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The Dai Li became corrupt over time and did not fulfill the purposes proposed and intended by its founder. After 79 AG, Grand Secretariat Long Feng was able to conspire with the Dai Li and effectively rule Ba Sing Se, reducing the position of the Earth King to nothing more than a figurehead. The Dai Li's corruption and decadence was so advanced that they later came under the command of Princess Azula, relinquishing any loyalty to the Earth Kingdom, and assisting the Fire Nation in the capture of Ba Sing Se. After the war, however, they regained the trust of the Earth Kingdom's government and began to serve again as the monarchy's secret police, only this time with direct loyalty to the crown itself. By 171 AG, they became involved in Earth Queen Hou-Ting's secret plot to form an airbender army for the Earth Kingdom.
The Dai Li was originally created by Avatar Kyoshi, some time between 270 and 82 BG, to preserve the cultural heritage of Ba Sing Se in response to a peasant uprising against the government of the 46th Earth King. The agents received a particularly hard and elitist training by the Avatar herself, making them an extremely effective secret police. Kyoshi later told Aang that she regretted having created the Dai Li, as she had no idea how corrupt they would eventually become.
Conspiracy of Ba Sing Se
Selectively picked at a young age, the agents of the Dai Li were elite officers of Ba Sing Se trained and controlled by Long Feng. Since speaking of the Hundred Year War with the Fire Nation was against the law in Ba Sing Se, the Dai Li kept a close watch on all refugees and new immigrants to the city, removing anyone who dared to break the code of silence and brainwashing them under Lake Laogai. Long Feng's control of the Dai Li was not absolute, however. Several agents, including his right-hand man, did not serve him out of sheer loyalty but because it was beneficial for the secret police. This would prove crucial during the later Coup of Ba Sing Se.
When Team Avatar arrived in the city in hopes of informing Earth King Kuei about how to win the war against the Fire Nation, the Dai Li took immediate action to prevent them from seeing the King. They sent one of their agents, Joo Dee, posing as a tour guide, to tend to the Avatar and his friends while, in reality, she was impeding their progress by delaying any visits to the Earth King. When the gang tried to infiltrate the Royal Palace during a party hosted by the king, the Dai Li immediately arrested them, and the gang learned of the Dai Li's corruption. They threatened to reveal the conspiracy to the city, which resulted in Long Feng blackmailing them with Appa's life, who at the time was missing. Team Avatar remained silent until Jet showed up in the city, offering to help them find Appa. In reality, he had been brainwashed into sending the group on a wild goose chase to Whaletail Island, nowhere near Ba Sing Se. After realizing this, they brought Jet back to reality, and with his help, they defeated the Dai Li at Lake Laogai in their attempt to save Appa. Jet later died at the hands of Long Feng.
After reuniting with Appa, the gang informed the Earth King about the conspiracy despite heavy resistance from the Dai Li and palace guards. With knowledge of Long Feng's wrongful assumption of power, the Earth King had Long Feng arrested while the Dai Li were forced to serve the king; however, the organization maintained their loyalty to Long Feng. With the gang's help, the king then prepared for an attack on the Fire Nation.
Coup of Ba Sing Se
Princess Azula had infiltrated Ba Sing Se, however, and formed an alliance with the arrested Long Feng. She took command of the Dai Li on the Grand Secretariat's orders, but secretly began to shift the organization's loyalty to herself. Many Dai Li agents came to see the Fire Nation princess as the more effective leader, thus eroding their loyalty toward Long Feng. When the Coup of Ba Sing Se began, the secret police swiftly placed all members of the Council of Five, the foremost authority of the Earth Kingdom military, under house arrest, and assisted in the Earth King's arrest as well. After the Earth King's deposition, Long Feng tried to betray Azula, but he himself was in turn betrayed by the Dai Li. Thereupon the agents confirmed their loyalty to the Fire Nation. Later, when Aang and Katara battled with Zuko and Azula in the Crystal Catacombs, it was ultimately the Dai Li's intervention that vanquished their hopes of victory and granted Azula the time she needed to strike down Aang.
Following the coup, the Dai Li destroyed a portion of Ba Sing Se's Outer Wall, paving the way for a Fire Nation invasion of the entire city. After Ba Sing Se was placed under firm Fire Nation control, Princess Azula promoted Dai Li agent Joo Dee to the position of "Supreme Bureaucratic Administrator" of the city, further cementing the Dai Li's unquestioned authority in the fallen city.
Allegiance to Princess Azula
After she returned to the Fire Nation, Azula kept her command over the Dai Li, but left most of the tasks regarding the secret police to Long Feng's former right-hand man. During the invasion of the Fire Nation, when she was attacked by Sokka, Toph, and Aang in the Fire Lord's secret bunker, but being powerless to bend due to the eclipse, she was aided by Dai Li agents. These agents were eventually defeated by the gang, but not before wasting a large portion of their time.
Upon the arrival of Sozin's Comet, Azula decided to banish the Dai Li for the minor mistake of taking five minutes to appear before her, stating that in that time an assassin could have easily killed her and "been on his merry way". She then implied that they could betray her, to which the Dai Li spokesman replied that they would never betray the princess. Azula ignored this, stating they probably told Long Feng the same thing before betraying him and joining her. She then banished them. At this point, Azula was descending into insanity and no longer trusted others after Mai and Ty Lee's betrayal.
