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Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are aesthetically and conceptually influenced by many real-world cultures, particularly China and other parts of East Asia. Other cultural influences come from South Asia, mainly India, and various indigenous cultures from around the world.
Modern popular culture is also a prominent influence on both series', especially traditional Japanese animation and Asian feature films (both animated and live-action). Contemporary American storytelling tropes are interspersed throughout, such as the archetypal "Hero's Journey", and certain characters and plot lines clearly echo previous franchises that made use of this theme.
The artistic and animation styles used in Avatar are clearly influenced by various forms of Japanese anime. Avatar creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino confirmed a particular anime influence in a magazine interview:
"The best anime balances great action sequences with humor and emotion, something we try to do on Avatar. We love all the films of Hayao Miyazaki, especially Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Both movies deal with spirituality and the environment in an entertaining way. Also, there's a lot of great animation."
Avatar draws inspiration from Shinichiro Watanabe's Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, as well as FLCL of Gainax. Other various studios from which inspiration was drawn include STUDIO4 °C, Production I.G, and Studio Ghibli. Bryan has commented that some of his most cherished Watanabe fight scenes were the fight between Bebop's Spike Spiegel and a drug smuggler in "Asteroid Blues", as well as the duel between Mugen and Sara in the Champloo episode "Elegy of Entrapment (Verse 2)". Avatar director Giancarlo Volpe also claims the staff "were all ordered to buy FLCL and watch every single episode of it".
The choreographed martial art bending moves were profoundly inspired by Asian cinema. Avatar creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino stated the particular influence in a magazine interview:
"Asian cinema is really good at action comedy. Shaolin Soccer is one of our favorite movies. It has tons of fantastic action and lots of funny moments. Some of the effects provided inspiration for how bending moves might look on the show."
Numerous moments in the series also draws parallels with the highly acclaimed film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, one of the highest grossing foreign films to date. In particular, the score for the film and the types of weapons can be seen within the series, more commonly toward the end of Book Two: Earth and the entirety of Book Three: Fire. Notably, the fighting style used by the Kyoshi Warriors closely resembles the Jade Fox's acupressure technique, and Azula's own fighting style mimics several scenes in this film. This style can be seen throughout numerous other wuxia films.
Another similarity is that of Zhang Ziyi's character, Yu Jiao Long, and Toph Beifong. Both are the daughters of noblemen, and are expected to continue to bring honor to their family. In Jiao's case, it is by entering an arranged marriage; Toph must remain hidden and submissive to please her parents. Both are forced to keep the extent of their talents a secret, an idea that is echoed in the title of the film, and both characters also developed through allowing these secrets to become known, and the problems held with their parents were either left ambiguous, or never resolved.
Konietzko and DiMartino have cited Joseph Campbell and his writings on comparative mythology - including the "Hero's Journey" - as an influence in creating the storyline and characters for the show. Campbell's work also heavily inspired director George Lucas when creating the original Star Wars trilogy, and the three Books of The Last Airbender each bear striking resemblances to each movie in said trilogy; Book One: Water shares narrative parallels to A New Hope, Book Two: Earth incorporates similar themes and characters to The Empire Strikes Back, and Book Three: Fire resolves the narrative in a similar way to The Return of the Jedi.
Book series such as Harry Potter and novels such as The Lord of the Rings were a heavy influence in developing the story of Avatar. Such franchises also draw on the work of Joseph Campbell, and the creators of Avatar wanted to tell their own epic "legend & love story" on a similar scale. They have stated that they have relied on traditional archetypes and motifs for creating their characters.
- Tea is a popular drink in the Avatar world. The practice of drinking tea is said to have begun in China as early as 2737 BCE. It was not until the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), however, that tea became cemented as the national drink of China, ultimately spreading throughout Asia and eventually the world. Tea remains one of the most popular drinks in China, and many of the teas mentioned by Iroh, including jasmine and ginseng, are real beverages.
- Writing in the Avatar world uses Traditional Chinese characters, which eventually spread throughout East Asia. Both seal script, which was only extensively used mainly in China and writing engraved on rock, etc., and clerical script, written on paper, are used.
