Review: Boxers & Saints

The Boxer Rebellion is an instance of what the hell were you thinking you western imperialists? It was a pretty awful time all around. Basically, the western powers wanted to infiltrate China for her raw materials and did so with Christian missionaries, assuming that the Chinese religion and way of life was “heathenism.” (NEWSFLASH, THEY WERE WRONG.) They were driven by that imperialistic greed that this modern girl simply does not understand and is, in fact, fairly ashamed of. This resulted in the Chinese people being pretty pissed off about that. They just wanted the foreigners to get the hell out of China and leave them alone. The situation was a little more complicated, foreigners having infiltrated China and forced the Qing dynasty to accept its economic control over a wide swath of the country. This was all exacerbated by droughts and flooding that led to the peasantry of China suffering from poor crops and starvation. It was basically a melting pot for unrest that resulted in a rebel force known as the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists. The trained forces in ritualistic martial arts and attempted to drive the western powers out of China by killing any foreigners, Christians, or Chinese Christians they came upon, leading to a siege upon Peking (modern Beijing). This did not end well, as an international force of over 20,000 troops rose up from the western powers to subdue the Chinese rebels. Losses were great and the battle was violent and vicious. This occurred between the years of 1899 to 1901.

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Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Why am I telling you all this? Boxers & Saints is a two volume set written by author Gene Luen Yang (of American Born Chinese fame; see that review here) that covers dual sides of the Boxer Rebellion. Boxers shows the side of the oppressed Chinese and the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, while Saints shows the side of the converted Chinese Christians. SPOILER ALERT: There are no happy endings in this story. So if you are looking for that, you may want to pick up another graphic novel. However, if you are looking for a spirited examination of two sides of a coin, then dear reader, read on.

What I think Yang does very well is capture a conflict based entirely on misunderstanding and prejudice. Both sides are so wrapped up in their own beliefs and religion that they cannot clearly see the other. Yang shows how their beliefs manifest in reality. Little Bao, the protagonist of Boxers, does not just believe in his gods, but sees them, converses with them, becomes them. Likewise Saints‘ Vibiana sees and converses with Joan of Arc, making her religion also tangible. It is impossible for either to see past or revoke their beliefs when they are so physically real. This causes a blindness to the other side. I am sure the Christian missionaries had good intentions, but as they say, the road to hell… Yang shows how prejudice leads each side to think blatantly incorrect things about the other.

Yang also uses color in a wonderful way. Most of the initial scenes in both volumes are drab, showing poor peasants trying to deal with circumstances beyond their control. As they grow in their faith and power (at least in the case of Bao), the world explodes in color, showing gods in vibrant masks and saints depicted in gold. Both Bao and Vibiana witness atrocities. Had Vibiana been treated better by her family, she may not have run to the Christians. Likewise, had Bao not seen his family and village suffer, he may not have been impassioned to fight to make China whole and rid it of the “foreign devils.”

These books show a slice of history that often gets quickly mentioned in social studies class but is a violent and sad part of world history that ought to be remembered. These books do a better job of showing both sides and explaining the desolation inflicted when people are unable to understand each other with compassion than any history textbook. It allows the time to really come alive. Neil and I have come to the conclusion that Boxers & Saints by  Gene Luen Yang should be required reading for all high school students.

Boxers & Saints are short reads, but very compelling throughout. I highly recommend it.

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