Water, earth, fire, air. Long ago, around 2005, Nickelodeon released one of the greatest animated shows of all time. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is the story of a world where nations are divided based on the elements they control or “bend.” Only the Avatar could master all four elements and watch over the world. The show received countless awards and praise for their attention to detail and accuracy. A specific detail often brought up is the enthralling combat that serves as the main visual representation of confrontation in the show. Knowing the significance of these fight scenes, the makers of the show did not cut any corners in their research when they wanted to depict the fighting culture of each nation. Let’s take a deep dive into the many martial arts that inspired Avatar.
Earth benders are strong and steadfast. They have unwavering stances, and their corresponding martial art is Hung Ga. Hung Ga, originating in the southern province of Fujian, focuses all their power into their stance to take any direct hit and hit back just as hard.
Fire benders are ruthless; they will not stop striking until their foe is completely down for the count. Up close, fire benders employ Northern Shaolin techniques from Henan monasteries. It’s flashy, acrobatic, but, most importantly, aggressive.
Fire benders vary their fighting style when attacking at a longer range. They strike before their opponent can even expect an attack. It’s perfect that they follow the styles of Nanjing’s Changquan, also known as the “Long Fist.” This technique’s central philosophy is that “the best defense is a strong offense.”
Nanjing, Jiangsu, China
In Avatar, Ty Lee pioneered the art of Chi-blocking—a fighting style that made benders unable to use their powers and made their limbs heavy. In real life, the people of Tamil Nadu pioneered Varma Kalai also known as pressure point-striking. Those who practice Varma Kalai would render parts of the body vulnerable, making foes unable to even lift a finger.
Tamil Nadu, India
Metal bending is a subset of earth bending. Where metal differs from the traditional is that metal users are quicker to attack and dodge; whereas, earth benders would absorb attacks. This mimics the Southern Praying Mantis style of the Hakka people in Guangdong.
Sand is similar to earth, but much looser and carries less weight by nature, so sand benders had to adopt a more fluid stance. This is where the Shandong Northern Praying Mantis style comes in. This style is characterized by its bouncy and agile moves, seen in sand benders’ whip-like attacks.
Azula is the merciless fire nation princess that serves as one of the main antagonists. Her style is unique from other fire benders as she controls more powerful flames—and she knows it. She uses the Shanxi martial art Xing Yi Quan, also known as the “Will of the Fist.” It’s a relentless short-range style, filled with explosive strikes, that never lets the opponent breathe.
Toph was the greatest earth bender to ever live, which was pretty impressive considering she was blind. Instead of her eyes, she felt vibrations of the earth to “see” her rivals. It made perfect sense that when she fought, she used a close-quarter style technique called Wingchun. Developed in the Daliang Mountains of Sichuan, the style needs users to always be in contact with enemies in order to read their movement.
Water tribes value adaptability and fluidity, mimicking water. They’d rather react than perform the initial strike. It’s a great fit that their style follows that of Guangping Tai Chi—a style of tai chi founded in Handan. Tai Chi users focus on circles that would pass an opponent’s energy and retaliate with their own attack.
Handan, Hebei, China
The air nomads were a peaceful clan. Rather than fight, they would evade attacks to buy time and try to reason with their attackers. From Hebei, Baguazhang (also known as Circle Walking) emphasized dodging attacks and running circles around their adversaries.