The GeeksverseREVIEW | Boxers & Saints (First Second)

REVIEW | Boxers & Saints (First Second)
Published on Thursday, June 5, 2014 by
It took a while, but we finally got around to reading Boxers & Saints, from writer-artist Gene Luen Yang, colorist Lark Pien, and First Second Books. Read our thoughts on this Eisner-nominated “double graphic novel” after the jump.
  • boxerssaintscoverStory & illustrations: Gene Luen Yang
  • Colors: Lark Pien
  • Cover: Gene Luen Yang
  • Format: 512 pages (Boxers: 336 pages; Saints: 176 pages), full color, trade paperback boxed set with slipcase
  • List price: $34.99 (trade paperback boxed set containing both volumes); $17.99 (Kindle Format 8 eBook bundle containing both volumes); $18.99 (Boxers individual trade paperback); $15.99 (Saints individual trade paperback)
  • Sale date: 10 September 2013
  • Publisher’s description: 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, [author Gene Luen] 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.
Video trailer 

Boxers preview gallery
Saints preview gallery

It took several months, but earlier this week, I was finally able to read Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints, the paired graphic novels depicting the Boxer Rebellion in China from contrasting perspectives. It was a while before my local library could get copies of the books, and it took another bit of waiting before I could get to the head of the virtual queue to take them both out at the same time. And when I finally was able to get them, it was a struggle to block out the time necessary to read the two volumes one after the other at a measured, comfortable pace—they clock in at 512 pages total—instead of just flying through them as quick as I could.

Whenever I get around to engaging a creative work—be it a comic or a film or an album or whatever—that’s received the type of overwhelming critical endorsement that Boxers & Saints has received since its early Fall 2013 release, I worry that all the advance praise might be elevating my expectations to an unreasonable level and setting me up for inevitable disappointment. But wouldn’t you know it, I found it to be brilliant—it’s that rare book that more than lives up to the considerable hype—and it is easily my new favorite of Yuen’s comics works, far ahead of the acclaimed American Born Chinese and the TV-to-comics crossover hit Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Promise.

It’s easy enough to learn and read about the whys and wherefores of the Boxer Rebellion, to study the ledger of incidents, conflicts, and humiliations that led to the popular peasant uprising targeting “devils” (foreigners) and “secondary devils” (Chinese converts to Christianity), and one of my biggest concerns going into my reading of Boxers & Saints was that it would be mired in dry historicity and the impersonal accounting of war.

I needn’t have worried.

Boxers & Saints offers a ground-level human perspective of the conflict despite the subject’s temporal, cultural, and geographical distance and the competing distortions of decades of propaganda on either side of the Taiwan Strait (and the Pacific, now that I think about it). This isn’t to say that a sense of time and place aren’t central to the narrative, because they are, but in the two books, Yang has crafted parallel tales that will resonate with any reader, regardless of their level of familiarity with the subject matter or their preexisting biases.

The main protagonists in the books—Bao in Boxers and “Four-girl” (who later receives the Christian name “Vibiana”) in Saints—are fictional, composite figures, but the way they are written and drawn by Yang makes them easy to relate to, and that ability to inspire empathy from the reader for characters on opposite sides of the conflict, despite (or more likely, because of) the stylized mode of writing and rendering, is a major strength of the work.

TuDiGongIncident_Boxers

From Bao’s perspective, Christianity and the arrival of Westerners represent a threat to his people’s traditional way of life (three-page sequence taken from Boxers).

TuDiGongIncident_Saints

For “Four-girl” however, converting to Christianity and taking on the virtues of the “foreign devils” provides an alternative to a peasant society that did not value daughters—she isn’t even worth giving a real name!—as much as it does male offspring (three-page sequence taken from Saints).

I shared Bao’s anger after seeing his proud and justice-minded father reduced to a mumbling, incoherent husk of a man after being beaten nearly-to-death by European soldiers for refusing to step aside while they made their way down a country road. My heart ached for “Four-girl,” whose traditional Chinese family thought so little of her that they did not even bother giving her a name. I exulted in Bao’s power when he achieved mystic martial arts mastery in his quest to become a living instrument of his people’s retribution against foreign corruption. I celebrated with “Four-girl” when she finally received a name of her own, “Vibiana,” from the Christians who had taken her in. And when Bao and Vibiana’s ultimate, intertwined fates were revealed in their respective volumes, I couldn’t help but feel despair and anguish over the toll religious intolerance, racism, xenophobia, sexism, colonialism, and classism have extracted over the centuries, not just from the people of China, but the people of every inhabited continent.

Four-Girl_chooses_a_name

“Four-girl” chooses her new name.

As much as Yang tries to give a fair depiction of both sides of the Boxer Rebellion, I did, however, feel slightly more sympathetic to Vibiana’s story. I do wonder if this was due to an amplified sense of personal connection with the character: My great-grandfather on my dad’s side was also a Chinese convert to Christianity—and while I never did hear any stories of him being persecuted by The Righteous and Harmonious Fists (a.k.a. the Boxers) and their supporters, he lived at a time when he was a likely target, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch of imagination to think that this could have been one of the reasons why he left China. There’s also the fact that Yang has been open in interviews and his previous works (American Born Chinese in particular) about his own Christian faith, and that he is a second generation Taiwanese-American. Why does this matter? Well, maybe it isn’t all that relevant, but historically, the Boxers have been viewed in the Republic of China (Taiwan) as uncivilized and barbaric xenophobes while in the mainland People’s Republic of China, the Boxers have been glorified by the government as precursors of the later Communist revolutionaries (never mind that the Boxers were a superstitious lot who thought that their mystic rituals and ascetic traditions would render them impervious to injury).

Regardless of the effect that these factors may or may not have played in the books’ execution and in my reading, there’s no doubting Yang’s intent to give a fair and contextual portrayal of both the Boxers and the Chinese Christians and emphasize how much more similar they are than they are different—in one sequence in Saints, Yang subtly draws parallels between the Boxers and the Taipings, the militant Chinese Christians at the center of the Taiping Rebellion some 35 years prior to the Boxer Rebellion who, quite ironically, have also been reframed by many mainland Chinese historians loyal to the Communist narrative as proto-socialist freedom fighters. This juxtaposition also extends to the religious iconography and motifs found in both books: In Boxers, the Shenist goddess Guan Yin represents the same core qualities of mercy, forgiveness, and compassion that the figure of Jesus Christ embodies in Saints.

But make no mistake, Yang isn’t playing a zero-sum game of moral relativism here and there is no question that there are genuine villains in the story alongside its flawed protagonists and its martyrs. Still, it is a key lesson of Boxers & Saints that the persecuted Chinese Christian minority and the traditional Chinese societies that gave rise to the Boxers both valued kinship and community, and it is their story’s great tragedy that they could not see past their differences to glimpse this truth.

Boxers & Saints is a modern classic, an informative, entertaining, technically well-composed, and genuinely affecting comic steeped in history, culture, and religion that is eminently accessible to a wide range of readers, from young teens to adults. Very highly recommended.

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