As “Legend of Korra” finishes its second season on British TV, its third season in the US and a fourth season is announced, I thought it would be a good time to gather my thoughts for a second article on the elements of Chinese culture from which the series draws inspiration. I will be touching on “Last Airbender” for themes that sweep across both series. In the last article I looked at the traditional Chinese stylistic influences on “Korra”, in this article, I will explore the historical and cultural elements which inspired the storytellers.
Amon’s character is based on the 19th century revolutionary Hong Xiu Quan. A peasant turned school teacher who had failed the state exams multiple times, Hong became heavily influenced by some tracts given him by a poorly informed Presbyterian missionary. Religious fanaticism, social discontent united with his rage against the Manchu for being unable to fend off foreign invasion, Hong came out of his psychotic attacks believing himself to be the brother of Jesus Christ, and set about converting others. In 1851, 20,000 peasants, rural workers and Triad members, came together under Hong to form the Taipings, and 太平天国(“Tai Ping Tian Guo”), the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace.
Like the Taipings, the Equalists were the downtrodden and disadvantaged who joined Amon with a mixture ofsocial and political issues that fuelled their discontent. And like the Taipings, who had organized themselves into a military camp and killed their way through central China to the north, the Equalists sought to attain their goal by destructive means, removing bending powers from those who they perceive to put them at a disadvantage. The character on the banners in Amon’s rallies is 平 (“Ping”), meaning equality, the same character as the “ping” in Taiping, it also means balance, or peace.
Another character from “Book Three: Change” you may recognize from Chinese history is the Earth Queen, based on Empress Dowager Ci Xi, a concubine and mother of the young future Emperor, who wrestled her way into power after the death of the extremely ineffectual Emperor Xian Feng. Ci Xi would go on to rule China for the next forty-seven years.
In popular media Ci Xi has been portrayed as the incarnation of evil, luxuriously dressed in Qing headdress and imperial robes, heavily made up, brandishing her long, claw like finger nails at courtiers, issuing cruel edicts, torturing anyone on a whim, and obstructing progress by ordering her troops to push steam trains into the sea. In fact, this was far from the truth, and powerful historical female characters like Empress Wu have pretty much always been demonized by ancient China’s exceptionally patriarchal society.
In fact, her proponents present Ci Xi as an attractive and exceptionally capable woman who took state affairs into her own hands while her husband squandered his life in the harems of the inner palace, and carried on doing so during the early reign of her spoilt son. In the last decade however, works like Anchee Min’s Empress Orchid (2004) have sought to present another image of Ci Xi.
Both the Order of Red Lotus from “Legend of Korra”, and its sister society, the White Lotus from “Last Airbender”, are based on real organisations in Chinese history. The actual White Lotus is a secret society that was began in China during the Tang Dynasty by the founder of Pure Land Buddhism and members of the populace, based on the belief of being reborn into the Pure Land of peace and plenty. The original society advocated strict prohibitions against killing, looting, drinking, whoring and even swearing. However, the White Lotus owes much of its portrayal in history to 18th century rebels who hijacked its name for their anti-foreign, anti-Manchu and blood soaked rebellions across the country, culminating in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. This English name of the rebellion was due to the kung fu style used by the rebels. The portrayal of White Lotus in Last Airbender, a society working across national boundaries, seeking truth, philosophy and beauty, sharing ancient knowledge across political divides, is actually truer to the society’s original practices.
The White Lotus went down in history as the villains because of those rebels who were actually far closer to Zaheer’s rebellious, militant faction, the Red Lotus. Interestingly enough, there was an actual secret society called the Red Lotus.
The Red Lotus is relatively less well known throughout history, having kept is profile secret, and also kept to its original goals of helping the poor and those in need, and ridding the world of evil. The Red Lotus too, has its own school of kung fu. Both the White Lotus and Red Lotus are very much still alive in popular consciousness via historical fiction and Wuxia stories. Although heavily misguided, Zaheer and his cohorts do believe they are ridding the world of the evil of leadership and organised society. In “Korra”, the Red Lotus annihilate the Earth Queen and Ba Sing Se descends into chaos, a similar type to the chaos China was in during the 19th century, when the Qing government found themselves lurching from one mass uprising in one part of the country to another in a different region, often several at the same time, sinking in its struggle to keep control. Rebels were of all sorts, mercenaries no longer required by the British, pirates driven in land by foreign troops, local gentry and their militia, impoverished peasants whose plight was exacerbated by floods, ethnic infighting.
