Chapter 3: Names, Weaponry, and Tibetan Inspirations

Book 1 Chapter 3 of Avatar the Last Airbender takes inspiration from Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, and Hindi for the names it introduces. 

Character Name Meanings

Zhao – Zhào, 赵, is a Chinese surname, the character means “to surpass”.  It’s possible that a pun was intended with Admiral Zhao’s name considering zhǎo, 找, means “to try to find” (an appropriate name for the other character seeking the Avatar) and zháo, 着, can mean “to ignite” (an appropriate name for a Firebender)

Gyatso – Gyatso means “ocean” in Tibetan; Monk Gyatso is named after the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.  

Momo – mòmò, 脉脉, means “affectionate” which Momo certainly is. Mómo, 馍馍, is a type of steamed bun which might have been what Momo was eating when Aang named him.

Roku – roku, ろく, means “worthy” in Japanese

Agni Kai – Agni is the Hindu God of Fire; kǎi, 凯, in Chinese means victorious.  Given that the Agni kai duels have a ritualistic component to them, the name could be interpreted to mean either that the God of Fire would bless one Firebender with victory or the stronger Firebender, the “God of Fire” so to speak, would be the victor

Chinese Polearms

The polearms that Admiral Zhao keeps on display appear to have been inspired by halberds, glaives, and other polearms used by the Chinese during the Song and Ming dynasties. 

Tibetan Inspirations for the Air Nomads

For the Air Nomads, Avatar: the Last Airbender takes inspiration from Tibetan culture. The design of the Southern Air Temple may have taken inspiration from Yumbu Lakhang.  According to legend, Yumbu Lakhang was the first building in Tibet and the palace of the first Tibetan King, Nyatri Tsenpo.

The Southern Air Temple | Avatar Wiki | Fandom

While the Air Nomads appear to have borrowed the bright yellows and oranges of Tibetan Buddhist monks’ robes, the Air Nomads’ robes are stylistically quite different from Tibetan robes as they feature a higher collar, longer sleeves, and lack the look of the draping and wrapped fabric. 

The Avatar Cycle itself has roots in Tibetan Buddhism. The Avatar is based on the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, who also historically headed the Tibetan government. The Dalai Lamas are believed to be incarnations of Avalokiteśvara, a Bodhisattva (person on the path to becoming a Buddha) of Compassion.  When the Dalai Lama dies, it is believed that he will reincarnate as the next Dalai Lama and a search begins for the boy believed to be the next reincarnation. Similar to the Dalai Lama, the Avatar is also something of a spiritual leader for the four nations and when the Avatar passes away a search is begun for the next reincarnation. 

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