During my elementary school years, I watched Avatar: Last Airbender, an American animation that fueled my interest in Asian culture.
For those who do not know the story of this animation, Avatar: The Last Airbender follows Avatar Aang’s story. In the story, Aang is on a mission to restore peace in a world overtaken by war between the Air Nomads, the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, and the Fire Nation.
Some people are known as benders who can manipulate one of the four universal elements – water, earth, fire, or air. Only the Avatar can master the four elements (after all, in the of world of Avatar, Avatars represent the balance of the four elements).
According to its producers, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the animation is openly influenced by several Asian cultures.
Apart from the influences from Asian architecture, cuisine, philosophy, and geography (that I will describe in other publications), what are the parallels between Avatar: The Last Airbender and real-world history and politics?
Fire Nation’s and the Empire of Japan’s (or the Empire of the Rising Sun) Expansionism
In Avatar: Last Airbender, the Fire Nation is an economic, military and technological superpower.
There was a day when Fire Lord Sozin (the supreme leader of the Fire Nation) thought it would be convenient to dominate the world. The most curious part was his argument:
“Since the Fire Nation is so developed, why not share our prosperity with others?”
But, as the animation portrays, it would imply invading and colonizing other kingdoms in an attempt to prevent the next Avatar from being born (and end the Avatar Cycle in the long-term). As Katara says in the opening credits, only Avatar can promote a balance between the four elements and, consequently, in the four nations. And how can this balance exist when only one nation is the superpower?
Before proceeding with his plan, Sozin sought advice from his best friend, Roku (the current Avatar at that time), about his idea of “sharing” the Fire Nation’s progress with the rest of the world.
Avatar Roku said that the idea was horrible, considering that the world should remain divided into four nations and not one. Nonetheless, Sozin ignored Roku’s perspectives on how the world should be.
In a few years, the Fire Lord and its army invaded and colonized a significant part of the Earth Kingdom and the Southern Water Tribe. Over this time, Avatar Roku remained unwilling to kill Sozin and end his plans to control the world. And during an eruption in Roku’s Island, he was betrayed by Sozin and died.
When Avatar Roku died, Sozin (without an Avatar in his way) waited for the day of the passage of the “Great Comet”, which became known as “Sozin’s Comet”. On this day, firebenders can increase their power. As Roku used to say, the passage of this comet could give firebenders “the power of a hundred suns”.
And can you guess what Sozin did? To break the Avatar Cycle, Sozin ordered the Fire Nation’s army to commit genocide against the Eastern Air Temple (as Avatar Aang, Roku’s successor, would be born there), something that almost extinguished the airbenders in the world.
And I mention “almost” because Avatar Aang escaped the Fire Nation’s offensive.
The rest is history. The Fire Nation launched more attacks against the Water Tribes and the Earth Kingdom, expanding its territory so broadly that even the Queen Victoria of the British Empire, in her best dreams, could not aspire.
Japan began its period of expansionism well before World War II.
Between 1894 and 1895, Japan won the First Sino-Japanese War, showing the world that China (during the Qing dynasty) was no longer the only regional power.
After this war, the Empire of Japan took control of Formosa Island (now Taiwan), the Penghu archipelago, and the Liaodong Peninsula. However, the annexation of the Korean Peninsula by Japan was perhaps the most remembered and remarkable victory of this conflict.
Between 1904 and 1905, Japan achieved a victory against the Russian Empire in the Russo-Japanese War. In modern history, it was the first time that an Asian nation had defeated a European power. And obviously, the Empire of Japan annexed more territories.
In the 1930s, Japan established a new order in Asia called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The supposed intention was similar to that designed by Sozin and the Fire Nation: “as we (from the Empire of Japan) are developed and already won wars even against a European power (Russian Empire), why not exchange our technological advances with our neighbors?”
In reality, the Empire of Japan wanted to ensure more Asian countries were friendly towards them and hostile to European influences. However, these satellite states (which included the Kingdom of Thailand, the Republic of the Philippines, the Empire of Manchuria, and more) should remain lenient with Japan, their supposed “savior of Asia against the European colonialism” (establishing a kind of Pan-Asianism ideology in the region).
It helped Japan to continue to occupy new territories across Asia until the end of World War II.
Another curiosity: Japan is a territorially small country (like the Fire Nation) that won wars against China and Russia, two countries whose territories are much larger (such as the Earth Kingdom).