I love the fact that the entire Avatar series has kept its wise old man, Uncle Iroh, to guide the Avatars and other main characters throughout their spiritual and mental tribulations, from Ang, Zuko, to Korra, even after she has lost her connection to the past Avatars. The eccentric old man, often underestimated due to his child like and quirky behaviour, who turns out to be one of the most powerful people in the world, is one of my well-loved Wuxia tropes. Iroh is often portrayed with teapot and cup, wherever he is, whoever he is mentoring, and later retired to open the Jasmine Dragon. He captures the essence of the pure spirited Chinese man.
In its early history circa 60BC, tea was regarded as the most sagacious of plants. Han Dynasty writers composed poetry whilst drinking tea and wrote essays on tea. During later the periods of court extravagance just officials and enlightened emperors treated their guests with only tea and fruit, asking to be remembered after their death with only rice, tea and fruit. Scholars who held cultural salons switched from drinking liquor to tea. Even during the Ming Dynasty, when tea ceremony went into a decline due to the repressive policies of court towards intellectuals, the literati drank tea in private to uphold their purity.
So tea in Chinese culture, is inseparable with enlightenment, incorruptibility and purity of mind and spirit, all of which is embodied in the white spirit Raava, who Avatar Won kept in a teapot after she was weakened by a fight with Vaatu on their way to the Southern Spirit Portal. As the bond between Won and Raava during Harmonic Convergence created the Avatar Spirit, you could say that the essence of Chinese tea and the essence of the Avatar are inextricably linked.
Other notable points of reference to Chinese culture are elements related to the Earth Kingdom, one could say, is modeled on the tyrannical Qing State, from the aforementioned Earth Queen, to the resemblance in uniform and nature of the notorious elite police the Dai Li戴笠 (literally “san pan wearers”), to Qing Dynasty officials; their sinister underground facilities under Lake Laogai 劳改, meaning labour reform for criminals, a actual policy in modern China.There have been enlightened emperors like the Earth King in Chinese history, such as Kangxi and Qianlong, who were said to have toured the country undercover to find out about their people and their condition.
The desert where Korra and Asami are stranded with the Earth Kingdom air force that tried to capture them, iscalled Si Wong, a variation of 死亡, or death. The autonomous Metal Clan city under the matriarch of Suyin Beifong, is called Zaofu （皂阜, meaning “black mountain of plenty”). And not to put too fine a point on it, the traitor within, Zaofu’s former trusted advisor, has been named Aiwei. The air vents at Zaofu resemble Ba Gua mirrors. Ba Gua, 八卦 or Eight Trigrams are the basic principles behind the I Ching, 易经, or Book of Change, after which Legend of Korra series 3 is named. The ancient Chinese believed that all things in the universe are constantly in a state of change, and there are two primary aspects of the cosmos, the Yin and the Yang, which influence change. Before the separation of Ying and Yang there was 太极, Taiji, literally “great ultimate”, referring to the primal state of the universe. And Tai Chi, the kung fu practiced in China since the 3rd century, draws on harmonizing the forces of Ying and Yang, employing flowing, rhythmic, deliberate movements with stances and positions. Sound familiar? Tai Chi is what inspired the creators on water bending.
This is by no means an exhaustive article on the Chinese influences in the Avatar series, there are more I want to write about, but I will save them for other articles. I will certainly be writing a standalone piece on Chinese steampunk, which will feature the weapons and character designs of the Equalists, amongst other recent works.
Posted in Blog and tagged Avatar, Ba Gua, Boxer Rebellion, cartoon, china, Chinese, Ci Xi, Hong Xiu Quan, Kangxi, Legend of Korra, Qianlong, Red Lotus, tai chi, The Last Airbender, TV, White Lotus