- Everyone regularly uses or can use chopsticks, which are the primary eating utensil throughout East Asia, also developed by the Chinese.
- Concepts like yin and yang as well as balance are influenced by Chinese beliefs.
The Five Elements were first developed in India and the Five Classical Elements of Hinduism and Buddhism: earth, water, air, fire, and Aether, have been influential in the development of the show, providing the backbone of the five elements seen in the Avatar series.
- These elements are not to be confused with the Five Chinese elements: water, fire, wood, metal, and earth.
- In "The Book of Five Rings", Japanese samurai warrior Miyamoto Musashi wrote five books of military strategy and martial arts: The Book of Earth, The Book of Water, The Book of Fire, The Book of Wind, and The Book of Nothing. These books relate the five elements to five different aspects of battle. The bending in Avatar is a literal representation of this concept.
- A common element throughout these different philosophies is the idea of an intangible Fifth element—Aether, the Void, Space, etc. represented in the Avatar: The Last Airbender series through the Spirit World, the Avatar State, and energybending.
The culture of the Water Tribes, as well as their location in the polar regions of the world, is primarily based on the real-life Arctic cultures such as the Inuit and Yupik. Elements of their society also draw from many other indigenous cultures, including Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders.
- Many people of the Water Tribes live in igloos, a dwelling commonly used by the Inuit.
- Water Tribe clothing includes anoraks and mukluks, often incorporating heavy furs and animal skins as protection against the cold.
- They rely heavily on hunting and fishing as means of survival, also borrowed from the Inuit.
- Water Tribe warriors wear warpaint into battle, something associated with Native Americans.
- Sokka uses a boomerang, a curved weapon used by Aboriginal Australians and other indigenous cultures around the world, including Native Americans and South Asians.
- Water Tribe ships distinctly resemble Polynesian catamarans.
- The spiritual practices of the Water Tribes draws inspiration from moon myths of the Native Americans, Chinese, and Japanese.
- The architecture of the Northern Water Tribe appears to have been influenced by Venice's gondolas and canal systems. It also resembles the layout of the ancient capital of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan.
The architecture, clothing and culture of the Earth Kingdom seems to be based primarily on China and its neighboring states. The many tribes and towns throughout the Earth Kingdom can also resemble other cultures.
- The Earth Kingdom is extremely large and diverse, and contains different cultures within itself.
- Earth Kingdom architecture has distinctive Chinese influences.
- Earth Kingdom cuisine is almost entirely based on Chinese cuisine. Examples of dishes that the Earth Kingdom and the Chinese share are roast duck and jook.
- With the exception of Ba Sing Se, Earth Kingdom clothing is almost entirely based on pre-Manchu China. The clothing of the Beifong family is largely inspired by Tang Dynasty clothing.
- The government of Ba Sing Se is similar to Chinese government under Jinyiwei of the Ming Dynasty. The information control and propaganda is reminiscent of its near police state, with total control of the populace through harsh laws and secret police.
- Many Earth Kingdom citizens wear top-knots, which originated in Asia. They are prevalent in India, Japan, Korea, and Thailand, and are worn by all social classes.
- Earth Kingdom army uniforms resemble ancient Chinese military uniforms.
- The curved sword wielded by the leader of the Zhang tribe resembles the kopesh, a sword used by the ancient Egyptians.
- Although the mainland of the Earth Kingdom resembles China, Kyoshi Island is aesthetically influenced by Japan. The Kyoshi Warriors wear face make-up in a broadly Japanese style, and in combat they make use of the katana, a traditional Japanese sword. Japanese architectural influences, such as 'prayer hand' construction, are also reflected in Kyoshi Island.
- Kuei, the 52nd monarch of the Earth Kingdom, is similar to the last emperor of China, Puyi. Not only is there a similarity in their names, but Kuei wears the same circular glasses as Puyi. Both rulers were kept ignorant of the state of their nation and had no real power. Kuei had previously never left the Ba Sing Se palace, akin to how Puyi, up to a point, was always kept in the Forbidden City.
