Avatar: The Last Airbender features one of the most visually fascinating magic systems. In the show, one’s unique “qi” or energy enables them through grounded movements and stances to manipulate water, earth, fire, or air. When creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino first came up with this idea, they knew bending should not just be a magical concept. Rather, the bending movements needed “to be grounded in reality” (pg. 26, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Art of the Animated Series)
To accomplish this, Bryan decided to start training in kung fu, specifically, the Northern Shaolin style. Eventually, he took classes from Sifu Kisu, who then suggested, clearly excited, “assigning a specific discipline of Chinese martial arts to each nation and element based on each style’s characteristics.” (Pg. 26, The Art of the Animated Series). Sifu Kisu later became the fighting instructor and consultant for the show because of his knowledge of a wide range of martial art styles.
Thus, bending became something more than just a fancy magical illusion. Each type of bending is different but still connected to the others as a concept of strength and focus. Below, I listed the four main styles Avatar used, as well as Toph’s unique bending style.
Waterbending- T’ai Chi
Known also by its formal name T’ai chi ch’uan (which translates to “supreme ultimate fist” in Chinese), it is a Chinese martial art ancient practitioners founded around the 12th century in Taoist and Buddhist monasteries. Its practices directly derive from these two philosophies representing the fusion or mother, otherwise known as “Yin and Yang.”
Sound familiar? Fans would recognize this from the Season 1 finale “The Siege of the North: Parts 1 &2”. Unlike the other elements, Waterbenders learned from the moon and ocean spirits, who had crossed into the mortal world. As Koh the face stealer surmised,
Tui and La, your moon and ocean, have always circled each other in an eternal dance. They balance each other. Push and Pull. Life and Death. Good and Evil. Yin and Yang.
Sifu Kisu explained that “T’ai Chi is less about strength and more about alignment, body structure, breath and visualization” (Behind the Scenes, Kung Fu Featurette, “Waterbending”). For training, practitioners employ five elements: taolu (solo hand and weapons routines and forms), neigong and qigong (breathing, movement and awareness exercises, and meditation), tuishou (response drills), and sanshou (self-defense techniques). (Douglas Wiles, Taijiquan and Taoism from Religion to Martial Art and Martial Art to Religion).
T’ai Chi was the ideal style for Waterbending because of its softness, which hides a deep, almost indecipherable strength that is more effective than outright aggression.
Earthbending- Hung Gar
Otherwise known as Hung Gar Kuen, meaning “immense fist,” Hung Gar is a southern Chinese martial art. Survivors of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple founded it during the 14th century Ming Dynasty. (the approximate date is never fully stated, so I gave it my best-educated guess). Since it mirrors animal movements in its forms, many martial artists also refer to it as the “tiger and crane” style.
In the show, the original Earthbenders were badger moles who passed their knowledge to humans. The show first notes this in “The Cave of Two Lovers,” where the founders of Omashu (two lovers Oma and Shu) learned from them so they could make tunnels between their opposing clans. This is a fitting idea since Hung Gar follows the movements of animals closely.
Hung Gar, as Sifu Kisu explained it, involves low stances rooted to the ground and strong steps. (Behind the Scenes: Kung Fu Featurette, “Earthbending”). Traditionally, since it has such deep positions, students trained for up to three years to build the right stamina and muscle strength. These students usually stayed in si ping ma (horse stance) for 30 minutes to several hours a day. Each proceeding form takes up to one year to master.
This solidity and firm connection to the earth makes it perfectly ideal for Earthbending.
Firebending- Northern Shaolin
Northern Shaolin, or Běishàolín, is the most prominently practiced Northern Chinese martial art. It originates from the Henan monastery roughly around the 7th or 8th century, during which time monks first developed spear and staff techniques. Eventually, during the 17th Ming-Qing dynasty, monks established themselves as experts in unarmed combat. Though known worldwide as only one style, individual temples developed their unique variation of the practice.
Originally, Firebenders learned from the dragons, but after Firelord Sozin started the war, dragon hunting became more prominent. In “The Firebending Masters,” Aang and Zuko discover the two remaining dragons who reveal the true nature of firebending. Rather than a form of destruction, at its root, it is energy and life. Most Firebenders allowed anger or muscles to define their bending, having deterred from the element’s source.
Being his style of preference, Sifu Kisu explained how Northern Shaolin uses “wide stances, quick advances and retreats, kicking and leaping techniques, whirling circular blocks, quickness, agility and aggressive attacks” (Behind the Scenes, Kung Fu Featurette, “Firebending”). In its curriculum, there are ten standardized forms: Kaimen (Essential Entry or Basic Skills), Lǐnglù (Lead the Opponent to his defeat), Zuoma (Counter Attacks), Chuanxin (Attacks up the solar plexus), Wuyi (Combat Techniques), Duanda (Close encounter combinations), Meihua (Breaking an ambush), Babu (Open-space fighting combinations), Lianhuan (Chained multiple strikes) and Shifa (The essence of style). (pathsatlana.org).
With its focus on strong, dynamic power centered on proper breathing it is a martial art befitting the energy of Firebending.
Airbending- Ba Gua
Also referred to as Baguazhang, Ba Gua is a Wudang school style meaning “eight trigram palm.” It derives from the trigrams in the I Ching canon in Taoism. Created by Dang Haichuan in the 19th century by rural Taoist and Buddhist masters, practitioners mainly view it as an internal practice (neijia gong) focused on spiritual, mental, or qi-related refinement (life force, breath, or personal energy).
Airbenders originally learned bending from the flying bison and further developed defensive fighting techniques. As the element of freedom, mastering the different physical forms sets the foundation for further spiritual enlightenment. For combat, the key is finding the path of least resistance and adapting to dangerous situations through evasive maneuvering rather than directing facing the source.
Ba Gua practices center on circular walking and movements. Since Ba Gua practitioners constantly move, attackers have difficulty making direct physical contact. This constant movement builds energy and power that proves formidable for opponents if they are further intimidated. (Behind the Scenes, Kung Fu Featurette, “Airbending”). As a part of the training, students primarily practice circle walking. To master this, students and practitioners walk in various low stances, changing direction when needed. This training helps develop flexibility and correct body alignment, leading to more advanced kicks, throws, joint locks, and evasive circular footwork. (brisbanekungfu.com)
As a style fixed on circular and evasive maneuvering, it is ideal for the pacified and spiritual nature of Airbending. (Note: This is the style I would be most interested in learning.)
The distinct style used by the Hakka people, Chu Gar is one of six Southern Praying Mantis, or nán pài tángláng, styles originating from the Chu family. Not related to the Northern Praying Mantis style, its origin is difficult to trace, but historians and practitioners speculate it surfaced around the 19th or 20th century.
Toph developed her unique fighting style after learning from badger miles outside her home. Being blind, she used Earthbending to extend her senses to help her see and connect to her abilities. Ironically, there is one legend connected to her fighting style that tells of another blind woman founding this martial art. Since Earthbending began as a tool for seeing and interacting, her techniques developed around watching, waiting, and attacking at the appropriate time.
Chu Gar and other Southern Praying Mantis practices emphasize close combat and short-power methods. Meaning, one does not give everything in one attack but uses a series of smaller attacks to weaken an opponent and then administer the final blow. Unlike Hung Gar, it focuses more on hand and arm techniques and limited low kicks. Quite like “street fighting,” it uses a variety of upper body attacks to inflict injury while the lower body remains steady, only periodically delivering low, quick kicks for balance.
For Toph’s more rugged and contemplative style, Southern Praying Mantis seemed the ideal choice especially since she later used it to discover Metalbending.
Thank you for reading!