All The Real-Life Inspirations For 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'

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As an immensely popular show, Avatar: The Last Airbender was appealing to young and adult viewers alike. Avatar: The Last Airbender first aired on Nickelodeon in 2005. Through three seasons, fans followed Aang, Katara, Sokka, Zuko, and others through the four nations of the Avatar world. The cohort went to train with the Water Tribes, traveled through the Earth Kingdom, and met up with members of the Air Nomads during their journey, often doing their best to evade the hostile Fire Nation. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender incorporates humor; likable characters; elaborate, anime-style artwork; and cultural references from around the world. Additional influences are seen in the layered storytelling, rife with philosophy and spiritual beliefs from belief systems across the globe. Many of the customs, traditions, and practices in Avatar: The Last Airbender have strong connections to Indigenous cultures, while the Avatar nations are inspired by real states. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender spawned a world all its own. Comic books, video games, a follow-up series (The Legend of Korra), and a live-action film continue to tell the story of Avatar, recently released on Netflix. Whether you're revisiting the series, watching for the first time, or diving into emerging aspects of the franchise, here are some of the rich influences found within the world of Avatar.

  • 1
    176 VOTES

    Zuko And Iroh Cutting Off Their Topknot Is Based In East Asian Practice

    When Zuko and Iroh fully embrace their exile by cutting off their hair, it has symbolic meaning that traces to ancient China, Japan, and Korea. Cutting off one's hair was indicative of a major change and reinvention - a visual and spiritual break with the past.

    For Japanese samurai, losing one's topknot was a sign of shame. Many samurai were more willing to slay themselves than cut off their hair. If a samurai cut off his own topknot, it demonstrated defeat and disgrace. It also meant the samurai was transitioning to a different social role - perhaps entering the priesthood or becoming a peasant. 

    Within the Fire Nation, the topknot is honored, and there is an element of shame with Zuko and Iroh's decision to cut off their ponytails, sending them down the flowing river before them. It is also a rejection of tradition and a step to embracing their new reality

    176 votes
  • 2
    129 VOTES

    Toph’s Fighting Style Is Influenced By A Southern Chinese Martial Art Called Chu Gar

    Element bending in Avatar is heavily influenced by different styles of martial arts, everything from tai chi to Hung Gar to Shaolin kung fu. According to martial arts master Sifu Kisu, a consultant on the show, each type of bending resembles a style that matches the elements' qualities. Waterbending draws upon tai chi and demonstrates "less about strength and more about alignment, body structure, breath, and visualization." Firebending, on the other hand, "uses powerful hand and leg movements," a counter-style to that used by Waterbenders.

    Earthbending "is based on the movements of animals, especially the tiger, which represents hard power, and the crane, which stands for soft power," while Airbending, influenced by Bagua, is known for circular and spinning movements - very much part of Aang's own bending processes.

    Toph Beifong, an Earthbender as well as a Metalbender, has a fighting style all her own. Toph's movements are based on those found in Chu Gar, a branch of Southern Praying Mantis kung fu. Developed during the 17th century, the aggressive fighting style was supposedly created by blind warriors. As an ideal style for the visually impaired Toph, the show's creators, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, decided to choreograph her motions using Sifu Manuel Rodriguez, a practitioner of Chu Gar, as a model.

    129 votes
  • 3
    66 VOTES

    An Architecture Park In Beijing, China, Influenced The Look Of The Earth Kingdom

    Avatar creators Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino have been very vocal about how influential Asian culture and architecture was in the development of the show. On a visit to Beijing, Konietzko and DiMartino found inspiration in unexpected places:

    Our two main destinations were the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, whose size and scale we used as the inspiration for the designs of Ba Sing Se... we made a very lucky find when our tour guide brought us to an architecture park, where dozens of historical Chinese building styles from various eras and ethnicities were on display. We knew we had just stumbled upon an inspirational gold mine that we couldn't find in any book. 