Ba Sing Se
Ba Sing Se, the capital of the Earth Kingdom is based on ancient Chinese capitals such as Beijing, as the creators were inspired by the idea of an isolated city. It also has significant influences from Qing Dynasty China.
- More often found in Ba Sing Se is the queue hairstyle. It can be worn by all men, with no social distinction. Such practice parallels the manchu queue, forced upon the Han population of China after 1644.
- All the Ba Sing Se costumes are inspired by Qing Dynasty dress. For example, the haiku girls wear headpieces reminiscent of those worn by Qing Dynasty court ladies. Also, the Earth King wears clothing similar to that of Qing Dynasty Emperors. The Earth King's attire is indicative of the style exhibited in a famous painting of Xianfeng Emperor.
- The Royal Palace is largely based on the Forbidden City. It has similar architecture, but the Earth Kingdom Royal Palace compound is circular, not square unlike the Forbidden City.
- The Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se is visually based on many towns and marketplaces in the Central Jiangxi Province.
- The Dai Li resemble and are named after the leader of the Chinese Nationalist Secret Police, General Dai Li of the Kuomintang. Their uniform is similar to that worn by the Qing Imperial Guards and it is also reminiscent of that worn by the scholar officials, or mandarins, of Qing China. The Dai Li wear conical-shaped hats similar to those worn by Qing mandarins. Their square shaped embroidery with the Earth Kingdom symbol resembles the Mandarin Square worn by Chinese Ming and Qing officials.
- The Outer Wall's design and scale is based on the Great Wall of China, except that the Outer Wall is a defense ring, unlike the Great Wall, which is a line of defense. The walls of Ba Sing Se are much taller than the actual Great Wall, as the creators wanted it to feel more massive.
- Just as the Great Wall is visible from outer space, the Great Walls of Ba Sing Se are always drawn onto maps of the Earth Kingdom.
- Palanquins, used by the Earth King, were also used in China by the upper classes. One particularly large and luxurious type of palanquin was reserved for the emperor.
- Similar to how the Dai Li had their secret base to brainwash political prisoners and potential troublemakers underneath Lake Laogai, in China, "Laogai" refers to the system of prison camps begun by Mao Zedong to exterminate or "reeducate" political prisoners under the Communist regime, which still operates today.
- The topography of the Fire Nation draws most of its influence from Iceland, with photographs of the island being used directly in designing the geography of the nation. In addition, the Fire Nation is located on a series of volcanic islands, similar to a number of real world locations, including Hawaii, Japan, and the Polynesian Islands.
- The omnipresent red and gold motifs displayed in Fire Nation architecture and clothing are predominantly seen in traditional Chinese and Southeast Asian cultures.
- The architecture of the Fire Nation draws influences on many cultures, but is predominantly similar to Chinese and Southeast Asian architecture.
- The Fire Nation Royal Palace draws its influence from Ancient Egyptian and Chinese architecture. In addition, the royal garden is based on classical Chinese garden styles.
- The Fire Nation Capital is greatly influenced by the imperial cities of the Han Dynasty, and to a lesser extent, is visually similar to the Forbidden City.
- From the exterior, Ember Island architecture most closely resembles that of Southeast Asian resorts.
- The more affluent Ember Island residences are adorned with paintings and vases similar to Chinese ones.
- The architecture of the Bhanti Tribe resembles Southeast Asian architecture. In addition, the statue found in the Bhanti Tribe Village temple most closely resembles statues of Buddha in Thai interpretation.
- The Fire Temple is nearly a direct replica of Chinese-style pagodas.
- The military uniforms of the Fire Nation are clearly based on military uniforms of ancient Chinese militaries, as are many weapons.
- Fire Nation attire often resembles Chinese Hanfu. Zuko is sometimes depicted wearing a shenyi.
- In Fire Nation royal weddings, the bride has a hairdo similar to the ones worn by Korean Queens.
