One of the most fascinating concepts of Avatar is bending the different elements. One’s unique “qi” or energy enables them through grounded movements and stances to manipulate either water, earth, fire or air. When creator’s 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 started taking 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 wide range of styles and knowledge of Chinese martial arts.
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 have listed the four main styles used in the show as well as the individual style Toph uses.
Waterbending- T’ai Chi
Also known as T’ai chi ch’uan, which translated means “supreme ultimate fist”, it is a Chinese martial art founded around the 12th century in Taoist and Buddhist monasteries. It’s practices are directly derived 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 indicipherable strength that is more effective than outright aggression.
Earthbending- Hung Gar
Otherwise known as Hung Gar Kuen, meaning “immense fist”, it is a southern Chinese martial art founded during the 14th century Ming Dynasty by survivors of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple (the approximate date is never fully stated so I gave it my best educated guess). It is also known as the “tiger and crane” style since it mirrors the movements of animals in its forms.
In the show, the original Earthbenders were badger moles who passed their knowledge to humans. This is first noted 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 strong, low stances rooted to the ground and strong steps. (Behind the Scenes: Kung Fu Featurette, “Earthbending”). Traditionally, since it has such deep positions, students must train from a few months to three years in stance training before they are allowed to learn other forms. This usually entails staying in si ping ma (horse stance) from 30 minutes to several hours a day. Each proceding 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 with monks first developing 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, each temple varied so much from the others it developed its own unique variation of the practice.
Originally, Firebenders learned from the dragons, but after Sozin’s started the war dragon hunting became a prominent quest of honor and titles. In “The Firebending Masters”, Aang and Zuko discover the two remaining dragons who reveal the true nature of fire. Rather than a form of destruction, at its root it is energy and life. Most Firebenders allowed anger or muscles define their bending, having clearly 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 one of the styles from the Wudang school literally meaning “eight trigram palm”, derived from the trigrams from the I Ching canon in Taoism. Created by Dang Haichuan in the 19th century from rural Taoist and Buddhist masters, it is viewed mainly as an internal practice (neijia gong) focused on spiritual, mental or qi related refinement (life force, breath or personal energy).
Airbenders learned from the flying bison and further developed defensive fighting techniques. As the element of freedom, learning different forms denotes the internal journey towards 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 practitioners are constantly moving, it is difficult to get a direct hold on them. This involves building energy and power which proves terribly formidable for opponents if they are further intimidated. (Behind the Scenes, Kung Fu Featurette, “Airbending”). As a part of training, circle walking is the prevalent form taught. To master this, students and practitioners walk in various low stances, changing direction when needed. This helps develop flexibility and correct body alignment which leads 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.)
Toph- Chu Gar Southern Praying Mantis Style
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 is speculated to have surfaced around the 19th or 20th century.
Toph developed her own unique fighting style after learning from badger miles outside her home. Being blind, she used Earthbending as an extension of her senses to help her see and connect to her abilities. Ironically, one legend connected to her fighting style tells also of a blind woman founding the 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.