I’m a bit ashamed to admit that my only knowledge of the Boxer Rebellion before reading these books came from those crossover episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel where Angel, Darla, Spike & Drusilla are taking advantage of the carnage of the Rebellion, and Spike ends up killing a Slayer (“Fool For Love” and “Darla,” in case you’re feeling like a rewatch). And really, I was more concerned with the vampires than with what was happening around them. Now that I know the context, I really think those guys were acting like dicks.
Anyway, such was my mindset when I first opened Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints, a dual-volume graphic novel. Each volume focuses on one side of the Rebellion, roughly split up into the poor rural villagers that make up the Boxers (as they were named by the Foreign Devils) and the Christian-converted Saints (or Secondary Devils, as they’re known to the Boxers). The Boxers (who call themselves the Righteous and Harmonious Fist) were extremely concerned about the encroachment of foreigners into China, specifically Christian missionaries from Western countries. The Saints were a mix of foreigners, missionaries, and Christian converted Chinese people. The situation was made worse by a severe drought, raising tensions between the two groups. Yang breaks up the story into two volumes to illustrate both sides, but the whole thing ends up being about the futility of violence (as all war stories should be, in my opinion).
Boxers (Vol. 1)
Our way into the conflict starts with Little Bao, the youngest son of a village Farmer in the Shantung province of China, in the late 1890s. Little Bao is a dreamer at heart. His favorite thing in the world is to watch the opera singers who come to the village fair in the spring time. He imagines the gods and lords and ladies in their opera masks accompanying him on his daily tasks. And yet, he is still illiterate, uneducated and the youngest son of the family. Through Little Bao’s eyes, Yang takes us through several years of Chinese history, as Little Bao’s whimsical daydreams (colored and drawn beautifully) are harshened by real life. Foreigners are encroaching on Chinese territory and converting Chinese citizens. A local missionary smashes a statue of the god that oversees the spring festival, something of great emotional import to Little Bao. And Chinese men who wear crosses around their necks are terrorizing local villages. Little Bao’s father is attacked by a group of converted Christians, and crippled for life. And no one in the government seems to be doing anything about this.
When a young kung fu expert named Red Lantern moves into Little Bao’s village, he begins training all the young men in kung fu and sword fighting, and soon all of them (even Little Bao, who at first wasn’t allowed due to his age) are training. When Red Lantern is also killed for being a member of the Big Sword Society, a group of young men who see it as their duty to protect Chinese citizens if the government will not, Little Bao and his talent for spirit possession take over the group. From village to village they go, following Little Bao into battle. Killing foreign devils and secondary devils. All the while fueled by righteous indignation, and the desire to prevent the world from changing out from under them.
At the beginning of the novel, the whimsical tone and rounded, brightly colored lines of Yang’s world fool you into thinking this is going to be a happy sort of story. A coming of age tale, perhaps. To illustrate, my favorite panel from the book: an encounter between the protagonists of Boxers & Saints that neither realizes the importance of. Bao has seen Vibiana for the first time, and likened her scowling devil face to that of the opera masks he so loves. It’s a quick moment, but it typifies the wit and attitude of the story.
Later panels, however, are full of fury and desperation, and the bright colors of Little Bao’s daydreams morph into spiritual hallucinations fueled by anger, fear, and revenge. His opera singer visions are replaced by ritualistic callings of the old gods, who inhabit Little Bao and his men of the Righteous Fist. This is a genius detail, because a key element of the Boxer Rebellion was the Boxer’s apparent belief that they were impervious to foreign weapons, and that during battle they were possessed by spirits who provided them with mystical powers. Yang’s decision to make the spiritual and religious elements real in both volumes on serves to heighten the metaphorical nature of it. But more on that later.
The choice to humanize the historical content of the Boxer Rebellion through Little Bao was a good one. The history of the Rebellion comes alive with the personal stakes we’re given in rooting for Little Bao, even as we can see from the comfortable hindsight of 100-plus years that at points he’s making mistakes, and that he’s going to regret his actions by the end. Because of course that’s where this story ends up: tragedy. Little Bao and his Righteous Fist are fighting a losing battle — a losing battle against people whose motivations are just as strong and complex as his own.
Saints (Vol. 2)
GENE LUEN YANG: Did you just finish reading Boxers?
GENE LUEN YANG: Well, I have a present for you!
ME: I like presents. What is it?
GENE LUEN YANG: I’m going to punch you in the heart! Isn’t that yay?
Saints is the story of Vibiana, born the fourth and only surviving daughter to a family of Chinese Villagers. She is called ‘Four-Girl’ by her family, as four is the number of death. They shun her in other ways, too, and as a result, she feels no great love for her people or their ways. When she sees a golden girl (who turns out to be Joan of Arc) in the forests behind her village, she’s accidentally put on the path to become a Secondary Devil, but she doesn’t do it out of any great love for the teachings of Christ. She does it because the priest promises to give her a name, and also cookies, and when her family learns she’s become a Christian, the fierce beating she receives prompts her to leave that house for good.
Vibiana is a fabulous character. She’s coarse and resentful, violent and impish. Her family thinks she was sent to them from the devil, so she purposely contorts her face as a warning to others. When she finally leaves them and finds a home among Christians, she’s still feisty and self-directed, even despite the teachings of Christianity. What’s great about Vibiana’s story is that she doesn’t so much come to Christianity out of any righteous desire, but because Christians are willing to give her something her Chinese family isn’t.
And of course, there’s also the visions.
Throughout her life, Vibiana experiences visions of Joan of Arc. Throughout Saints (which is a quarter of the size of Boxers), Vibiana tries to glean some sort of meaning out the visitations of this strange golden girl. Unlike in Boxers, Yang’s illustrations are gray and dull, with the lone exception of Vibiana’s visions. My feeling was that this suggests something about Vibiana’s life, how dull and colorless and absent of joy she finds the world, except for those brief moments of transcendence when she glimpses visions of a young girl who did important and exciting things.
I’m not going to go into the ending because that would make me a huge asshole, but I would like to vaguely state that it a) Punched me in the heart as promised, and b) Perfectly tied together the two volumes into one thematically consistent story. It also managed to surprise the hell out of me, which is no mean feat.
I’d really recommend these two graphic novels to anyone: people who like history, graphic novel aficionados, graphic novel virgins, daydreamers, imagineers, and seekers of the spiritual and the enlightening. And I’ll definitely be picking up Yang’s previous effort, American Born Chinese, which has been on my to-read list forever. I’m thinking it probably won’t be as weighty as Boxers & Saints, but then again, that’s a pretty tall order to fill.