Author: Gene Luen Yang
Genre: Historical, Fantasy, Graphic Novel
Publisher: First Second
Publication Date: September 2013
Hardcover: 336 / 176 Pages
One of the greatest comics storytellers alive brings all his formidable talents to bear in this astonishing new work.
In two volumes, Boxers & Saints tells two parallel stories. The first is of Little Bao, a Chinese peasant boy whose village is abused and plundered by Westerners claiming the role of missionaries. Little Bao, inspired by visions of the Chinese gods, joins a violent uprising against the Western interlopers. Against all odds, their grass-roots rebellion is successful.
But in the second volume, Yang lays out the opposite side of the conflict. A girl whose village has no place for her is taken in by Christian missionaries and finds, for the first time, a home with them. As the Boxer Rebellion gains momentum, Vibiana must decide whether to abandon her Christian friends or to commit herself fully to Christianity.
Boxers & Saints is one of the most ambitious graphic novels First Second has ever published. It offers a penetrating insight into not only one of the most controversial episodes of modern Chinese history, but into the very core of our human nature. Gene Luen Yang is rightly called a master of the comics form, and this book will cement that reputation.
Stand alone or series: It’s one story, two books. Or maybe two stories, sort of one book? You decide.
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print
Why did I read this book: This managed to escape our attention until we visited the publisher’s booth at NY Comic Con last week. I vaguely remembered seeing it connected to the National Book Award (it’s a finalist) .
Boxers and Saints is a graphic novel in two volumes that tell the intertwined stories of two young people on different sides of the Boxer Rebellion in China at the end of the 19th century. Although each volume could be read as a standalone, the reading experience is enriched when both volumes are read together – so I highly recommend getting both. Because, wow. WOW.
Boxers is told from the point of view of Little Bao, a young Chinese peasant who experiences the powerlessness of poverty and subsequent empowerment brought by his fight to free China from foreign influence. Little Bao’s motivations combine poverty and famine and to add insult to the injury, his family is the victim of a vicious, random attack by foreign soldiers who go around the countryside bullying and attacking the poor. Religious missionaries are no help either, their destruction of beloved religious icons, a step too far to Little Bao.
He joins – and then becomes a leader of – a grass-roots nationalist movement named The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, bent on eradicating any presence of the foreign “devils” as well as the “secondary devils”, Chinese people who have converted to Christianity, from China. The rebellion fights for the glory of China as a free nation and is propelled by their belief that they were fighting in the name of their Gods and Ancestors. Little Bao and his comrades believe they are literally harnessing their powers and becoming Gods themselves. The rebellion soon spreads throughout the country, growing from village to village until it reaches its violent climax in the capital.
Saints is from the viewpoint of a young nameless Chinese girl, unwanted by her family, ignored and unloved all her life. She finds friendship and succour in Christianity. It is there that she is given the thing she yearns the most: a name, Vibiana. Vibiana’s story parallels and intertwines that of Little Bao but from the opposite side of the rebellion and her life among Chinese Christians shows another part of the same story. Vibiana is equally propelled by a supernatural element: her visions of Joan of Arc show her the power that faith can have even if her own sense of faith and accomplishment are vague.
I knew nothing at all about the Boxer Rebellion and all of my limited knowledge comes from Wikipedia. I cannot attest to the historical accuracy of some of the events and motivations portrayed in the book. The fact that the author does include a bibliography in the end eases my mind and allows me to place my trust in the historical elements portrayed in the novel. All the more so because both Little Bao’s and Vibiana’s stories are deeply personal ones that simply take place in a wider context. Little Bao’s has an epic feel as opposed to Vibiana’s more limited (but no lesser) arc.
The culmination of both stories is one where faith, patriotism and personal motivations meet in a moving conclusion. The path to these final moments in the story is one where no punches are pulled when it comes to the violence perpetrated by both sides. It’s interesting though because in a story like this, it would have been so easy to show either side as inherently evil or good and this is where the importance of reading both volumes comes into play for by showing both sides, the author avoids not only the easy way out but also allows a certain ambivalence when telling this story.
I think what strikes me the most about the narrative, beyond its ambivalence and complex dynamics – is the fact that it shows important life-altering moments from a very personal, small-scale perspective. It is easier to relate to and understand both Little Bao’s and Vibiana’s motivations for joining either side. I appreciated how colonialism is never shown as a good thing but elements of it are clearly helpful to individuals. Similarly, the Boxers have pretty good reasons for the rebellion but there is vile unjustifiable violence in their methods as well as extreme misogynistic views in their opinion of women.
Religion and Nation are the core of this narrative. It is impossible to say just how important the first is – spiritual and mystical connections are central to both stories. They are part of the macrocosm of the bigger conflict and again, function as connecting tissue at a deep personal level for each character. The latter is something that motivates Little Bao profoundly even when his idea of nation and patriotism clash with his internal feelings about compassion and mercy. I thought it interesting that for Vibiana, the idea of nation is almost alien: China has given her nothing and therefore means nothing to her. She has but stirrings of patriotic feelings but they are not enough to become her motivation.
When it comes to the art, the panels on each volume fit each side of the story perfectly: the more colourful, grandiose art in Boxers and the more understated, muted colours of Saints.
There is powerful imagery here and one that affected me the most were the moments when these young men would go through their mystical ritual to harness the power of their Gods and fight under their influence (which is something you can take metaphorically or not within the narrative).
Another great moment is when the Red Lanterns, an all-female band of sisters fighting on the side of the Boxers and led by the awesome Mei-wen make their first appearance.
So yes, wow. Powerful character-driven story against an arresting historical conflict and with great art, this is absolutely an awesome read. Boxers/Saints is totally deserving of its National Book Award nomination and is definitely a Notable Read of 2013 and potentially even a top 10 for me.
Rating: :9 Damn Near Perfect
Reading Next: Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow
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