Avatar: The Last Airbender first aired way back in February of 2005 and ran until 2008 with three seasons (or books as it’s referred to in the show). I was around 10 years old when this show first came out, the exact target demographic for the show, and almost immediately fell in love with it. ATLA was created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and aired on Nickelodeon. The style is one of its most unique identifiers, combining Japanese anime and American animation styles and set in a world filled with imagery from all around Asia.
One of the best aspects of Avatar: The Last Airbender is its worldbuilding. Set in a realm where there are four nations corresponding to the four elements (water, air, fire, earth) and a few can “bend” the elements to use as their own. Each nation’s style is unique and have a culture of their own, often inspired by ancient Asian culture.
I’d like to focus on the world of the Last Airbender in this first part, and what a world it is. The series is known to heavily borrow from east Asian cultures. The five elements were first developed in India with Hinduism and Buddhism: the elements being earth, air, fire, water, and Aether. The show takes this concept and brings it to life with bending, in which a person can harness these abilities and use the elements. Along with the idea of the elements being borrowed from popular eastern Asian religions, the fighting styles of each benders is based on a specific martial art.
Airbending is based on the fighting style Ba Gua. The style is characterized by its defensive nature, highlighting the Air nomad’s pacifism, and its continuous movement to overcome one’s opponent due to skill rather than brute strength. Earthbending’s fighting style is Hung Gar, a style of firmly rooted stances with powerful attacks. Toph also has her own unique fighting style, the Chu Gar Southern Praying Mantis which focus on keeping your feet firmly on the ground. Waterbending is based on the fighting style of T’ai Chi. T’ai Chi emphasizes refinement and relaxation, rather than aggression. The style is defined with alignment, visualization, breath, and structure. Firebending is based off of Northern Shaolin Style which is aggressive and fast and sacrifices defense for ferocity. It’s great seeing these styles clash with each other and how they flow and are able to highlight the differences in characters and cultures just in the way they move.
Another aspect that heavily borrows from the real world is the nations themselves. The Air Nomads are primarily based on Shaolin monks and Sri Lankan Buddhism. The Air Nomads are all vegetarian, which is what many Buddhist and Hindus practice. The styling of the Air Nomads is near one-to-one of Buddhist monks: their clothing, shaved heads, and meditation are the same as the real-life monks. The architecture of the air temples resembles that of the Pagoda Forest of the Shaolin Temple in China. The main character, Aang, has a mentor by the name of Gyatso (and in the sequel series one of Aang’s sons name is Tenzin). Tenzin Gyatso was the 14th Dalai Lama.
The Earth Kingdom is mainly based on Chinese influences. The architecture, clothing, and culture are distinctly Chinese. Cuisines like roast duck and jook are shared between the fictional and real world. The clothing is also reminiscent of pre-Manchu China and many of the citizens wear a top-knot which is prevalent in many Asian cultures. The Earth Kingdom’s military armor are similar to that of ancient Chinese uniforms. Ba Sing Se, the capital of the Earth Kingdom and largest city in the world of Avatar is based on ancient Beijing and shares influences with Qing Dynasty China. The clothing in the city is also based on traditional Qing Dynasty dress. The royal palace is based on the Forbidden City, though the architecture is flipped, with the royal palace being circular while the Forbidden City is squared. Also, the outer wall is a reference to the Great Wall of China, both used as a defense to those looking to invade. The Dai Li, secret police of Ba Sing Se, derive their name from General Dai Li of Kuomintang: leader of the Chinese Nationalist Secret Police. The Dai Li have a uniform similar to Qing Imperial guards and Mandarin scholars of Qing China. The Dai Li’s secret base facilitated to brainwash its citizens is named Lake Laogai, “Laogai” in China refers to the system of prison camps orchestrated by Mao Zedong for “reeducation” purposes. There is also Kyoshi Island, although rather than Chinese influences is rather influenced by Japanese culture. The Kyoshi warriors wear make-up in a traditionally Japanese style and they use katanas, swords created in Japan.
The Waterbending tribe is unique in that its based upon the real-life arctic cultures of the Inuit and Yupik, not that of eastern Asian cultures. Located in the polar regions of the world of Avatar, it is heavily inspired by their real-world counterparts as well as other indigenous cultures. The water tribe live in igloos, commonly used by Inuits. Their clothing includes anoraks and mukluks, including heavy furs and animal skins due to the harsh cold in the polar region. Hunting and fishing is a big part of their culture and way of life. The ships of the water tribe resemble that of Polynesian catamarans. The focus on the moon spirit draw inspiration from moon myths of indigenous, Chinese, and Japanese cultures. Architecture from the Northern Water Tribe is reminiscent to the layout of the Ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, although the canal system and gondolas are influenced by Venice.
Finally, the Fire Nation is primarily inspired by East, South, and Southeast Asia. The Fire Nation is located on several volcanic islands, similar to Japan, Hawaii, and Polynesian islands. The primary colors of red and gold are like that of traditional Chinese and Southern Asian cultures. The capital is based on the imperial cities of the Han Dynasty. The military uniforms are also based on ancient Chinese uniforms and the “Agni Kai” (an honorable duel) is common in warrior societies of Eastern Asia. Agni Kai also translates to duel of fire. The heavy propaganda and strong military-industrial complex of the Fire Nation is a counterpart to WWII era Japan which was defined by imperialistic expansion. Also, the Fire Nation are in the process of the Industrial revolution and have technology much more advanced than any other nation.
There are also other references and influences on the world of Avatar. Buddhism and Hinduism are talked about and their ideals explained in the world of Avatar. Tea is also a mainstay, with Jasmine and other real-life teas mentioned and consumed frequently. Tea originated in China and was spread throughout the world thanks to its soothing nature.
The world of Avatar is diverse, the cultures displayed are unique, and for a kid probably something they’ve never heard of. I thought, as a kid and still now, that the world of Avatar was awesome. I was able to see such unique cultures and complex influences that really resonated with me. I remember loving the aesthetic of the Fire Nation, and it resonated with me. I think Avatar was the first show to spark my interest into Eastern Asian culture, and I think that is one of the reasons that the show has stuck with me since it first aired. Aside from the story, which is fantastic and another reason it’s one of the best shows ever, the world is truly captivating. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a show I could recommend to anyone, both a child and an adult can find things to love of this series.