kombat series, Chun-Li is the only female character in Street Fighter II, which is not super progressive, no. But future fighting games would struggle with, uh, the opposite problem, e.g. the 1999 launch of the unnervingly porny Dead or Alive franchise, which would one day introduce the spinoff Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball. (For the record, Maxim magazine gave it four stars.)

Whereas I was into Chun-Li for the melodrama-rich backstory and the elegance of her speed-over-power fighting style. I am a purist where she is concerned: When 1992’s Street Fighter 2 Dash Turbo first introduced her Kikoken move, a blue-fireball projectile flung from her hands and patterned after the Hadouken attacks favored by those dullards Ryu and Ken, I took this as a grave betrayal of her whole kick-dudes-in-the-head ethos. I was so offended, in fact, that I basically never played a new Street Fighter game again. Nonetheless! Chun-Li endures even among non-combatants as a style icon, as a shatterer of the 16-bit glass ceiling, as badass-lady cultural shorthand ready to be wielded by, say, Nicki Minaj: “I went and copped the chopsticks / Put it in my bun just to pop shit.” Fine. It’s fine.

I cannot in good conscience recommend the lousy 1994 Street Fighter movie, though it was directed by Die Hard co-screenwriter Steven E. de Souza with a cast that includes Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kylie Minogue (!!), and of course the great Raul Julia (who died of a stroke two months before its release, and whose commitment to redeeming irredeemable trash was central to his greatness). Ming-Na Wen, best known as the voice of Mulan, does what she can as Chun-Li, wrestling clunky-ass lines like “My father was the village magistrate—a simple man with a simple code” to the ground amid quick bursts of moderate ass-kicking. The character at least gets to kick more ass in 2009’s stand-alone Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, with Smallville alumnus Kristin Kreuk (who also has less tasteful associations) in the title role, brawling in the ladies room and whatnot, though the main takeaway from that movie is that the Spinning Bird Kick looks stupid as hell when rendered in live action.

Oh, well. My Ringer colleague Justin Charity, who I trust completely on such cultural matters, informs me that Chun-Li vs. Vega was the best fight in 1994’s Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie, and this is a brutal throwdown indeed, slightly perverted (she just got out of the shower) but ultimately righteous (she throws a couch at the guy). The couch-throwing, too, is not canon exactly, but this time I’m not complaining, and if you don’t want several dozen kicks to the face, you won’t either. Your fave could never, or at least, Donkey Kong certainly couldn’t.