Boxers & Saints
By Gene Luen Yang
Colored by Lark Pien
American Born Chinese creator Gene Luen Yang’s two new graphic novels can be read separately from each other, but that doesn’t mean that they should be. Boxers and its companion volume, Saints, tell individual stories about two young people during China’s Boxer Rebellion, but they also inform each other and combine to form a more complete picture of the conflict and what caused it. War is seldom as simple as identifying heroes and villains. Each side in a violent conflict has its own perception of what caused the crisis, and even members of the same side can disagree about objectives and the best way to reach them. That’s what Boxers & Saints, as the books are called collectively, is all about.
Yang, a practicing Roman Catholic of Chinese heritage, recently told Good Comics for Kids’ Caleb Mozzocco, “The more I read about the Boxer Rebellion, the more conflicted I felt. Did I sympathize more with the Boxers or their Chinese Christian victims? That’s why the project ended up as two volumes. The protagonists in one are the antagonists in the other.”
Reading Boxers, it’s easy to cast the Christian missionaries and their converts as the bad guys, especially after an early scene in which they bully villagers and destroy a beloved god. From that perspective, the uprising of the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists (called “Boxers” by Westerners because of the way they moved in training and combat) is a just reaction to intolerable imperialism.
In Saints though, the reader meets a young girl who was already alienated by her culture before she met her first Christian. Though she doesn’t fully understand Christianity, she sees it as a liberating alternative to the oppression she was feeling from her own family. From her point of view, the Boxer Rebellion is the attempt of a cruel culture to reassert its control over her.
The beautiful thing about Boxers & Saints (besides Yang’s clear, expressive lines, attention to historical details, and wonderful imagination) is its presentation of Boxers and Christians as equally complicated and diverse groups. People on each side of the conflict behave honorably and fiendishly in both books. There are unlikable Christian characters in Saints alongside compassionate rebels. Boxers includes horrible acts of cruelty by its title characters as well as Christians behaving nobly. The complexity is as refreshing as it is thought-provoking.
Another stimulating complication is Yang’s use of mystical characters to inspire his two leads. In Boxers, Little Bao meets and channels the spirit of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang (or Ch’in Shih-huang, as his name was spelled in English during that period). This is a reference to the Boxers’ belief that their rituals allowed them to be possessed by spirits that aided them in ridding China of its foreign influences. Mirroring that in Saints are the visions of Four-Girl, who not only sees but also has conversations with Joan of Arc.
Yang presents each of these influences as equally real. There’s no rational reading that allows Ch’in Shih-huang to be an actual spirit, while Joan is simply a figment of Four-Girl’s imagination. Or vice versa. Either Little Bao and Four-Girl are both crazy or something supernatural is at work in the two stories. And since Little Bao’s fellow Boxers also receive help from spirits that they see, the evidence points towards an actual, spiritual component to the war: The heroes of each side inspiring their people.
That’s some heavy, ambiguous symbolism, but it has great potential to create discussion among readers. There are fascinating conversations to be had between adults and older children about culture, faith, history, how they all connect to each other, and how they create conflict when people disagree about them.