Fire Nation and the Empire of Japan: Two Industrial Powerhouses
Our history teaches us an interesting fact: superpowers do not hesitate to invest heavily in their industrial parks to stay competitive. Because of that, we can see a close relationship between military industrialization and economic development.
The substantial technological development of the Fire Nation was essential to boost its army. It proved to be successful against the military of the Earth Kingdom (despite its territorial size and the rich variety of natural resources).
The Fire Nation went through a kind of Industrial Revolution, which fostered technological advances in a wide range of fields, mainly in chemistry and metallurgy. For instance, most of the Fire Nation’s military vehicles are steam engines and made of metal.
The Fire Nation wanted to have the best armaments in the world. Hence, the principal role of Minister Qin (the Minister of War of the Fire Nation) was to continuously design new war machines. Battle tanks (Tundra Tank), hot air balloons, warships, and great engineering works like the “Great Gates of Azulon” are proof that the Fire Nation was not kidding with its plan to dominate the world.
What about the Empire of Japan?
Internal conflicts and Western imperialism in Asia brought political and economic problems to China and Japan over the 19th century.
In 1868, the Tokugawa Yoshinobu (the last shogun or “great general”) who ruled Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate (Edo period) suffered a coup d’état in Kyoto (Japan’s former capital). Thus, Emperor Meiji ascended to the throne.
It was the beginning of the Meiji Restoration.
You may be wondering: “and how does this relate to Japan’s industrialization?”.
You must have heard of the Opium Wars in China. When this happened, the Japanese people got aware of the growing Western imperialism in East Asia.
The Western powers (the United States and some European countries) were already forcing Japan to sign unequal treaties.
These treaties greatly affected Japan’s foreign trade. Moreover, it established that when foreigners from those Western countries commit crimes in Japan, they shall be subject to be tried and punished only by consuls of such Western countries. For example, if an American committed a crime in Japan, he or she shall be tried by the consul of the United States in Japan and not by a Japanese court.
The Empire of Japan realized that they had to do something to not be invaded and looted (like China) by Western powers.
The Empire of Japan during the Meiji period adopted a new slogan: “Fukoku-kyohei“, which means “enrich the country, strengthen the army”.
Since then, many things changed.
At this time, Japan made rapid strides to industrialize. It included heavy investments in transport and communications infrastructure as well as in its military-industrial complex.
The Ba Sing Se Peasant Uprising and the Chinese Civil War
Several revolts and revolutions have occurred in the Earth Kingdom as is usual (including in our history) in every kingdom whose territory is vast and full of people hungry for power. One of these revolts took place in the reign of the 46th King of Earth.
It all started when the unpopular 46th King of Earth failed to stop “Chin the Conqueror” victories throughout the Earth Kingdom. Chin was a kind of Genghis Khan. And just like the Mongolian leader, he was the head of a small village and had a simple past before becoming a conqueror.
After conquering almost all of the Earth Kingdom, Chin’s pride led him to challenge Avatar Kyoshi to a duel.
And it is not difficult to guess that Chin died in the confrontation with her.
However, Chin was not the only problem that the 46th Earth King had to deal with. The revolution caused by him fueled another uprising that was taking place in Ba Sing Se (the capital of the Earth Kingdom).
Ba Sing Se’s peasants were unhappy with the 46th Earth King’s reign. They claimed that his administration was archaic and did not represent the interest of any citizen.
Predicting that he would end his days without any power and probably beheaded, the Earth King asks for help from Avatar Kyoshi, who proposed a deal. She would protect the Earth King and Ba Sing Se’s cultural heritage (as the peasants destroyed artifacts and historical buildings during the revolution).
The Earth King, in his turn, should listen to the peasants’ claims. After all, giving voice to citizens is necessary to avoid tyranny in the Earth Kingdom.
The Earth King had no choice but to accept Avatar Kyoshi’s demands to finish the uprising. As a result, the Avatar Kyoshi created an elite earthbender force that would be later known as the Dai Li (the same that many years later would betray the Earth Kingdom in a coup d’état orchestrated by Princess Azula of the Fire Nation).
The first half of the 20th century was tragic for Chinese people: political instability, growing social inequalities, internal wars, the possibility of a new invasion of Japan, and a humiliating territorial loss in the Versailles Treaty (the Shandong Question).
