By Lucius Seo
The Avatar series is an American animated TV show that takes place in an imaginary universe inspired by various Asian and Indigenous cultures. When I was first exposed to this show, I was surprised to find out how the content of the show included many events related to moments from modern Asian history. This list will introduce plays that provide starting points for great conversations (as well as historical contexts) when juxtaposed to such moments in the Avatar series.
Please be noted that the content of this article holds spoilers for Avatar: the Last Airbender and Avatar: the Legend of Korra.
Please also be advised that the plays contain mature contents. Readers’ discretion is highly advised. Integration to classrooms with younger students must follow careful scaffolding.
- PAH-LA by Abhishek Majumdar
“AANG: The Patola Mountain range! We're almost there!”
Themes: Peaceful Protests, Foreign Intervention, Oppression, Gender, Free Tibet
Contents Warning: Sexual Implications, Violence
Aang, the main protagonist of the first season of the Avatar series, is a reincarnation of an “Avatar.” He is gifted with the power to telekinetically control the natural elements; his responsibility is to restore balance of power in the world. As can be guessed by the clever pun on the “Potala Palace,” the motif for the character is a Tibetan Dalai Lama who also reincarnates. It is no surprise that Aang’s spiritual father (Gyatso) and Aang’s son (Tenzin) were named after the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet (Tenzin Gyatso).
Pah-La is a play inspired by the 2008 uprising in Tibet; it was scheduled to perform at the Royal Court Theatre in 2019, until it was forced to be taken down. The play follows the story of Deshar, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, who engages in a revolutionary peaceful protest. The play provokes profound dialogues on human rights, peaceful protests, and the circumstances that women face in a system developed by violent, vengeful fathers.
2. THE GOLDEN COUNTRY by Endo Shusaku
“AANG: Gliding maybe, but not flying. You can tell by the way they move, they're not airbending. Those people have no spirit.
TEO: Yeah, my dad is the mastermind behind this whole place. Everything's powered by hot air. It even pumps hot air currents outside to give us a lift while we're gliding.
AANG: This is supposed to be the history of my people.”
Themes: Encounter with technology in Asia. East and West
Contents warning: Violence and Gore
Aang has been trapped in an iceberg for over a hundred years. When he wakes up, much of the known world has changed. His homeland has been ravaged by the Fire Nation and the martial arts unique to his culture has been eradicated. In this scene, Aang shows contempt over Teo, who is a refugee that resides in what used to be the Northern Air Temple. While Teo is not an airbender, he showcases the ability to fly by using technology. Aang dismisses technological science to be inferior to the traditional air bending techniques.
This is quite reminiscent of Asia’s early encounters with European imperialism. In Endo Shusaku’s masterpiece The Golden Country, we follow the story of a Portuguese missionary in the Edo Era Japan. Stuck among the globalizing world, the rapidly advancing technology, the challenges to the philosophies, and the growing international trades, the characters in this play are forced to face the inevitable changes that came as a result of the European imperialism. As early Japanese Christians are forced to apostatize under the tortures of the Buddhist inquisitors, the play reflects upon the duality of Edo Japan as both a “swamp” of isolationist policies and a “golden country” of infinite opportunity.
3. COMFORT WOMEN: A NEW MUSICAL by Dimo Kim, Osker David Aguirre, Joann Mieses
“SONG: When I was a little girl, the Fire Nation raided our farming village [...] The Fire Nation has hurt you. [...] It's okay. They've hurt me, too.”
Themes: Women in War, Imperialism, Sexual Slavery, Comfort Women, War Crimes
Trigger Warning: Brutality, Sexual Coercion, Guns, Violence
The first season of the Avatar series focuses mainly on the Hundred Year War, which began with the Fire Nation’s genocidal attempt to colonize the world. In this scene, Zuko, the prince of the Fire Nation in disguise, encounters Song. Song shows hospitality unaware that Zuko is from the Fire Nation. Song reveals that she has been scarred by the fire that scorched her leg and burned down her village.
Comfort Women is an adaptation of various interviews and accounts of women who were forced or deceived into sexual slavery during the Japanese colonization. Marked as properties of the imperial army by scorching the skin with burning brands, the women were sent away from their homes to military camps in foreign lands. Comfort Women is a good introduction to the topic for people who are not familiar with the issue; it brings to light an account of the war crime which, to this day, is still waiting for an apology.
4. THE WORLD OF EXTREME HAPPINESS by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig
“JOO DEE: You're in Ba Sing Se now. Everyone is safe here.
