Hidden Lessons in Language, History, and Culture from Avatar the Last Airbender

Introduction

There are many things to love about Avatar the Last Airbender. The story is well written, compelling, and immensely entertaining. The characters are memorable and endearing and each go on their own journey where they grow and develop as individuals. The humor is hilarious, the action scenes are superb, and the more poignant moments will make you cry.  But what I really want to talk about in this series is the world building.   

It would have been easy for the creators of a fantasy adventure show intended for an audience of American children to simply create a world that appropriated a vaguely Asian aesthetic for the purpose of appearing “exotic”, but that isn’t what they’ve done.   Instead the show runners, Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino, employed a cultural consultant to help them draw inspiration from the cultures of China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, and the Arctic. The story makes allusions to historical events in China and Japan. The written language used throughout the series is Chinese and it always means what it’s supposed to mean in-universe rather than just being gibberish for the sake of the aesthetic. (A calligrapher was also employed to consult on the various scripts used in the show.) The mythos of the series draws upon elements of Tibetian Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. The Bending styles draw upon real world martial arts forms.  The costumes and hairstyles of the characters draw inspiration from the traditional styles of the Innuit, the Tibetans and various time periods of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean fashion. 

All of this combines to create a world rich with detail.  This series of articles aims to point out those details and the inspiration behind them and perhaps give you yet another reason to love this great show. 

Series Index

  1. Title Sequence
  2. Book 1 Episode 1: Names and Inuit Inspirations