- Fire Nation cuisine closely mirrors Szechuan cuisine.
- In one scene, Zuko and Iroh are shown cutting off their top-knots to symbolize their separation from their family and their Nation, a practice that occurred in ancient East Asia.
- The Agni Kai is a form of "honor duel" commonly seen in warrior societies in South Asia, particularly South India and Sri Lanka. It literally translates to 'Duel of Fire' or 'Fire Quarrel'.
- The creators of Avatar have stated that it is the practice of the Fire Nation for potential rulers to have to "prove their worth" through difficult challenges. This is a practice in many warrior cultures.
- Palanquins, used by Fire Nation Royal Family members, were also used in China by the upper classes. One particularly large and luxurious type of palanquin was reserved for the emperor.
- Fire Nation propaganda justifying its imperialism is also similar to that of Japan's during World War II, as the Japanese Empire used an ideological construct, "Dai Toa Kyoeikan", meaning "The Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere", to justify invading China and conquering the South Pacific, just as the Fire Nation has invaded the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes.
- The Fire Nation is the most industrialized nation in the Avatar world and relies heavily on coal, as did historical industrialized empires of the 19th and 20th centuries.
- The Fire Nation has a strong military-industrial complex and a very nationalistic culture replete with propaganda and cult of personality to their ruler, the Fire Lord. The schoolbooks of Fire Nation children are censored to teach them misleading information about the war, similar to schoolbooks in post World War II Japan. These traits are also commonly found in communist countries, such as Maoist China and North Korea.
- The Sun Warriors' compound includes buildings inspired by Hindu and Buddhist architecture. This architecture is found in Southeast Asian landmarks such as the Candi Sukuh, Angkor Wat, and Phanom Rung.
- The Sun Warriors' dress is reminiscent of traditional Southeast Asian warrior dress, particularly the headdresses which resemble Iban feather headdresses.
- The Sun Warriors themselves share qualities with the Maya and Aztec cultures of Central America, who were particularly famous as sun-worshipers.
- Many Buddhist and Hindu groups practice vegetarianism, a trademark of Air Nomad culture.
- The Air Nomads were a monastic culture: Their bald heads, clothing, and meditation practices closely parallel real-world Buddhist monks.
- Tibetans use a set of toys to find the next Dalai Lama, which the Air Nomads also use when looking for the new Avatar.
- Like the Dalai Lama, Aang was the reincarnated spiritual leader of his people.
- Aang's mentor was named Monk Gyatso and his son Tenzin, which form the real name of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.
- Aang's clothing in season one and two closely resembles the saffron robes of Shaolin Monks. These were in turn based on the robes of Buddhist monks who visited from India.
- The architecture of the air temples resembles real-world brick pagodas similar to the famous "Pagoda Forest" of the Shaolin Temple in China.
- Laghima's Peak contains a small room carved out of the rock itself, which holds an altar dedicated to Guru Laghima, as well as other statues in side niches. This was inspired by a similarly-fashioned room in Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger's Nest, a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayan country of Bhutan.
- In season three, Aang wears clothing similar to the Dalai Lama. In Buddhist tradition, the right arm of the Dalai Lama is always kept uncovered. In his late-season three clothing, which is similar in style, Aang's right arm is also uncovered.
- Monk Gyatso and Aang used airbending to lightheartedly make cakes, much to the chagrin of the other elders. In Tibetan Buddhism, gtor-ma cakes are sacrificial cakes used in ceremonies and play an important role in Tibetan culture. However, these cakes are usually used to appease the more wrathful of Buddhist deities, and would not have been treated in such a cavalier manner.
The four main bending styles are based almost entirely upon traditional Chinese martial arts.
The erratic, circular movements of Airbending are derived from Ba Gua. It is sometimes called Bagua Zhang's, a characteristic method of stance and movement based on the theory of continuously changing in response to the situation at hand in order to overcome an opponent with skill rather than brute force. It is more broadly grouped as an internal practice.
