Avatar Yangchen, the Air Nomad avatar before Aang, is probably the least known Avatar, right after Avatar Kuruk. However, she is one of my favorite avatars after Aang and Korra. While I do have some mixed feelings about her, she is certainly one of the more interesting Avatars.
Yangchen’s first appearance you may have missed because it was not in the series, it was in a small but canon game on Nick.com, Escape from the Spirit World that takes place between the end of Book 2 of Avatar the Last Airbender and Book 3. It consists of Aang reconnecting with the four Avatars before him, Roku, Kyoshi, Kuruk, and Yangchen. It is here we get much of what we know about Avatar Kyoshi and Kuruk both of whom don’t get much screen time in the show. Unfortunately, Yangchen was the only Avatar that did doesn’t share a story about a mistake she made in her life. However, she is very empathetic to Aang after his failure at Ba Sing Se, explaining that all Avatars make mistakes and he must grow from it. When Aang asks why the Avatar has to be a mistake prone human not some all-knowing powerful spirit in the mountains she replies, “The Avatar must be compassionate towards all people, and the only way to do that is to live with them. The Avatar must experience sadness, anger, joy, and happiness. By feeling all these emotions, it helps you understand how precious human life is, so you will do anything to protect it.” This epic quote shows how wise Yangchen can be.
However, her next appearance, which is better known, is considerably less positive. It is in the series final when Aang is asking all his past lives how he should stop the Fire Lord without killing him. After all others tell him killing is the only way, he hoped that an Air Nomad would understand his value in all life and reluctance to kill. However this is not the case she says while she knows that all life is sacred if it gets in the way of the task at hand, that pacifistic philosophy should be disregarded. She says, “Selfless duty calls you to sacrifice your own spiritual needs and do whatever it takes to protect the world.” It was discouraging to Aang that a fellow Air Nomad would so easily disregard their principles. For a time this convinces him that he does have to kill the fire lord. Of course, Aang overcomes this doubt and does the right this with the help of the great wisdom of the Lion Turtle, “The true mind can weather all the lies and illusions without being lost. The true heart can touch the poison of hatred without being harmed. Since beginning-less time, darkness thrives in the void, but always yields to purifying light.”
While she also makes a short, non-speaking appearance in Korra when Aang and all the other Avatars appear, these only two proper encounters leave me with mixed feelings about Yangchen. While on one hand she is an awesome Airbender, seemed to be a pretty successful Avatar, and seems to be wise at some points, she is not at others particularly when she tells Aang he must kill. Yet she says it in a different way from the brutal, single-minded Kyoshi, it’s almost as if she understood that killing the Fire Lord would be wrong but still believed Aang should do it anyway. It is rather hypocritical to be ethical and stick to your morals when it is easy but once it gets hard to just throw them out whenever you like. Of course, I’m a bit biased here due to the fact that I’m an Air Nomad and agree with most of their and Aang’s reverence for life and pacifistic peaceful nature. Still, there was little trouble in Yangchen’s time, she may have had to been kind of tough on some people but I doubt she had to make these kind of decisions as Aang did. It’s easy to tell Aang to go kill the Fire Lord, but a very different thing to cross that line yourself.
Nevertheless, I would love to see more of Yangchen’s story and learn more about her, she is still one of my favorite Avatars. Maybe her time was not as perfectly peaceful as we think it was… she is still very mysterious. I believe going back to the stories of old Avatars like Yangchen, would make for a great comic or even an animated movie, which would be fantastic.
By Tom Kelly
Published Mon August 12, 2013