The beginning of the 20th century was a tumultuous time for China. Westerners began taking positions of power, bringing with them Christianity and opium. As Christianity spread across the country, a divide was created between the xenophobic peasantry and the Chinese tradition-scorning foreigners. Everything eventually culminated in what was known as the Boxer Uprising, where a secret society known as the Righteous and Harmonious Fist (Yihequan) taught martial arts and partook in rituals that were said to make their bodies invincible. Officially condoned by the Empress Dowager, tens of thousands died in the conflict. This is where the story of Boxers & Saints begins.
Written by best-selling author Gene Luen Yang, author of award winning American Born Chinese, and writer for Avatar: The Last Airbender and recent Shang-Chi comics, Boxers & Saints is the carefully crafted tale of two young Chinese commoners on opposite sides of the conflict. The two graphic novels, Boxers and Saints respectively, are 500 pages long altogether. Each follows one protagonist, but the two stories interweave.
In Boxers, the protagonist, Little Bao lives a poor life in a small country village. He’s the youngest of three brothers, and spends as much time as he can enjoying the wandering Chinese opera troupes that come and go. Bao admires the gods and masks of the opera. They follow him as he does his chores and - after he gets pulled into the bloody and political tangle of the uprising - he channels them to fight off the “foreign devils.”
On the opposite side of the conflict, from a nearby home, there lives Four-Girl. She’s the youngest of four children - and the only survivor. Her grandfather, superstitious that her birth is the fourth day of the fourth month as the fourth child, refuses to acknowledge her. He fears that four, sounding like death, is a magnet for bad luck. In turn, the other members of her family, with the exception of her mother, alienate her. Longing for a place in the world, Four-Girl is eventually visited by visions of Joan of Arc. From her, she discovers Christianity and converts. The church becomes a place she can belong, but she learns that not everyone is so friendly to foreign influence.
Gene Luen Yang’s work is masterfully written, carefully balancing both factions. Neither side of the rebellion is painted as “good” or “evil”. The story of Boxers & Saints is dark and tragic, both sides kill and commit atrocities for their ideals. Houses are burned, fields are trampled and civilians are slaughtered. Yet at the same time, it’s easy to see what motivates these characters. There is good to both sides too. The Boxers empowered the downtrodden common folk to defend themselves, the Christians brought comfort to people that needed it. The writing of Boxers & Saints is wonderfully even to both, and subtle in some of its points. Gene Luen Yang really encourages his audience to pay attention and draw their own conclusions about Little Bao and Four-Girl.
Boxers & Saints is, as a finalist for the 2013 National Book Awards for Young Adults, written with an educational bent for children and young adults. It frames the events of the Boxer Uprising in an almost simplified way through the eyes of its children protagonists, leaving some of the darker subtext out of its direct narration. This is a duology well-suited to both adults and older children, but is probably too heavy for young children.
On the whole, this is a very character-driven story. It has some action and some politics, but the majority of the story follows the inner turmoil of the protagonists and they fight to navigate the complicated circumstances of the rebellion. For a more action-oriented view on the Boxer Rebellion, be sure to check out our upcoming Fa Sheng: Origins comic, currently on Kickstarter!
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