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Avatar Calligrapher Professor S.L. Lee Shares A Statement

July 29, 2009

Racebending.com has received two statements from two staff members who worked on the original animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Here’s the first of the two. Earlier this month, Professor S.L. Lee spoke out against racebending on San Francisco’s 94.1 KPFA radio. Lee’s statement today confirms fan speculation that Chinese calligraphy has been cut from The Last Airbender and will be replaced with a gibberish language.

I just received words from the movie producers. They are not going to use Chinese calligraphy at all, replacing it with unreadable symbols. I won’t be participating in the movie.

It is not only a disappointment on the cast. They are removing all the successful elements of the original TV series. I think that would keep a lot of Asian audience away.

I am disappointed to learn that the Avatar movie has removed the successful cultural elements of the original Avatar TV series. Whether this is a right decision will be seen in the box office.

– Professor Siu-Leung Lee, cultural consultant, Avatar: The Last Airbender

Fans familiar with the series know that traditional Chinese calligraphy was an important part of not only the show’s aesthetic, but also it’s plot development and world building.

Lee also said:

“Chinese calligraphy is not only appreciated by Chinese, it is also a language understood by many East Asian countries. Quite a few of them are intensifying an effort to learn the language. Its aesthetics have influenced many western artists, including Picasso and Matisse.”

East Asian Calligraphy is a significant component of the animated series’s pan-Asian fantasy world. Because it was not made up squiggles, but an actual language that could be dissected at length, it brought a lot of verismilitude and believability to the world of the Four Nations. Given the ubiquity and spread of Hanzi in Ancient Asia, it made a lot of sense to make traditional Chinese the universal language of the Avatar world.

In addition to being in the series title/logo and the ending card of the last episode, “The End”, Chinese calligraphy is also used liberally to depict aspects of the Avatar world. This includes writing signs, wanted posters, books, ancient artifacts, and other plot devices that call for the depiction of a writing system.


[source: Avatar Wiki

The art of Chinese calligraphy itself is given it’s due in Season 3, when Master Piandao teaches Sokka that the dexterity involved in mastering calligraphy can be applied to other tasks, like swordfighting.

Piandao: When you write your name, you stamp the paper with your identity. You must learn to use your sword to stamp your identity on a battlefield. Remember, you cannot take back a stroke of the brush, or a stroke of the sword.

Replacing a real, eons-old written language with made up squiggles erases a lot of the franchise’s identity. Using generic, fantasy-fare un-decipherables wipes out lot of the culture and authenticity from The Last Airbender–and that will be hard for them to take back.

You can discuss this new development at the racebending livejournal community.

Categories: The Last Airbender

About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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