Review: Gene Luen Yang’s 'Boxers & Saints' is an incredibly special exploration of Chinese history

A comic review article by: Andrew Tan

Boxers & Saints

We were getting ready to visit my grandfather for the first time in nearly half a decade when I was warned not to bring up the Cultural Revolution. I was told that it was his equivalent of the Vietnam War.

I had recently done a school report on Mao Tse-tung, which at the time seemed like funny happenstance, but I now realize was completely intentional on my teacher’s part. She most likely knew I was Chinese and decided to try to relate to me in her own weird way.

My grandfather was involved in the Nationalist Army, and as an elementary school kid in the new post-Cold War era, I assumed that fighting against the Communists was inherently good. As I grew older and learned more, I learned about problems with China until I decided to turn away from them. History had become entirely too personal; understanding it became incredibly difficult.

That’s what makes Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints something incredibly special. Boxers & Saints doesn’t try to explain, justify or vilify the Boxer Rebellion. It simply shows the actions of a young boy on one side of history and a young girl on the other side.

Yang, who wrote and illustrated my favorite children’s book, American Born Chinese, takes on the Boxer Rebellion in his latest double-volume graphic novel.

The Boxer Rebellion, as you may have briefly heard about in history class, was an uprising led by the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist in the late 1800s/early 1900s against western imperialism. While the movement was ultimately crushed, the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist slaughtered Christian missionaries including Christianized Chinese.

In my youth, the Boxer Rebellion was really only explained in history classes as the slaughter of innocent westerners by the Chinese; however, Yang’s phenomenal work puts the movement in a new light. Without ever lionizing the movement, Yang’s art illustrates the incredible struggles the Chinese had to face with the rise of Eastern influence.

Gene Yang's Boxers & Saints

But all of this would read like a history textbook if it weren’t for Yang’s adept ability to capture adolescent characters and center the story on the people involved. In Boxers, the focus is on the fictional Little Bao who leads the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist.

Gene Yang's Boxers & Saints

Again Yang’s strength shows in Boxers, as we watch Bao grow up and as he must reconcile his militant side with his humanity. I found myself deeply invested in Bao’s character arc and how he would handle the struggles that lay ahead of him.

Gene Yang's Boxers & Saints

There are absolutely heartbreaking moments and moments that soar as you follow Bao’s journey to Peking for the inevitable climax of the story. Aided by the fantastically drawn gods that make the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist such a formidable force, Boxers is a unique story that can only be told in comic form.

Gene Yang's Boxers & Saints

Saints, the second part of the two volume set, follows Vibiana, a young Christianized Chinese girl who is inspired by Joan of Arc. Saints, a little more than half the length of Boxers, isn’t quite as grandiose as its longer half, but is an essential part of the story.

Saints gives context to some of Bao’s actions and explores the benefits of the Christian missions as, much like Bao, Vibiana finds herself estranged from her own home.

Vibiana’s story is much smaller than Bao’s and reads like a slice-of-life story to help fill in the details to Boxers and ultimately help conclude the story.

While one could probably get away with reading either story individually -- though Saints would be a little bit tougher to fully understand without Boxers’ context -- the two books work together to illustrate a powerful thesis on the nature of war. There’s no paragon of good that runs throughout the story and there is no absolutely sinister force that pushes against our protagonist.

Boxers & Saints seems destined to end up in a high school history curriculum. It’s a piece of historical fiction that feels like a primary text: These are things that happened that the reader has to reconcile where they belong on the moral spectrum.

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