“But Luiz, had not China helped the allies in World War I? How they lost territories?”
I will explain further details at the end of this text because it is related to Yu Dao (a territorial dispute that almost initiated another war between the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom).
The 1911 Revolution resulted in the Revolutionatist victory and the fall of the Qing dynasty. China became even more fragile following this conflict. Rebellions were a continuous source of fear and regional Warlords were filling power vacuums throughout the country.
After the 1911 Revolution, Sun Yat-sen, one of the revolutionary leaders, created the Kuomintang (a right-wing nationalist political party). This party dominated the Chinese political landscape in the years that followed the 1911 Revolution until the 1949 Chinese Civil War.
In 1921, some professors and students founded the Chinese Communist Party.
In the beginning, many communists even joined the Nationalist Army led by Chiang Kai-shek for the Northern Expedition, a campaign aimed at defeating the Warlords who hindered any goals of unifying China.
Certainly, this alliance between Nationalists and Communists would not last much longer. In addition to their divergent ideologies, both wanted to have absolute power under Chinese territory.
In 1927, in Shanghai, on a political repression known as the “White Terror”, the Nationalists arrested and killed more than 10.000 Communists. The survivors retreated to rural areas.
And if it could not get any worse, it did.
In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria (Northeast China). Chiang Kai-shek had not only two problems to deal with (the invasion of Japan and the revolt of the communists). He had three! Or did you forget the Warlords?
The difference was that Chiang Kai-shek could not count on Avatar Kyoshi. In parallel, since the Qing dynasty, Chinese peasants were frustrated with so many conflicts, poverty and the lack of land reforms in China.
Do you remember the Communists who got out from Shanghai? They went to the rural areas of China and built bases all over the country in what became known as the “Long March”. Therefore, it is easy to imagine that the Communists saw the peasants’ dissatisfaction as an opportunity to start a revolution.
To sum up, the Communists won the 1949 Chinese Civil War. Chiang Kai-shek moved to Formosa Island where he established the administrative headquarters of the Republic of China (or Taiwan).
King Kuei and Emperor Puyi (the Last Emperor): Two Leaders or Two Puppets?
Let’s imagine that you are a resident of the Earth Kingdom.
Every day someone tells you the Earth Kingdom army lost another battle (and territories) against the Fire Nation. Despite that, you stay calm because you strongly believe that the Earth King and his generals are preparing the path to victory.
But it was not happening in the Earth Kingdom!
The 52nd Earth King, born Kuei, was the last ruler of the Earth Kingdom during the Hundred Year War. King Kuei ascended to the throne when he was a child (he was one of the youngest kings in Earth Kingdom history). Due to his age, King Kuei eventually delegated all his power to someone else: Long Feng, the Great Secretary of Ba Sing Se and leader of the Dai Li.
When Aang arrived in Ba Sing Se, he sought King Kuei for a conference on the Hundred Year War.
Long Feng ordered the royal guards to use force to stop Aang from speaking with King Kuei to reveal to him about the war. Despite this, Aang manages to talk to King Kuei.
Aang describes to King Kuei all the Fire Nation advances into the Earth Kingdom, including the recent attempt to breach the Ba Sing Se walls.
King Kuei got shocked. He was unaware of the Fire Nation’s recent attack on Ba Sing Se. King Kuei did not even know the Earth Kingdom was fighting a war against the Fire Nation! And all of this happened because Long Feng hid all information about the Hundred Years’ War from him.
And Puyi’s story was not much different.
You may have watched or heard of The Last Emperor (this movie won nine Oscars at the 60th annual Academy Awards).
The film shows the real history of Puyi, the last emperor of China and Qing dynasty ruler (in another post I want to write about the influences of the Qing dynasty on Avatar).
In 1908, after her mother, Empress Dowager Cixi, dies, Puyi became the emperor of China when he was two years old.
As I described earlier, the 1911 Revolution ended China’s last imperial dynasty. And it certainly had implications for Puyi. For instance, he ceased to be China’s real leader.
Regardless of the political changes, Puyi was allowed to retain his title of emperor and could even remain in the Forbidden City (his palace) and rely on his employees. However, as the revolutionaries forced him to stay at the Forbidden City, Puyi had little idea of what was going on across China.
The fact is that Puyi had a more complicated life than King Kuei.