    To seize the opportunity, Konietzko and DiMartino split up and began taking photos of as many buildings as they could before dusk befell the park. Designs from many of the buildings they saw allowed for the "varied architectural looks of the Earth Kingdom." 

    When it came to Ba Sing Se, both the Great Wall and the Forbidden City can be seen in the layout of the city. Ba Sing Se's domineering walls protect the city from outside threats, similar to how the Great Wall of China was constructed over centuries to keep intruders at bay. 

    66 votes
  • 4
    76 VOTES

    The Ba Sing Se Government Is Reminiscent Of The Jinyiwei Secret Police During China’s Ming Dynasty

    The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) came into power after the long rule of the Mongols. When the Mongolian Yuan dynasty fell, the Ming took measures to expunge all remnants of Mongolian rule and culture while simultaneously revitalizing Chinese literature, arts, architecture, and politics. One of the mechanisms of power wielded by the Ming was the Jinyiwei secret police, founded by Emperor Hongwu in 1382

    The Jinyiwei were tasked with rooting out political dissidents, detaining and imprisoning individuals like general, philosopher, and statesman Wang Yangming (and several of his followers) during the early 16th century. Yangming was accused of conspiring against the emperor and publicly flogged before being exiled from the province. 

    For many fans of Avatar, the activities of the Jinyiwei resemble the tactics and power of the Dai Li in the capital city of the Earth Kingdom, Ba Sing Se. The Dai Li, protectors of culture in the city, were despised and feared. Much like the Jinyiwei, which became a tool for powerful eunuchs at the Ming court, the Dai Li was also manipulated by a political upstart, Long Feng. 

    In Avatar, the Dai Li are called "the worst, most corrupt Earthbenders in the world" by Aang. The group's founder, Avatar Kyoshi, simply responds, "I thought I was doing the right thing by creating a group that protected cultural history. I had no idea what they would become. Aang, our actions always have an effect: sometimes positive, sometimes negative... and sometimes not for many lifetimes."

    76 votes
  • 5
    91 VOTES

    Bryan Konietzko Traveled Through The Desolate Highlands Of Iceland To Create The Fire Nation

    The harsh, volatile landscape of the Fire Nation was a direct result of show creator Bryan Konietzko's exploration of Iceland. Volcanoes, craters, and darkness - characteristic of the highlands of Iceland - were incorporated into the Fire Nation. 

    Just like the highlands of Iceland, the Fire Nation also features valleys with lush, green spaces. The Fire Nation is made up of an archipelago of islands rife with seismic and volcanic activity.

    An additional geographic feature that inspired Konietzko was the Gullfoss waterfall, demonstrated by a Fire Nation waterfall that bears a striking resemblance to it. When Piandao instructs Sokka to paint as part of his training, because "landscape painting teaches a warrior to hold the lay of the land in his mind," the waterfall is in the background.

    91 votes
  • 6
    94 VOTES

    The Architectural Structure Of The Fire Sage’s Temple Is Based On The Yellow Crane Tower In Wuhan, China

    The Yellow Crane Tower in Wuhan, China, has origins dating to the third century AD. The tiered tower, demolished numerous times over the centuries, has served military, political, and social functions - a multifaceted history seen in its architectural style as well.

    Verbal descriptions and mentions of the tower over time attest to its dynamic presence and varied features. The Tang dynasty (618-907) described the tower as standing "high up to the sky, down to the river, its double-eave roof resemble a crane, its gates open to four directions, sitting on the tower people can look over the towns far and away and touch the streams close by."

    No one style characterizes the Yellow Crane Tower, very much like the unique Sage Temple found within the Fire Nation on Avatar. The rooftop of the Yellow Crane Tower features corners that look like flames, architectural features that are particularly appropriate for the Fire Nation. The Sage Temple is also strategically located (on Crescent Island) and wiped out during the series.

    94 votes