Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang is a graphic novel with a style similar to anime, that tells a story not meant for children. (My four year old found this book and started thumbing through the pages because it looked like his cartoons. I was panicked when I saw him turning the pages and ran to grab it from him before he saw people burning in a church or throats being slit.) Boxers and Saints tells the true story of the boxer rebellion in China during the turn of the 20th century. Even though this medium of a graphic novel it was helpful to learn more of the history of China and the Boxer Rebellion. But more than just a history, which I could have learned from many books, this shared some of the heart of the Chinese and portrayed the ethos, pathos, and logos of the people living at that time. Through this I saw some of the reason that China has had to resist Christianity. It also gave me insight to see why Christianity was flat out rejected for so long. Alongside this backdrop, Boxers and Saints overlaid this history with a fictional overlay of a god and heroes. An American equivalent could the folk lore legends that surround our own moments of great adversity. The stories of Davey Crocket, Joan of Arc, King Arthur the Lone Ranger and Spiderman all have similar themes to what Gene Leun Yang portrays here in Boxers and Saints. Yang in the mythical side of his story incorporated new and gold gods, and super powered type heroes on both sides of rebellion.
One of my biggest takeaways from this book was seeing the unfamiliar balance of trying to figure out who the protagonist was. Before reading this book I looked up some reviews of it and they mostly reported that it was a balanced portrayal between the Chinese and the west and the Confucianism and Christianity. The lens I took it through however was solely between religion and not nationality. In this regard I felt there was no equal representation. Granted this all might have been a real representation of what Christianity was like. None of the Christians were of good character. Even the family who saved and fed the little children were more than just struggling with spiritual weakness, but were living in hypocrisy. The ending of the book only left the impression that if you want to survive, you have to adopt what is evil and you must assimilate into your enemy.
My second takeaway from this unique choice of reading for us is how this book that differentiated it against American folk lore heroes, is that everyone was able to become superpowers. At one point the ritual that took the Protagonist, Little Bao, a lot of training and persistence and a secret mystical revelation on top of a mountain, was taught to a group of peasant on their way to join an upcoming battle. Everyone was a super hero. It’s not the one cowboy running and shooting everyone down himself. One chosen one showed the way and the entire people were able to rise up. Also what sets this a part from American literature is the ending. The bad ending. From the perspective of both books, the Boxers lost. In both books the protagonist died. In Boxers it looked like the protagonist died, but in saints the Boxer Protagonist actually lived. This was an unsettling and deeply engaging read.
Confession time. I read this book a while ago ago because I thought this book report was due a few weeks ago (apparently I don’t know how to read a simple schedule). But one advantage of this misfortune is that I can speak with the perspective of some more time in between when I read the book and when I’m writing about. I can say that this message stuck with me after I set the book down. More than most the other books we’ve read together. The sound of a melody left unfinished resounded in the air. The ending brought it full circle and yet at the same time did not leave the reader with any resolution or satisfaction. Many of other books we’ve read together have taught me and grew me, but this book left an emotional unsettling presence in my spirit.
My final thought. If I had succinctly share the moral of this story, I would have trouble doing so. There were many obvious themes, but what was the message the Yang was trying to get across? Although I don’t think this was his main point, the most powerful and clear message I saw, after considering both sides of the story, would be two simple statements. “Change is awful” and “everyone is evil.” The boxers stood no chance. The Christians misrepresented themselves and abused their opportunity and position. Little Bao could not live up to the emperor’s standard, and the emperor revealed himself to the audience to be much crueler than even the secondary devils.
Yang, Gene Luen. Boxers. First Second, New York, 2013.
Yang, Gene Luen. Saints. First Second, New York, 2013.