From the 1911 Revolution until the Communist Party took control of China, the former emperor never regained his throne. Additionally, he was arrested several times till the Mao Tse Tung government consider him a “loyal Chinese citizen”.
Puyi died in 1967 due to cardiac complications as a result of kidney cancer.
Yu Dao and Qingdao (or maybe Taiwan?): Post-war Clashes
When you watch Avatar: Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra and read all the comics, you may safely say one thing: life in the Earth Kingdom was not easy.
And life was not easy in China, either.
Healing the wounds of a hundred-year war is not simple. Because of that, Avatar Aang, King Kuei (Earth Kingdom) and Fire Lord Zuko (Fire Nation) started the Harmony Restoration Movement, a campaign whose main aim was to consolidate peace in the world. Removing the Fire Nation military presence and all colonies in the Earth Kingdom were the primary goals.
The movement was going well until the discussions about what the leaders should do with Yu Dao, the oldest Fire Nation colony in the Earth Kingdom.
The issue was that Yu Dao’s society prided itself on its cultural diversity. Citizens of the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation were peacefully coexisting. There were Fire Nation-Earth Kingdom couples who felt they belonged to a different nationality. The mayor of Yu Dao, Lord Morishita, was from the Fire Nation, while his wife was an earthbender.
And it was not just this.
When the Fire Nation came to Yu Dao, the colonizers built a strong metalworking industry in that region. Consequently, Yu Dao’s economy flourished and became one of the most prosperous cities in the world.
After visiting Yu Dao, Fire Lord Zuko announced that the Fire Nation would withdraw from the Harmony Restoration Movement as some firebenders had already settled themselves peacefully in the Earth Kingdom. In other words, there was no reason to transfer all colonials back to the Fire Nation.
But King Kuei and the Freedom Fighters (a rebel group that fought against the Fire Nation in the conflict) were not satisfied with the status quo. The Fire Nation would still have colonies in the Earth Kingdom even after losing the Hundred Year War.
King Kuei sent the Earth Kingdom army with the support of the Freedom Fighters to retake Yu Dao from the Fire Nation and ensure that the Harmony Restoration Movement would be implemented.
In parallel, the residents of Yu Dao organized a resistance group. Zuko sent troops to defend Fire Nation citizens living in the city.
As it was not difficult to predict that another war could happen, Avatar Aang decided to intervene. Immediately, Aang shows Zuko and Kuei that there was a new world after the Hundred Year War, which is why there was no reason for citizens of the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom to remain and live geographically separate.
After a new peace treaty, Kuei and Zuko agreed to establish a coalition government in Yu Dao. Soon, other former Fire Nation colonies became interested in this new model of government.
And it was how the United Republic of Nations was founded (as portrayed in The Legend of Korra).
I could write a book about territorial disputes in China. Nonetheless, I prefer to focus on those conflicts involving Qingdao and Formosa Island (Taiwan).
In 1898, Germany occupied Qingdao when the Qing dynasty granted a 99-year lease to this Western power.
During the German colonization, Germans improved the city infrastructure and promoted cultural exchanges with Chinese people.
According to what I mentioned in previous topics, even though China joined the Allied Powers in World War I, at the Paris Peace Conference and the Versailles Treaty, it was decided that the Empire of Japan would occupy Qingdao.
Japanese rule under Qingdao ended in February 1922 with the Washington Conference, when Japan agreed to withdraw from this region, allowing China to restore possession under Qingdao.
The Empire of Japan reoccupied Qingdao in the Second Sino-Japanese War. Just after World War II, China regained control of this city again.
If Qingdao is no longer a “stumbling block” for Chinese politicians, Taiwan remains a taboo for China (or the People’s Republic of China).
Taiwan’s colonists alternated several times. From 1863 until 1895, Taiwan belonged to the Qing Empire. However, from 1895 until 1945, Taiwan came to be dominated by Japan. Later, at the end of World War II, during the Cairo Conference, after Chiang Kai-shek met with the President of the United States, Delano Roosevelt, and the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, the leaders decided that the Formosa Island (Taiwan) and the Fishermen Island (Penghu) would return to the domain of the Republic of China.
It explains why the People’s Republic of China still reclaims Formosa Island.
Going beyond geopolitical intrigues, Taiwan lies at the crossroads of many Asian cultures, principally Chinese and Japanese.