The Promise by Gene Yang

Time for some allegory!

The Promise is a comic book trilogy within the Avatar: the Last Airbender franchise by Nickelodeon, set between the original TV series and its sequel, The Legend of Korra.  The series is (very) loosely based on Asian (especially Chinese) culture and takes place in a world in which people belong to four races, corresponding to the four elements Air, Water, Earth, and Fire.  At the end of the original series, the imperialistic Fire Lord had just been defeated, and the new Fire Lord had vowed to undo the evils of his father and remove his nation’s colonies from the rest of the world.

This, however, was especially problematic in the colony of Yu Dao, the oldest of the colonies which has thrived under Fire nation rule.

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Fighting to continue their current way of life is the Yu Dao resistance, spearheaded by Kori, the mixed-race daughter of the Yu Dao mayor.

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Now, this series being for kids, no one dies, and everything works out in the end, sort of.  There are many things left to resolve at the end of the trilogy.  But one thing is certain: Yu Dao cannot revert to either nation, for it has an identity separate from both.

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The Earth King in the series, Kuei, is portrayed as weak and incapable, struggling to leave his own mark after realizing his advisers were not looking out for his (or his country’s) best interests.  In fact, Kuei even bares a physical resemblance to Last Emperor Puyi.  However, in our world, talks about the decolonization of Hong Kong did not start until seven decades after the fall of the Qing.  This mish-mash of different historical sources is seen throughout the entire Avatar franchise.  However, there are still many similarities to current China and Hong Kong.

One reference is the name given to the decolonization movement, the “Harmony Restoration Movement”.  In China, “harmonization” has become a code-word for censorship and oppression, neither of which bring true harmony, much as the Harmony Restoration Movement in the trilogy was not bringing harmony at all.  At the end of the third book, the movement was scrapped.

Yu Dao is depicted as having been colonized for around 150 years (as calculated by fans), about the same as Hong Kong Island. Like Hong Kong, it had changed from a backwater village to a bustly metropolis during that time.  The people of Yu Dao, like the people of Hong Kong, did not want to return to their former nation, but were caught up in the conflict between their world’s two superpowers (I know that in this world the UK is much less of a superpower than the US, but that’s not the point here).

In the fantasy world of Avatar, the people of Yu Dao got what they wanted.  I’m afraid this is the greatest way in which fantasy diverges from real life.

I once got some feedback from the cartoonist Gene Yang of the “The Promise” series:

Hey YC! I agree- colonialism is such a complex thing. The Promise was really hard to write because of this. I didn’t want to condone it IN ANY WAY, but at the same time I didn’t want to turn away from the fact that good things can sometimes result from it. (Look at Singapore! Look at Hong Kong!) This quote from Chinese political activist Liu Xiaobo gave me a lot of food for thought. When asked what it would take to reform China, he answered: “[It would take] 300 years of colonialism. In 100 years of colonialism, Hong Kong has changed to what we see today. With China being so big, of course it would require 300 years as a colony for it to be able to transform into how Hong Kong is today. I have my doubts as to whether 300 years would be enough.”

I don’t know what to think about the idea that China can only be reformed by an external power, but either way, I commend Yang for creating the trilogy and recommend it to all.  Younger kids will enjoy it more, as the series is geared towards them, but I think older readers will get more out of the book and its real-life references.  I have never seen this series in a Hong Kong bookstore, but I definitely think it belongs there.

Finally, a rant by the Tumblr blogger whose ideas form the bulk of this post:

First of all: The whole Yu Dao – Republic City issue is political commentary on Hong Kong.

Let’s go from there. This is a story about a fictionalized Hong Kong. It is not about Palestine, Africa or India or any other similar issue. If you want that I suggest watching DS9, or watch an actual movie about those specific issues. There are plenty, yet this is not one of it. Hong Kong deserves their story told too.

In case you missed this: The whole Avatarverse is full of political commentary on China e.g. Tibet-Air Nomads, Dai Li , Laogai, Kuei to name the least subtle ones.

This is NOT about:

-Aang vs. Zuko (and I frankly do not give a shit about who you wuuuuf more)

-Imperialism. Yes, you read that right. This is not about Imperialism; it is about what happens AFTER the fact, and what to do when transitioning away from it and let me tell you there are very few examples that did not go badly.

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One thought on “The Promise by Gene Yang

  1. […] Overview of The Promise (this blog) […]

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