Airbending is notable for being almost entirely defensive, however it is reputed to be the most dynamic of the four bending arts. Airbenders can overwhelm many opponents at once with large and powerful attacks that could prove fatal; however due to the pacifist nature of the Air Nomads such attacks are rarely used.
The slow, flowing movements of T'ai Chi are the basis of waterbending. In the real world, T'ai Chi, and the martial practice of T'ai Chi Chuan, is classified as an "internal style", which means that it emphasizes refinement and relaxation before aggression. It emphasizes alignment, body structure, breath, and visualization. The combat forms of waterbending revolve around those of the Chen and Wu styles, self-defense and fighting respectively, of T'ai Chi Ch'uan.
Waterbenders have the ability to heal by using water as a catalyst for manipulating Chi paths in the body. Tai Chi is said to have many health benefits, particularly in the non-martial realm of Tai Chi Chih. This form focuses on developing and balancing one's chi.
The firmly rooted stances and powerful strikes of Hung Gar are the basis for earthbending. In the real world, Hung Gar is an "external style", which means that its art emphasizes use of the art for defense purposes before refinement and relaxation.
Toph's bending is unique in that it is based on Chu Gar Southern Praying Mantis instead of Hung Gar. This style, also "external", emphasizes more close-range attacks from the upper body, keeping the feet firmly on the ground or very close to it.
The fast, hard, aggressive strikes of Northern Shaolin style are used for firebending. The style sacrifices defense for fierce attacks. Northern Shaolin is complex and subtle art that retains a pure essence of structured movement and posture. In the Chinese martial art classification system, Northern Shaolin is an "external" art.
Firebending is notable for its intensive attacking style and general lack of adequate defense moves, although some notable firebenders utilize creative defensive moves. For example, Jeong Jeong can create fire walls, and Zuko can easily block and shoot down incoming objects.
- Main article: Boomerang
Sokka's boomerang is based on the 'returning boomerangs', one of two curved weapons used by Aboriginal Australians. Other tribal groups around the world, including Native Americans and South Asians, have used boomerangs to hunt, but these boomerangs would not return to the thrower. The name 'boomerang' was used by the Turuwal people who lived in South Sydney, and is used only to refer to boomerangs which did return.
- Main article: Dual broadswords
Zuko dual-wields dao sabres, often while in his Blue Spirit persona. One of the four major Chinese weapons, the dao is known as "the most reckless and daring of all weapons". Unlike Sokka's space sword, Zuko's swords are like traditional dao — single handed and single edged.
Jet's hook swords
- Main article: Hook swords
Also known as tiger hook swords or 'Heaven and Sun Moon Sword' (), these weapons have a blade similar to that of the jian, though possibly thicker or unsharpened, with a prong or hook similar to a shepherd's crook near the tip. Guards are substantial, in the style of butterfly swords. Often used in pairs, the hooks of the weapons may be used to trap or deflect other weapons.
Sokka's space sword
- Main article: Sokka's sword
Sokka's "space sword" is a jian (), a Chinese, double-edged straight sword. The jian has a 2,500-year history and is considered one of the major Chinese weapons. Known as "The Gentleman of Weapons" the jian is a multi-purpose weapon used for cutting, thrusting, slashing, and stabbing. One of the trademarks of Chinese wuxia storytelling, special jian swords, like Sokka's "space sword" are often featured prominently in the story.
- The word "Avatar" comes from the Sanskrit word avatāraḥ, (Sanskrit: अवतारः), which means "descent". In Hindu tradition, deities manifest themselves into physical forms—or Avatars—to restore balance on earth, usually during a period of great evil.
- In order to master the Avatar State, Aang studies the chakras with a Guru. In Hinduism and Buddhism, chakras are centers of life force and vital energy.
- The firebending third eye of Combustion Man and P'Li is taken directly from the third eye of Shiva, the Hindu God of Destruction. Their third eyes are in exactly the same shape and design and perform a similar function to Shiva's eye, which is meant to be a tool of destruction.
- Aang's vegetarian diet is based on the dietary habits of Hindu monks, which advocates for non-consumption of meats.