DAI LI AGENT: There's no war in Ba Sing Se.”
Themes: Censorship, The Cultural Revolution, Poverty, Wealth Disparity
Contents Warning: Sexual Implications, Violence, Misogyny, Vulgar Language
With the advent of the CoVid-19 Pandemic Crisis, the phrase “There’s no war in Ba Sing Se” became a popular meme slogan to criticize the latent response in America. The meme is a satirical representation of government officials that deny the existence of an imminent peril for the sake of protecting political interest, disregarding the amount of damage it would cost to the civilian population.
When dealing with this topic, please do keep in mind that it is also very important to discuss the rise of violence against the AAPI communities as people failed to distinguish the actions of a single administration in one of the 50 different nations in Asia from various Asian American immigrant groups that resided in the United States.
The World of Extreme Happiness is a play that tackles the wealth disparity and the discontent of the working poor that arises thereof. The story follows the journey of a young woman named ▓▓▓▓ from a rural town in ▓▓▓. As she labors under the extreme burdens of poverty, she struggles to bring about changes in a state where resistance is most unwelcome. Her effort to bring revolution faces challenges as the ▓▓▓▓ forces her to ▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓. In this masterpiece by ▓▓▓▓, we are left to question how much media censorship dictates the way we see the world, as well as the ethics of a government’s ability to ▓▓▓▓▓.
5. ANDHA YUG by Dharamvir Bharati
“AANG: Everyone expects me to take the Fire Lord's life, but I just don't know if I can do that.”
Themes: War, Peace, India Partition, Vengeance, Weapon of Mass Destruction
Contents Warning: Violence, Gore, Heightened Language, Suicide Ideation
The climax of The Last Airbender is marked with Aang’s internal conflict on whether peace can be achieved without the use of violence. As the Air Nomads are forbidden to kill any living creature, Aang is put into a moral dilemma when faced with the responsibility to stop the violent, blood thirsty leader of the Fire Nation.
Andha Yug, first produced as a radio play, provides an interesting standpoint on this matter. Based upon the stories from the Mahabharata, the play advocates for the survival of compassion and goodness in the deathly blight of war. This play is written in verse format with the assumption that the audience is familiar with the Mahabharata. When choosing to use this text, it might be helpful to read the summaries and explanations provided by the editors, as well as keeping a physical diagram of character relationship on who is fighting on which side of the war.
6. THE PHOENIX TREES ARE IN BLOSSOM by Hsu Rey-Fang
“TARRLOK: Republic City stands as a beacon of freedom, but the Equalists are using that freedom to tear it down”
Themes: Imperialism, Rise of Communism, Taiwan
Contents Warning: Multiple languages spoken in the production
The Legend of Korra is a second season of the Avatar series that takes place many decades after the events in The Last Airbender. The setting of this part of the series is the Republic City, inspired by 20th century modern Asian cities with heavy influence from Hong Kong. Naturally, the series targets a slightly more mature audience with topics from much more current events.
Korra, the reincarnation of the Avatar, encounters a group of people who are dissatisfied with the “benders” . The non-benders have experienced various forms of discriminations due to their inability to bend the elements, which resulted in an accumulation of resentment towards all benders. With the help of technological advances, a group of non-benders formed an extremist revolutionary group that used violence to “equalize” the disparity between the benders and the non-benders. This rising terrorist group is called the “Equalists.”
The Phoenix Trees Are in Blossom is a play about a Taiwanese family that survived both the Japanese imperialism and the rise of the Communist Party in China. As the family goes through the tumultuous transition, the audience is left to wonder if the interests of the common civilians mattered through all the political revolutions. The author fascinatingly juxtaposes the Taiwanese family with the career of the actor Li Xianglan as both the family and the superstar go through a phase of life-changing identity crisis.
7. AMONG THE DEAD by Hansol Jung
“UNALAQ: If the Water Tribes were at war, the other nations would take sides. [...] and the world would be thrown into a battle between spirits and man. That would be catastrophic.”
Themes: Comfort Women, Korean War, Democratic Uprising in Korea
Trigger Warning: Sexual Slavery, Brutality, Gore
In the Avatar series, the Water Tribes are divided into the Northern Water Tribe and the Southern Water Tribe. In The Last Airbender, the Northern Water Tribe manages to survive the threats of imperialism through the help of Avatar Aang. The Southern Water Tribe, however, is pillaged thoroughly by the Fire Nation’s invasions. In The Legend of Korra, the Southern Water Tribe has not only recovered much of its economic functions, but has accumulated enough wealth to live in prosperity--that is, until the threats of a civil war began to rise between the two Water Tribes.
