Avatar the Last Airbender opens with an introduction to the series’ system of magic, geography, central conflict, and mythos in a succinct title sequence. The first thing that is introduced is the four bending styles.
The four bending styles are based on real world martial arts styles. Sifu Kisu, a master in Northern Shaolin and expert in several other martial arts traditions (Sifu means master), was brought in to consult with the show runners, Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino, on the bending styles.
Sifu Kisu chose for water bending to be based on Tai chi. Tai Chi is what is known as an “internal” Chinese Martial art. Internal Martial arts focus more on the spiritual, mental or qi-related aspects, as opposed to “external” Martial Arts which focus on the physiological aspects. Tai Chi then is less about aggression and more about control, less about strength and more about body stance and position. In Taoism, water and lack of aggression are both associated with Yin, which makes this less aggressive style fitting for water bending. Tai Chi is also believed to be therapeutic for its practitioners which goes along with the healing powers of waterbending in the show.
Earth bending is based on Hung Gar. Hung Gar is known for strong stances that are rooted to the ground. It’s based on the movement of animals, especially the tiger and the crane. Toph is an exception, she practices an earth bending style based on Chow Gar/Southern Praying Mantis. Chow Gar is a rare style practiced by the Hakka people of South Eastern China and is considered a more aggressive and close range style.
Fire bending is based on Northern Shaolin. Northern Shaolin comes from the Northern Shaolin Monastery in Henan, China. It is an aggressive and dynamic style that features powerful arm and leg movements. Fire and Aggression are both associated with Yang in Taoism
Air Bending is based on Ba Gua. Ba Gua features a lot of circular movements and quick directional changes. The circular movements were considered appropriate for air bending because they evoke the circular movement of a tornado. Ba Gua, like Tai Chi, is an internal Chinese martial art form.
Chinese writing appears behind each of the benders as they are introduced:
Behind the water bender are the characters 水善, shuǐ shàn, meaning “water’s benevolence”
Behind the earth bender are the characters, 土強, Tǔ qiáng, meaning “earth’s strength”
Behind the fire bender are the characters, 火烈, huǒ liè, meaning “fire’s intensity” or “fire’s passion”
Behind the air bender are the characters, 气和, qì hé, meaning “air’s harmony”
The Chinese characters used appear to be written in what is known as Clerical Script. Clerical Script developed through the Warring States Period (256 – 221 BC) and into the Qin Dynasty (221- 206 BC) and became the dominant script used in the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD). The notable exception is the character for water. The character used behind the water bender is a very ancient version of the character 水. The script is called Oracle Bone Script and it is the earliest known version of Chinese writing. Artifacts featuring Oracle Bone Script date from about 1200 BC. It gets its name from the fact that the script was carved into ox bone and turtle shell.
The characters that appear in the background of the opening also appear on the map of the four nations.
The script used at the top and bottom of the map also appears to be Clerical Script and reads:
群雄四分, qúnxióng sì fēn, Heroes into four divided
天下一匡 , tiānxià yī kuāng, The whole world (literally “under Heaven”) is made right
The title screen gives the Chinese translation of the word Avatar:
降卋神通 (降世神通), jiàngshì shéntōng (卋 is a more archaic version of 世)
The literal translation of 降卋 means either to descend to earth, if the being that is referenced is an immortal, or to be born, if the being is mortal. The literal translation of 神通 means magical/divine power. So the Avatar is one who has descended to earth with great magical/divine power. This appears to be a taken from the original meaning of the word Avatar. Avatars come from Hinduism and reference a deity that has either been incarnated or otherwise taken on physical form. The word Avatar comes from the Sanskrit Avatara (अवतार), which means “descent”. Its roots are ava which means “down,” and tri which means “to pass.”