- The word Agni in the term Agni Kai is derived from the Sanskrit word for fire, "agniḥ" (Sanskrit: आग्निः).
- The Sanskrit word for earth, "bhūmiḥ" (Sanskrit: भूमिः), is similar to the name of earthbender Bumi. Bhūmi-dēvī is also the name of the Hindu Earth Goddess, or Mother Earth.
- Rohan is a popular Indian name meaning "ascending" in Sanskrit.
- In the commentary for "Sozin's Comet, Part 2: The Old Masters", the creators stated that the scenes where Aang speaks to his past lives is influenced by the Hindu scripture, Bhagavad Gitā.
- The concept of the sun temple and sun worship in "The Firebending Masters" is based on the sun temples found in India, especially Konark Sun Temple in Odisha. The sun warriors are based on The Gurjars, who worship the God and solar deity Surya.
- The four elements in Avatar are the same ones used in Hinduism with the exception of the fifth element, energy. In Hinduism, it is called Space or the Aether which is close to the concept of energybending.
- The air monks lifestyles, features, practice, and more are based upon Buddhist monks.
- The Four Elements of the series — water, earth, fire, and air — are derived from the Buddhist concept of catudhātu. The primary Four Elements of Buddhism are a basis for understanding and for liberating oneself from suffering.
- Energybending may be an allusion to the less frequently mentioned fifth and six elements, Space and Consciousness.
- In "The Swamp", the character Huu states that he reached enlightenment under the banyan-grove tree. This is an allusion to Siddhārtha Gautama attaining enlightenment under the Bodhi tree to become the Buddha.
- Also stated in "Avatar Extras", Zuko's transformation in Book Two reflects as well the story of Siddhārtha Gautama.
- Tenzin and Monk Gyatso bear the name of the current Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso.
- The process of finding a new Dalai Lama is simlar to the process of discovering the Avatar. After Roku died, the Air Nomads found his reincarnation by having children pick from thousands of toys. The Avatar would pick the four that belonged to past Avatars because they were familiar to them. The same process is used in choosing a new Dalai Lama: asking questions and presenting possessions of the Dalai Lama to the candidate to see if they truly are the Dalai Lama.
- Of all the different religions that have a belief in reincarnation, the Avatar's process of reincarnation leans most closely to that of Buddhism.
- Concept of Yin and Yang. The prime example would be the spirit of the moon and sea fish which are black and white, where one cannot function without the other.
- The existence of a Spirit World.
- Various symbols of the Tao.
- The "go with the flow" attitudes of waterbenders.
- The concept of Qi or Chi as an energy used by benders to enhance their combat and manipulate the elements. Manipulation, cultivation, and refinement of one's qi is an important concept in Taoism. Qi is one of the Three Treasures, along with Jing and Shen, in religious Taoism.
- Bumi's attitude of 'doing nothing' resembles the Taoist ideal of 'wuwei', proposed by the Chinese sage Laozi as a means to doing something without direct action.
- The diverse nature spirits that interact with the people of the Avatar world are reminiscent of Kami. They also resemble nature spirits worshiped by many tribal cultures.
- Most of the "good guys" on Avatar are shown to have respect and reverence for nature. Respect of nature is one of the "four affirmations" of the Shinto spirit.
- While solar worship is omnipresent in the world's non-Abrahamic religions, the set of beliefs present in the Sun Warrior civilization appear to be inspired by both Hindu and Mesoamerican sun-centered beliefs. Ancient Mesoamericans depicted relevant deities as serpents, such as Tohil, one of the Mayan gods of the Sun who is depicted as a dragon, and Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent who was a leading god in several indigenous societies in pre-Spanish Mexico. The style of dress and political hierarchy also follows that of the civilizations found in Mesoamerica. The concept of the sun temple and sun worship has been directly influenced by the sun temples found in India, especially Konark Sun Temple is Odisha. The connection of fire with the Sun and dragons also draws parallels to the Egyptian veneration of Wadjet and the levantine seraphs, which were originally depicted as fiery winged dragons rather than humanoid angels.