Republic City, Yu Dao, Imperialism, the Boxer Rebellion and Hong Kong
This post does contain spoilers for The Promise.
In ‘The Promise’ we see Kuei, Aang and Zuko agree on a treaty called ‘Harmony Restoration Movement’ which contains plans to dismantle all Fire Nation colonies and remove them from the Earth Kingdom. Later we see unrest at the oldest colony city Yu Dao (150 years plus). The inhabitants of the city are unwilling to leave and are under siege from angry Earth Kingdomers who want the ‘foreigners’ gone from their lands.
First: Avatar has a long history of political commentary, let me refresh you on some of the times ATLA has done this before i.e. made reference to the political system in China. This is by far the only time. There is the Avatar = Dalai Lama - Tibet parallel, which I have pointed out before.
Another major dig is “Lake Lao Gai”. Laogai is not a made up phrase, quite the contrary:
Laogai 劳改 is the abbreviation for Láodòng Gǎizào (勞動改造/劳动改造), which means “reform through labor,” i.e. the slogan of the Chinese criminal justice system and has been used to refer to the use of prison labor and prison farms in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Other minor ones include: Kuei is a play on the last Emperor Pu Yi, down to the name i.e. Kui 傀 (pronounced Kuei) means ‘puppet’. The last emperor is referred to as the ‘Puppet Emperor’.
Also note that Avatar draws on many time periods at once, and not in order.
Back on topic:
Let’s start with the “Harmony Restoration Movement”. This is a loaded phrase in Chinese. It is either referring to ‘Harmonious Society’ a term used by the current government:
While initially the public’s reaction to the idea was positive, over the years “Harmonious Society” has become a satirical placeholder for “stability at all costs.” The government often uses
“Harmonious Society” as a euphemism to justify the suppression of dissent and the tight control on information in China. Some social commentators have pointed out the irony that in building a “harmonious society” the country has become less just, less equal, and less fair.
The Opium wars, caused by Britain/East India Company unwillingness to pay for the coveted Chinese goods (tea, silk) in the nation’s standard silver currency. This caused a trade imbalance that they decided to even out by addicting a whole country to opium, which they smuggled in through the southern border. The Chinese government did, oddly enough, not welcome these methods, which led to the first and the second opium war, both of which China lost desperately. As a result Hong Kong was ceded to Britain and a lot of residual anger in the Chinese population led to the formation of the Boxers.
The Boxer Rebellion, also called the Boxer Uprising by some historians or the Righteous Harmony Society Movement in northern China, was a proto-nationalist movement by the “Righteous Harmony Society” (義和團 - Yìhétuán), or “Righteous Fists of Harmony” or “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists” (known as “Boxers” in English), in China between 1898 and 1901, opposing foreign imperialism and Christianity. The uprising took place in response to foreign “spheres of influence” in China, with grievances ranging from opium traders, political invasion, economic manipulation, to missionary evangelism. In China, popular sentiment remained resistant to foreign influences, and anger rose over the “unequal treaties” (不平等條約), which the weak Qing state could not resist. Concerns grew that missionaries and Chinese Christians could use this decline to their advantage, appropriating lands and property of unwilling Chinese peasants to give to the church. This sentiment resulted in violent revolts against foreign interests.
Remember: Kuei is already a play on the last Emperor of the Qing dynasty.
Now what does this mean:
Mainly that anything called ‘Harmonious Restoration Movement’ is not a good thing. It is either a comment on the current censorship or the mob justice of the Boxer Rebellion, or both. In either case this does not bode well.
Yu Dao’s parallels to Hong Kong
The Boxer Rebellion maps up very well onto the Yu Dao protests. Both, the Boxers, as well as the protesters outside of Yu Dao want the imperialist foreigners out of their country.
Hong Kong was ceded to England after China lost the Opium Wars. It was the price of peace.
The Earth Kingdom is weak, they just lost the war. The only reason there is peace is because Zuko agrees to it. Sure, Aang could replace him, but a) who with and b) that would mean civil war and not peace.
What this means is, if Zuko does not want to give Yu Dao back, it will not happen unless everyone wants to risk another war. So, peace happens because the Fire Nation gets what they want, just as England did get what they wanted from the Qing Empire.
How does that make the Republic City a political comment on Hong Kong?
First of all both of them were already existing smaller cities that had been taken from China/the EK as colonies. Hong Kong was ceded to Britain in 1842 after the Opium Wars.
Both were colonies for about 150 years. In 1997 Britain handed Hong Kong back to Chinese control, but the two, Hong Kong and Mainland China have remained semi separate under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle. 1842 to 1997 equals over 150 years. Yu Dao was the first colony, established long before Roku’s death (we seem him visit it) and with the war not starting for years after and then lasting 100 years, it is fair to say that Yu Dao was a Fire Nation colony for up to 150 years.
Neither, Yu Dao nor Hong Kong, wanted to return to their country of origin. Being free, democratic and affluent, Hong Kong obviously had severe reservations against being ‘returned’ to Mainland China.
In ‘The Promise’ the whole plot is build around Yu Dao inhabitants not wanting to leave or be part of the Earth Kingdom again.
Both are affluent colonies, with mixed population that show that imperialism does not always have to end badly. With Republic City being a comment on how Hong Kong should have become a country and not been handed back over to China.