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Learning Traditional Chinese Characters through the Television Series AVATAR

Updated on July 3, 2011

In my family, the TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender is very popular. We like to watch it because it is a nice mix of adventure with romance. It's about our favorite topic: how a small band of individuals can work together to save the world.

Yes, it's a cartoon fantasy, but it has elements of the best kinds of fiction. And although it is written in English and produced in the United States, Avatar contains an awful lot of Chinese calligraphy. Watching the series mindfully with your child is a good way to pick up some fascinating ancient oracle bone or seal script trivia, as well as learning the more useful traditional Chinese characters.

Intro to Avatar

Every episode of Avatar starts with a recitation by Katara: "Water; Earth; Fire; Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then everything changed, when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed, and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he's ready to save anyone. But I believe... Aang can save the world!"

Character for water in different calligraphy styles

If you watch the intro with your Chinese learning needs in mind, you and your child can notice that as each of the elements is mentioned in English, two calligraphy characters appear on the screen.

Now these are not exactly the Chinese characters we are all familiar with from our beginning Chinese lessons, but they bear an uncanny historical resemblance.

The traditional character for water appears in four different styles here in the photo to the right. It is different from the first character given for water in the Avatar intro.

The modern character for water derives from the character as it appeared in the Oracle Bone inscriptions and later in the seal scripts. The first character used in the Avatar intro for water resembles an oracle bone version of the word for water.

Earth -- Strong

Notice that the character right next to the oracle bone water symbol shui is not an oracle bone version of a word. It is a far more modern traditional character, in calligraphic style. It is the character for the word shan, meaning "benevolent" or "adaptable".

The link below is to a Wikepedia article explaining the significance of each of the characters used in the Avatar intro. On the left there is always an ancient character standing for the element named, while on the right is a traditional character in calligraphy that describes the spiritual qualities ascribed to the element. So the quality linked with the earth is "strong", while fire is found to be "intense", and air is "peaceful".

Fire -- Intense

Air -- Peaceful

The Chinese characters encountered in the Avatar series are not limited to the introduction Throughout the series, written material, while read in English, is produced in Chinese characters. If you purchase a DVD of the series, you can freeze frame and study each character as it appears.

If you have trouble recognizing the character, there are on-line fan sites for the series that can serve as excellent research tools for you and your child.

For instance, this caption is from the map of the four kingdoms. Can you tell what it says? If not, follow the link for an explanation.

If your child is an Avatar fan, as mine is, then watching Avatar together can be a good way to acquire a familiarity with Chinese characters and to teach Chinese character recognition. It can't take the place of regular Chinese lessons, but it's a good motivational tool.

Copyright Aya Katz


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    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks

      Alex Zhao, thanks for reporting on that! My daughter and I didn't even go to see the Shyamalan movie. At first, it was because it wasn't playing here. (We live out in the country.) But later we decided not to go, because reports trickled in saying it wasn't anything like the series. Now that you say there isn't even Chinese language, writing or culture, we're definitely not buying the DVD.

    • profile image

      Alex Zhao 6 years ago

      Hey, did you guys notice that Shyamalan totally cut the chinese characters from the last airbender and just put spaghetti thing in there instead...

      He also did not include chinese actors/culture. While clearly earth and fire are japanese/chinese ching and han empire based.

      Love the series!

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks

      DhcLife, no, I'm not Chinese. I did live in Taiwan for three years, though, and my Chinese name there was Ai Ya (love Asia).

      Welcome to Hubpages. I hope to see you around!

    • profile image

      dhclife 6 years ago

      hello!I am a chinese girl.Are you Chinese?

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

      SpeakChineseEasy, thanks for your comment. Avatar is a great show!

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

      HarryHarding, thanks!

    • HarryHarding profile image

      HarryHarding 7 years ago

      This was awesome!

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

      DanPowers, thanks! Good to hear that you are making progress in your study of Chinese. I myself found to my surprise that recognizing characters was not as hard as I imagined, but learning tone was much harder!

    • DanPowers profile image

      DanPowers 7 years ago from Tokyo

      A nice hub. I'm currently learning Chinese - I've learnt about 100 characters now, but it's a long process!

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Trisha's Artworks, thanks for your comment. Avatar is a great series!

    • Trisha's Artworks profile image

      Trisha's Artworks 8 years ago

      Wow..nice hub,,..Avatar is one of my favorites! totally!!