Boxers and Saints – Death to Life
For China?! What is China but a people and their stories? Mei-wen to Bao
Gene Luen Yang, a practicing Roman Catholic grew up in a Chinese American Catholic community in the Bay Area. He felt that Christianity and Chinese culture seemed to go hand-in-hand. His Chinese neighborhood served as a hub to preserve Chinese culture. He noted however that sometimes Christianity might get overlapped with a Confucian worldview.
As he grew older he realized that that wasn’t always the case. Over 100 years ago being a Chinese Christian was viewed as a contradiction. Eastern faith was also seen as much more beautiful than Western faith.
As as successful educator and graphic artist, Yang put his considerable talents into producing “comics” for children including the first graphic novel nominated for a National Book Award.
His book, Boxers and Saints, tells the story of the Boxer Rebellion in China in the late 1890’s. He put the story into 2 books, meant to be read together, so that readers could see the story from two viewpoints.
In Boxers, Little Bao joins the Boxers a violent group dedicated to wiping out the foreign devils in China including Christians. Bao learns a secret, mystical from of kung fu and then becomes the leader of an increasingly brutal military movement. He marches to Peking under the guidance of Ch’in Shih-huang, China’s first emperor whose spirit haunts Bao and guides Bao from a fairly nice boy to a really brutal young man.
In Saints, “Four Girl” becomes a Christian and eventually must choose between her tradition and her faith. Notably, when she becomes a Christian she gets a name – Vibiana. Her previous name given by her grandfather was also “Death Girl”. Running away from a family who did not want her, combined with yummy cookies Vibiana grows into a young woman with a very strong faith. Ironically, while Bao is into killing, Vibiana is bright and mischievous and Yang gets in a nice comment on women in ministry for us.
Yang wants readers to compare the books and one interesting place was where Bao and Fourth Girl actually cross paths. What might have happened if they could have met and become friends? They were both searching for their identity. Could they have helped each other?
Another comparison was between Mei-wen, the primary female character in Boxers, and Vibiana, in Saints. Mei-wen was upset when Bao burned down the library with books dating over 1000 years old. Both are very strong women. Another strong teenage woman brought into the story is Joan of Arc. The Boxers had horrible, disgusting things to say about women, but I think Yang gave women strong voices.
Another comparison is in the depth of contemplating “life”. Ironically, while Bao is into killing, Vibiana is the one who gets life. She will save Bao from death, but be killed herself – yet she will have eternal life.
Yang has done a creative and helpful job of presenting the Boxer Rebellion in a way that makes history more interesting for people. At first I was really saddened at all of the blood shed and wondered if it was necessary for books that children might read.
But then I remembered that as an American I haven’t really witnessed a war on our own ground. I haven’t faced a sword. And, on the other hand, most movies today are pretty violent. Kids are used to seeing their super heroes and bad guys killing each other.
Yang explained, “Historically, the Boxers went on this epic journey. They marched from village to village, all the way to the capital city, fighting along the way. I wanted their story to be a comics version of a Chinese war movie, colorful and bloody and tragic. The Chinese Christians just didn’t have the same kind of story. They stayed in their villages, fought off the Boxers as best they could, and eventually died for their beliefs. Their journey was an internal one. They struggled with doubt, with questions of identity and fate and divine will.”
The Chinese have gone through a lot of struggles. Foreign overlords, Rebellions, War Lords, and now communism. Yet they seem to be a resilient people. They maintain their identity in the face of so many changes.
Even though during the Boxer rebellion 30,000 Christians were slain, Christianity remained. Today “By some estimates, there will soon be more Chinese Christians than members of the Chinese Communist Party.”
As times change and China grows economically, more Western ways are adopted by Chinese people that they seem to like – like t-shirts, blue jeans, cell phones, and pop music and blockbuster movies. They even made one of their own – “The Great Wall”.
I haven’t made up my mind yet whether or not it’s a good thing for Chinese to imitate too many Western ways. I hope they don’t ignore what is so beautiful about Eastern ways.
Gene Luen Yang. Boxers. New York: First Second, 2013. 312.
J. Caleb Mozzocco. “Interview: Gene Luen Yang on Boxers & Saints. September 19, 2013, accessed June 26, 2018. http://blogs.slj.com/goodcomicsforkids/2013/09/19/interview-gene-luen-yang-on-boxers-saints/
6 responses to “Boxers and Saints – Death to Life”
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Thanks, Mary for your thoughtful post. You reminded me of how fortunate we are as a country to not experience a war on our own ground. It is sad what children have had to witness in real life as the greatest casualties of war. The comics keep such a dark subject digestible and a bit lighter.
“I haven’t made up my mind yet whether or not it’s a good thing for Chinese to imitate too many Western ways. I hope they don’t ignore what is so beautiful about Eastern ways.”
That is the challenge. For a 6,000 year old culture to embrace a 2,000 year old religion.
Chinese need to see where they fit in the story of God.
What did you make of Vibiana’s connection to St Joan? A very creative way to tell the story, I thought. And for her to resonate with a strong female saint in a time of conflict, invasion, and culture clashes. Who also became a martyr for her faith.
Mary, I know we’ve said this before, but since this is the last time to say it on these blogs, I wanted to thank you again for bringing to the forefront the women (or lack thereof) in the stories we explore together. You don’t ever want us or the church to forget about the women who shaped (are shaping) history and the church. And I am so grateful for that.
Thank you for your insight into the stories and the visual post. I have heard hong kong is strongly western influenced. I hope that they parallel their city using the good parts of the western influence.
Thanks for an excellent post, Mary. See you in Hong Kong!
Thank you for this, Mary. Your question, “What might have happened if they could have met and become friends?” made me think of all the conflict we are experiencing here in the U.S. We keep hearing that being in relationship with people who aren’t like us can help us solve conflicts, but how many meetings end up like Little Bao’s and Vibiana’s, where one person chooses to end that chance.