Gene Luen Yang. Boxers & Saints. First Second, 2013 (336 pages)
Seattle pi review by Jeff Provine; NYTimes review by Wesley Yang; Download a Teacher’s Guide; National Book Review lecture and trailer; I’ve included a significant portion of the NPR Interview with Petra Meyer below:
In an email interview, Yang says his Catholic upbringing inspired his interest in the Boxer Rebellion. “In 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized 120 saints of China, 87 of whom were ethnically Chinese. My home church was incredibly excited, because this was the first time the Roman Catholic Church acknowledged Chinese citizens in this way,” he says. “When I looked into the lives of the newly canonized, I learned that many of them were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion. And when I looked to the world outside my Chinese American Catholic community, I realized that the canonizations were controversial. Shortly after the Vatican’s announcement, the Chinese government issued a statement of protest. From their point of view, the Catholic Church was honoring traitors to Chinese culture.”
This is a work deeply concerned with compassion — it draws parallels between Jesus and Guan Yin, and on a more personal level almost everyone in it is complex and hard to dislike. Little Bao, for example, is really a fanatic, but you give him depth and a believable inner struggle.
Early on in my research, I was struck by the parallels between the Boxer Rebellion and current events. The Boxers have a lot in common with many of today’s extremist movements in the Middle East. Little Bao would probably be labeled a terrorist if he were real and alive today. I tried to make him understandable, but not justified. The Boxers were defending a culture under attack. Yet — within my story, at least — their view of their own culture was incomplete. There is this strand of compassion that runs through every world culture. It’s embodied by Guan Yin within Eastern stories, and Christ within Western ones.
This book is also concerned with identity and sense of self – which is a recurring theme in your work, and this time you’re addressing the role religion plays in identity.
Religion and culture are two important ways in which we as humans find our identity. That’s certainly true for me. My experiences growing up in both a Chinese American household and the Catholic Church define much of who I am. A college writing professor once told me to write my life. Cliched advice, but still really helpful. I’ve tried to write from my own understanding of identity in all my comics, whether it’s about superheroes or historical conflicts or monkey gods.
Boxers & Saints is a wrenching read — having finished it, I feel like the only reason it’s in the YA category is that it features teen characters. How did you approach the story when you were writing it? Who’s it for?
My main goal with all my comics is to tell a story compelling enough to get the reader from the first page to the last. I don’t think about age demographics all that much during my process. The age demographics get figured out later. That said, I think my graphic novels fit pretty well in the YA category. Author Marsha Qualey says that an equation lies at the heart of all YA: Power + Belonging = Identity. That describes my stories, including Boxers & Saints. My characters long for power and belonging because they’re figuring out their place in the world, their identities.
You’ve chosen to publish this as two separate volumes, even though the stories are intertwined.
I outlined both books together, but then I wrote and drew Boxers first, then Saints. I did them as two separate books because I wanted each to stand on their own, to have a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. Each would represent a complete, cohesive worldview. I had expected First Second Books to put out one book and then the other in two separate seasons. It was my editor Mark Siegel who suggested the simultaneous release. That guy is super-smart.
What do you want readers to take away from Boxers & Saints?
I hope readers are inspired to look into the actual historical event. The Boxer Rebellion doesn’t get all that much attention on this side of the Pacific, but it still resonates in modern China. The Boxer Rebellion, and all the events of China’s Century of Humiliation, still weighs heavily on their foreign policy. As China grows economically, as China and America’s relationship evolves, events like the Boxer Rebellion will gain importance in Western history classes.
I also hope the books encourage readers to look at both sides of every conflict. The Internet age has brought about a blossoming of exaggerated righteous indignation. I’ve certainly been guilty of it. Maybe some of that will dissipate if we learn to look at both sides with compassion.
— via reflections —
The first word that comes to mind is “tragedy.” The second that comes to mind is “ugh.”
Yang continues to be one of my favorite authors, not just of graphic novels, but of any genre. His ability to weave this kind of history and humanity into a compelling story, with tension and complexity accomplishes his goal of getting “the reader from the first page to the last.” I was taken by page one. I couldn’t put it down until the end.
I was most struck with the complexity of values and ethics that exist in issues like colonialism, imperialism, and missionary evangelism, which are so painfully displayed, graphically, in each of the characters. It is heartbreaking to realize that the misunderstandings we have — and the subsequent mythologies we tell — about foreign people usually end in suffering for the most innocent, a human drama that has yet to find its full and complete resolution. Perhaps, by these stories continually being told, we can at the very least understand ourselves and make better sense of our human interrelationships in the hopes of reducing, if not eliminating human suffering at the hands of broken ideologies.
Compassion and empathy play big roles in these books, but they too, are complex emotions and virtues that lead to a variety of outcomes. It is in them, however, that we find at least a glimpse of possible hope. The struggle for freedom, identity, and liberation for trauma finds its expression in swords, myths, deities, and war, and dominates the pages. It is curious how this could be categorized as “Young Adult,” but then again, many young adults know these themes all too well.
Thank you, Gene, for your amazing contribution in Boxers & Saints. I not only learned about Chinese history, but more importantly, learned about my own faith journey, and the virtues that I claim, espouse, and hope to exemplify in my life and work. Once again, “seek first to understand,” arises as the king of virtues, and Yang’s work as a wonderful and critical pathway to the throne.
Yang has also provided a wonderful bibliography for those who wish to dive into the history of the Boxer Rebellion:
The Origins of the Boxer Uprising by Joseph Esherick, University of California Press, 1988
The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China’s War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer of 1900 by Diana Preston, Berkley Books, 2001
History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth by Paul A. Cohen, Columbia University Press, 1998
Encounters with China: Merchants, Missionaries and Mandarins by Trea Wiltshire, Weatherhill, 1999
China Illustrated: Western Views of the Middle Kingdom by Arthur Hacker, Tuttle Publishing, 2004
The Boxer Rebellion (Men-At-Arms) by Lynn Bodin and Chris Warner, Osprey Publishing, 1979
Peking 1900: The Boxer Rebellion (Praeger Illustrated Military History) by Peter Harrinton, Praeger Publishers, 2005
Chinese Opera by Jessica Tan Gudnason, Abbeville Press, 2001
Chinese Opera: Images and Stories by Siu Wang-Ngai and Peter Lovrick, University of Washington Press, 1997
Christians in China: A.D. 600 to 2000 by Jean-Pierre Charbonnier, Ignatius Press, 2007
As Wine Poured Out: Blessed Joseph Freinademetz SVD missionary in China 1879-1908 by Fritz Bornemann, Divine Word MIssionaries, 1984