Archivist Spotlight: Wan Shi Tong
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
As #NationalLibraryWeek comes to a close, I thought I'd take the opportunity to put the spotlight on one of my favorite archivists/librarians/curators, Wan Shi Tong of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra.
First appearing in the Airbender episode "The Library," Wan Shi Tong (voiced by Hector Elizondo), is a giant owl spirit tasked with collecting knowledge, information, and specimens for the Spirit Library. Prior to meeting Team Avatar, he brought the library from the spirit world into the human world so that knowledge might be shared. Unfortunately, humanity proved themselves less than responsible with the vast amount of knowledge available. In his disappointment, Wan banned humans from utilizing the library if their intent was for violence and evil. When Sokka loudly announces their defeat of the Fire Nation with the knowledge gleaned from the library, Wan grows angry and attacks the group. They flee and Wan Shi Tong sinks the library back into the spirit world.
His second and last appearance is in the Korra episode "A New Spiritual Age" where Wan meets Jinora, granddaughter of the previous Avatar Aang, when she gets lost in the spirit world. In order to gain access to the library, Jinora offers to explain how a radio works when Wan gets it wrong. Later, it is revealed that Wan has sided with Avatar Korra's uncle Unalaq and his desire to free the dark spirit Vaatu, though he claims to favor Unalaq because he cares about spirits while Korra has shown no such interest.
What I find most fascinating about Wan Shi Tong is he's a spirit of contradictions. He laments the knowledge in his library is being used for ill intent, but he never attempts to provide context for his users. He also doesn't do his own research or followup since his false information about radios came from one of the many fox spirit helpers. He presents himself as a neutral party, but he clearly favors anyone who sees spirits as more valuable or important than humans. Possessing knowledge also hasn't stamped out his ego. As he proudly proclaims:
" I am Wan Shi Tong, he who knows ten thousand things..."
It's important to note that Wan Shi Tong means "he who knows ten thousand things" and the phrase "ten thousand things" comes from Buddhist/Taoist teachings where ten thousand things means everything or all. So when Wan tells Team Avatar that he knows ten thousand things, he's essentially claiming that he knows all. Everything. He's the smartest spirit ever.
And I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about my love of owls because I love them. A lot. As a kid, I read plenty of Greek and Roman mythology where the owl was the familiar of Athena/Minerva, goddess of wisdom. That's what makes Wan Shi Tong's visage odd since owls are typically a Western symbol of wisdom and the Avatar universe draws primarily from Eastern mythology and spiritualism. But that's also a myopic view of mythology, which is far more cross-cultural than we realize. Owls are both intelligent messengers and portents of doom across Eastern cultures, so Wan Shi Tong being an owl can just as easily be interpreted as a symbol of wisdom in Japan or China as well. However, when Wan transforms in a state of anger, he becomes more serpent-like, invoking the dragon which is a Chinese symbol of wisdom. This my have been intentional on the part of the creative team. If Wan is all-knowing and collects all knowledge, then he would likely try to present himself as the animals most associated with it.
That he's a barn owl is fantastic because they are the most other-worldly looking of owls. In Japanese culture, barn owls are considered demonic and one of their many alternative names is the Ghost Owl. This all adds up to a suitably familiar yet unnerving spirit capable of both providing access to knowledge and possibly biting your head off. Ya know, like real archivists/librarians/curators!