Boxers and Saints

September 27, 2013 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, )

BoxersBoxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang

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Gene Luen Yang has a knack for telling stories in an unorthodox style.  American Born Chinese is probably his best-known work, and it weaves a single story out of what appears to be three different, distinct storylines.  Boxers and Saints also tells a single story out of two different storylines, but where American Born Chinese was a single volume, this time the two stories are two different volumes.  It makes sense to separate them.  For one thing, the book would be pretty large, but for another, it doesn’t seem like it would be feasible to weave these stories together into a single volume.

Boxers, the larger of the two works, tells the story of the events leading up to and including the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.  It focuses on one character, Little Bao, who essentially is the single person who organizes the rebellion to take China back from the imperialist foreigners who are taking away their culture.  Like Yang’s other works, there is magic realism in the story, but unlike his other works, there’s actually a historical precedent behind that magic realism.  That isn’t to say that the Chinese actually used magic in the rebellion, but the history tells us that the leaders of the rebellion did believe that they were channeling their Gods when they went into battle.  The story is fictionalized, in that Little Bao wasn’t a real person, but merely an invention to make the story more interesting, and to relate the events back to the reader through the character.

Saints, on the other hand, tells the story of the rebellion from the other side.  This time, Yang invents a character named Four-Girl (the word for “four” in Chinese is a homophone for “death,” and because of her family’s superstitions, she’s never given a real name) who has a poor home life, and finds some solace in Christianity.  She doesn’t adopt Christianity for its religion, but to better embody her devilish nature, which her family tells her she has.  She practices making a face whenever people look at her, to warn them that she’s like a demon, and for them to stay away.  When she hears people in her own culture refer to Christians as demons, she believes this is a better way to have people stay away from her.

SaintsThe Boxer Rebellion was about the Chinese wanting to reclaim their culture from the Western influence, and the Christian religion was an embodiment of that influence.  Where the Boxers began their rebellion against people in positions of power, it shifted to also include Christianity as a whole.  Not only were they killing the Westerners in power, they were also killing Western Christians, as well as Chinese Christians.  So while Little Bao embodies the ideals of the Boxers, Four-Girl embodies the ideals of the Christians in China.  The two graphic novels are tied together by their characters; Little Bao first sees Four-Girl when he is younger, before he begins the rebellion and before she becomes Christian, and then later, after he has taken the rebellion to Peking, and after she joins the church.  Their encounters are featured in both books, but what we learn about them through the encounters differs based on whose story we’re reading.

Like American Born Chinese, the story told through these two volumes is one of culture, identity, and self-acceptance, only this time it’s told through the lens of the rebellion.  What makes the two volumes so interesting is that it’s easy to understand why Little Bao began the rebellion, and it’s easy to understand why Four-Girl chose to become a Christian, enough so that it’s not clear who was on the right side of the rebellion.  This appears to be Yang’s point, that he can understand why these people chose to do what they did, even if they were misguided.  Readers don’t question the motivations for their decisions; instead we question the morality behind those decisions, from both sides of the debate.

The story of Boxers and Saints is such that it makes me want to read more about the actual Boxer Rebellion, which is probably what Yang hoped for when he wrote it.  Beginning the story from the points of view of two sympathetic characters from each side might be the best way to approach the history.

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