Taijiquan in Modern Media (Avatar the Last Airbender)





In 2005 Nickelodeon created the groundbending show Avatar the Last Airbender. The critically acclaimed show used Chinese, Japanese, and Indian culture in order to create a politically dynamic world. In the show, people can “bend” the four classical elements (Wind, Water, Fire, and Earth). To bend each element one must learn forms of Martial arts. Water benders learn Taiji, because the steps of Taiji represent the flow of motion, breath and water. Earth benders use use Hung Ga Kung fu, because this style represents the powerful and solid nature of earth. Firebenders use Shaolin Kung fu, because Shaolin Kung fu represents fire’s quick and unpredictable nature.  Airbenders use Baguazhang, because Baguazhang has large circular motions, which represent wind currents and pockets. 

In the show, the Protagonist a young Airbender named Aang constantly promotes the virtues of peace and togetherness while trying to fulfill his destiny and liberate the other nations from the oppressive grip of the fire nation. The Avatar is successful, because he masters all the elements, and finds balance.

Taijiquan (太极拳) literally means supreme ultimate fist.

Taijiquan began as a martial art, but it evolved into something much more unique. In China today, Elders do 太极拳 very slowly, every morning in parks. Many believe that it helps open the flow of their qi in their body, but even if TCM’s logic is utter nonsense, it still provides great morning exercise and helps old people build social networks. Taijiquan, like any exercise does have health benefits. The slow motions of Taijiquan require great concentration and repetition (something Avatar stresses every episode) which can help focus the mind and body. Many Taijiquan practitioners argue that because Taijiquan opens one’s body’s meridians allowing Qi to flow. They argue that Taijiquan combined with acupuncture can help balance humoral imbalances.  Opening the body’s meridians is an alchemic process that common in many Chinese treatments. Taijiquan is also referred to as Shadowboxing, which would make a great band name. Shadow boxing is the art of fighting your own shadow in order to gain balance and mental stamina.

Practitioners claim that People who do Taijiquan have much stronger immune systems than people who don’t, but I haven’t found a substantial number of controlled experiments to support that hypothesis.



In one episode, Katara learns Waterbending forms from an ancient Taijiquan scroll. Here you can see each Taiji step. We learned many of these steps when we went to the Taiji teacher in Beijing. 

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Here, Katara waterbends against sexist Master Pakku. Master Pakku didn’t want to teach Katara, because he believed that as a woman she could not fight. Although she loses the fight she proves that she can fight well. Here, Avatar blends Taijiquan forms with dynamic characters and compelling narratives to help introduce Chinese culture to American children. Many of the Waterbending forms shown here derive from Taijiquan.



Here, Katara does Taijiquan very fluidly.