After the war, the Dai Li pledged their loyalty back to the Earth Kingdom and resumed their roles as secret police and policy enforcers, though this time they served under the direct authority of the monarchy. When airbenders began to appear after the Harmonic Convergence in 171 AG, the Dai Li set out to capture them in Ba Sing Se on the Queen's orders for the purpose of conscripting them into the first airbending regiment of the Queen's army.
The airbenders were trained underground, and the Dai Li were very harsh on them. The Dai Li demanded that they practice against each other and showed no mercy even if an opponent was clearly inferior. The airbending trainees were worked very hard and were sent to solitary confinement in a cell known as "The Hole" if they attacked a guard.
Eventually, the Dai Li captured Kai, an airbender who had been wondering around the city while using his abilities to take money from wealthier citizens. Kai was worked similarly to the other inmates, but was not readily obedient, not taking orders well. One day during training, he was attacked roughly with rocks and retaliated, causing him to be sent to "The Hole".
Eventually, Team Avatar discovered the airbender kidnappings and sneaked into the airbender training grounds. They split up and worked to free the airbenders, including Kai, resulting in the battle at the Earth Queen's Temple. A small unit of agents, led by their sergeant, attempted to kill Kai and his liberators in the temple's underground. At the same time, the Earth Queen ordered the Dai Li to recapture the airbenders who had escaped to the surface. Both Dai Li groups were repelled, however, and the airbenders as well as Team Avatar escaped from Ba Sing Se.
Methods, equipment, and abilities
The Dai Li are highly skilled earthbending masters, whose talents even surpassed those of the Earthbender Guards of the Royal Palace. Trained exclusively by Avatar Kyoshi herself, they were taught in the art of stealth and precision.
They wear gloves and shoes, both made out of earthen materials, in order to earthbend on the go. Their shoes also give them the ability to slide along the ground, increasing their speed. They are formidable earthbenders, as shown by the two agents who guarded Azula during the invasion and the capture of the Council of Five, leading to their successful coup.
The Dai Li are adept at using their stone shoes to cling to sheer rock surfaces, such as walls or ceilings. Mastery of this wall technique has been a part of their training ever since their inception and was therefore one of their most used skills. They carry a binding "weapon" called surveyors' chains within their robes, which they threw from their sleeves to ensnare and hold prisoners, particularly other earthbenders, in order to inhibit their bending. While under Long Feng, they used brainwashing to force rebels, such as Jet, to accept that there was no war within the walls of Ba Sing Se, forget certain information, and submit to their will. Most of Ba Sing Se's citizens seemed to fear them and wanted nothing to do with them, knowing that only trouble could arise from meddling in any of their affairs.
The Dai Li were often paired up when sent on a specific mission. As such, a pairing of agents attacked Toph at Lake Laogai, spied on Team Avatar as they left their house, and protected Azula on two known occasions: when Zuko attacked her prior to his short imprisonment, and during the Day of Black Sun which helped her stall Team Avatar.
- Stories and poems in ancient China refer to secret polices that pretended to guard the emperor but, in the end, betrayed him and joined the enemy.
- The Dai Li's costumes appear to be modeled after the government agents, or Mandarins, of Qing Dynasty China, which replaced traditional Chinese government clothing with that of the ruling Manchu ethnic group. They wear a court robe with a Mandarin square (rank badge) embroidered with the Earth Kingdom emblem, and an official's black summer hat.
- The Dai Li's name ( ), like many Chinese phrases, has two meanings in Chinese. First is literal. "Dai" ( ) means "to wear (a hat)". "Li" ( ) is the cone shape rain hat that farmers and fishermen wear in China, which look similar to the hats worn by Dai Li in the show. When placed together in a phrase, they form the word proxy, or agent. However, the same characters are also the name of a person, and it was from him the Dai Li were named. Lieutenant General Dai Li was a top Chinese government official during the first half of 20th century, and one of the most feared men in China. He was infamously the leader of Chiang Kai-Shek's secret police and the paramilitary fascist Blue Shirt Society. The number of agents in his organization is said to have been over 50,000 at one point, and their assignments include surveillance, kidnapping, apprehension, and assassination. It was because of his "legacy" of oppression that the creators chose to name Ba Sing Se's secret police after him.
- The Dai Li also appear to be very similar to the Praetorian Guard of Ancient Rome, which supposedly protected the emperor, but in more than one case controlled him, even murdering the insane Emperor Caligula. They also seem to be somewhat equivalent to the Ottoman Janissaries, a slave army primarily composed of kidnapped and conscripted Christian boys, who were ostensibly under the Sultan's personal command, but more often than not held great sway in royal and political affairs, to the extent that they could enthrone their own puppet sultans. They also bear similarities to the Jinyiwei, a secret police under the command of Emperors on the Ming Dynasty. They were specialized in skills such as stealth, kidnapping, and other activities to eliminate enemies of the state. Also, their headquarters were usually well hidden from overall knowledge and not far from the seat of Imperial power, similar to the Dai Li's easy access to the Royal Palace and hidden bases.
- The Dai Li agent who was training the Joo Dees was picked for the assignment because of his dazzling smile, which is the model for the permanent grin of every Joo Dee.
- According to the show's creators, Republic City's Metalbending Police Force in The Legend of Korra was partially inspired by the Dai Li. Furthermore, the methods such as shooting metal wires used by the police force bear similarities to those such as shooting rock gloves used by the Dai Li.
- According to "Avatar Extras" for "Sozin's Comet, Part 3: Into the Inferno", the Dai Li begin training at thirteen years of age.
- The Dai Li are the first and only known earthbenders to shift loyalty to the Fire Nation.