The 1970’s marked a strange decade for the two Koreas. The communist North Korean economy has been strong even after the decades of Japanese colonization whereas the democratic South Korean economy has been thoroughly butchered. Even after the Korean Civil War, the North was able to maintain a booming economic status through trading with China and the USSR while the South lived in poverty. This economic status flipped completely in the 1970’s due to many factors that economists and historians still debate to this day.
Among the Dead is a play about a biracial Korean American named Ana who visits Seoul in search of her roots. Through the help of a mystical character named “Jesus,” she learns about her mother who lived through the sexual slavery of the Japanese Colonization Era and the Civil War caused by foreign interventions. The play uses elements of fantasy and dark comedy to tell the complex narrative of modern Korean history from a perspective of a woman abandoned by her American husband, a daughter stranded in her motherland, and a country neglected by her allies amidst a war that she never needed.
8. ENJOY by Toshiki Okada
“VARRICK: No, he wants control of our wealth. My wealth. And I like my wealth. If Unalaq doesn't pull his forces out, then we have no choice but to fight for our freedom!”
Themes: Bubble Bursts, Wealth Disparity, Capitalism, Materialism
Contents Warning: Hyperrealistic Dialogues
In early episodes of The Legend of Korra, Varrick appears as a caricature of a wealthy robber baron fermented in Capitalism. Flaunting his extravagant lifestyle as a billionaire entrepreneur, Varrick does anything and everything to make money. Although his obsessive materialism is often portrayed as a comedic character flaw, Varrick makes morally problematic choices for the sake of his greed.
In Toshiki Okada’s play Enjoy, we see a starkly contrasting snippet of post-Bubble world in modern Japan. Deprived from the extravagant economic boom that their parents have experienced, the characters in Enjoy are stuck in a swamp of unemployment: too old to get an “entry level” job, too inexperienced to start an official career. While Japan was able to enjoy the fantasy of prosperity in the 80’s, the youths of the following generation were robbed of their livelihood. The careless policy making and irresponsible spendings were reciprocated as three decades of deflation, poverty, real estate crises, homelessness, and economic depression, all to be paid for by a generation that did not partake in the glory of the Bubble Economy.
9. WILD BOAR by Candace Chong Mui Ngam
“HOU-TING: He and Fire Lord Zuko took advantage of my father's weakness and stole our lands to make their own little empire. The United Republic is Earth Kingdom territory!”
Themes: Censorship, Free Hongkong Movement, Democracy, Freedom of Press
Contents Warning: Sexual Implications, Mild Use of Expletives, Guns
After the events of The Last Airbender, the century long war of imperialism has made decolonization a near-impossible task. People from the Fire Nation have already developed lasting settlements in the Earth Kingdom territory. As a compromise to this conflict, a special island is designated as an autonomous territory in the Earth Kingdom. This island is named the “Republic City,” which grew into prosperity due to its open door policy (no pun intended) that brought wealth from all four nations. Each nation would send a delegate representative to serve in the United Republic Council to ensure that the spheres of influence (no pun intended, again) remain balanced within this territory.
Hou-Ting, the successor to the Earth Kingdom’s throne, deeply resents her father’s attempt to create peace between the nations and holds a grudge for making the compromise. Hou-Ting reverses the progresses her father made by reinstating the brutal police force and the authoritarian rules. This leads to the rise of discontent from the impoverished citizens as they were becoming sacrifices to uphold a facade of a country.
While both the play Wild Boar and The Legend of Korra were created before the Free Hong Kong movement, both provide a point of dialogue for the inevitable conflict that grew out of the Treaty of Nanking. Following the story of a publishing company in a fictional city, the journalists try to expose the government’s attempt to forcibly redesign the entire city despite the deadly impact it would possibly have. The play challenges the role of the media in processing the many versions of truths for the public, as well as the costly toil for nurturing a democratic society.
*Sources without links are either from the public domain or do not require attribution.
1. Potala Palace
2. Gravestone of Cristóvão Ferreira, one of the major characters in the Golden Country.
3. Young girls from China and Malaysia stolen from Penang.
4. A production of The World of Extreme Happiness.
5. Yudhisthira arrives at Hastinapur at the end of the war
6. Li Xianglan
7. May 18th Movement
By Mar del Este - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.
8. Plaza Accord 1985
9. The Signing of the Treaty of Nanking