Boxers & Saints (First Second)

Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese) offers up two very different perspectives on an important piece of Chinese history in this pair of new graphic novels.

 

 

 

Boxers (First Second)
328 pgs., color; $18.99
(W / A: Gene Luen Yang)
 
Saints (First Second)
170 pgs., color; $15.99
(W / A: Gene Luen Yang)
 
Gene Luen Yang burst onto the graphic novel scene in 2006 with American Born Chinese, which won an Eisner and was the first graphic novel to be a finalist for the National Book Award in the Young People’s Literature category. He’s published several books since then, but none have had the impact of his first book. None, that is, until Boxers and Saints, a wholly original take on an important episode in Chinese history, told through a pair of novels that can be read separately, but are even better when read together.
 
Like their covers, which form an entire face when placed side by side, Boxers and Saints offer two complementary takes on the same event, the Boxer Rebellion. You might think that a Chinese nationalist uprising against foreigners and Chinese converts to Christianity would be a tough subject for Yang, who makes no secret of his devotion to Christianity, but he’s admirably fair in giving voice to the Chinese on both sides—the central character in one novel is a Chinese convert to Christianity, while the other focuses on a Boxer (nationalist) who sets out to right the wrongs done by the foreigners and Christians. It’s true that the foreigners in these novels are less developed as characters, but that’s probably because (1) this is a story about China and the Chinese, and (2) the foreigners in China at this time were mostly imperialists, and there’s just not much interesting to say about that particular approach to life.
 
Little Bao, a peasant boy with an active imagination, is the central character in Boxers. His initial contact with Christians is not positive—they smash his village’s statue of the earth god Tu Di Gong and use the influence gained by association with foreign powers to take advantage of the peasants. After Bao’s father is beaten into a permanent state of senility by foreign soldiers, he begins studying martial arts with “Red Lantern” Chu, and becomes the leader of a band of men (called “Boxers” because of their proficiency in martial arts) who set out to reclaim their land from foreigners and the foreign-influenced Chinese who have converted to Christianity.
 
The main character of Saints is a peasant girl called “Four-Girl” (she was the fourth girl born to her mother) because her father-in-law declined to give her a proper name. Treated badly and called a devil, she resolves to become a real devil, aided by the advice of a talking raccoon. Four-Girl learns about Christianity from the local acupuncturist, and soon begins seeing visions of Joan of Arc. Her family is against her embrace of this foreign religion, in part because her father had been involved in the cult of the Heavenly Kingdom, led by Hung Hsiu-Ch’uan, leader of the Taiping rebellion, who claimed to be the brother of Christ. After a serious beating, Four-Girl leaves home and begins working at a Christian orphanage, where she must deal with the usual teenage traumas as well as the world-historical events that will soon cross her path.
 
These two novels do not fully endorse the behavior of either the Chinese nationalists or the Chinese Christians, but instead portray both groups as human beings doing their best to deal with difficult situations; in addition, Yang doesn’t stint from portraying the sorrows of war. The basically naturalistic narratives are enriched by Yang’s use of Chinese traditions: he weaves in characters from Chinese religion and folklore, and they provide some of the most colorful and visually interesting frames in these books. Otherwise, his art is perfectly adequate, but also fairly drab (mainly using shades of brown, black, and white) and predictable, perhaps to emphasize the contrast between the everyday world of the peasants and the imaginary world of the folk and religious heroes. At any rate, Yang’s art provides admirable support for his storytelling, which is the strong point of his work.   
 
Boxers and Saints will go on sale on Sept. 10. You can see a preview here. The only extras in these volumes are brief reading lists. | Sarah Boslaugh

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