Gene Luen Yang’s two-part graphic novel series, Boxers & Saints, was an unconventional way to introduce our cohort to the Boxer Rebellion, the turn-of-the-(20th)-century resistance by Chinese against foreign rule in China. Uncovering a more nuanced history is a good remedy for those of us who are trapped by our cultural blinders.
Up to now, I had read my Chinese history through the lens of Christian missionary expansion, failing to appreciate how the efforts of missionaries at that time were perceived by the local populace. The typical story is told with a Western bias, where one learns of the grave injustices done to missionaries and, only secondarily, to local converts. Canadian historian Alvyn Austin gives this account: “In that hot, horrifying summer, …the Boxers came screaming…, ‘Burn, burn, burn. Kill, kill, kill.’ All over China the structures of Christendom came tumbling down: chapels, cathedrals, orphanages, hospitals, schools, residences, and summer resorts. Two hundred and forty missionaries and fifty of their children perished in the conflagration.” This is obviously horrible. But then he continues with a sidebar comment: “Some thirty thousand ‘secondary devils’ – Chinese converts – were martyred.” (Note how the emphasis is on the loss of the 1%, not the 99%.)
In contrast, Yang’s books speak from the perspective of the Chinese who suffered gravely. The books are structured as a diptych, with fascinating parallels between the two protagonists, Bao and Vibiana. Bao is a young man and grows in Confucian spirituality, seeking the guidance of Ch’in Shih-huang, the water spirit of the first emperor of China. Vibiana is a young woman and is drawn into the Catholic faith, inspired by apparitions of Joan of Arc who liberated France from the English. The storylines of each book intersect at the outset with Bao dreaming, “I will marry her, and she will fill my house with opera-mask-faced sons”, but then quickly diverge with each youth pursuing opposite agendas. When Father Bey destroys the statue of a Chinese god, Bao roots himself in the East, seeking to liberate his country from foreign devils and become “one China”. In contrast, Vibiana accidently destroys Tu Di Gong, her family’s household god, but the shameful act pushes her West, and she too seeks for her nation to be made whole, though by resistance against the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist. Despite the oppositional yin and yang, there is mirrored unity in their quest to train as fighters, pursue justice, and one day conquer the evil in their hopeless world. The books conclude with Vibiana giving Bao the only thing of value she has – the ‘Our Father’ – before he kills her. In desperation and facing his own death, he then relies on this prayer for his salvation.
Reviewer James Bucky Carter describes how Yang, as an American-Chinese Catholic, authored these books that both honoured the Christian faith, while allowing for ambiguity regarding interpretation. In his own retelling of the stories, he would be pulled both West and East. “As the second book draws both narratives to a close, Christianity is depicted as saving grace, but Yang refuses to mollify and pacify completely, keeping the concept of religion—whether canonized or simply a protuberance of self-assurance in one’s mission—and its effects firmly lodged as a troubling phenomenon with consequences and interpretations beyond what any one person might comprehend.”
Yang refuses to accept the easy solution, that East is wrong, and West is right. Instead, he reveals that even deeply within Eastern cultures there exist vestiges of the redemptive storyline. Ignoring these deep-seated connection points in our missional outreach impoverishes the effectiveness of our engagement with our world. In an interview with Julie Polter of Sojourners, he states:
“I really like what C.S. Lewis calls “good dreams” – he talks about how pieces of the Christian story, of the story of Christ, of self-emptying love, are reflected in all cultures, and even in biology. I’ve heard different interpretations of this – for instance, from someone who had a more fundamentalist mindset, that this is the Devil putting bits of truth within falsehood. But I think a more generous explanation would be that the story of Christ, of one person making the ultimate sacrifice for another, is so fundamental to the human experience, to the universe, that it’s actually all over the place, and in the stories of other cultures.”
This presents a challenge to anyone who desires to cross cultures in mission – cultural intelligence takes work and the sleuth-like skills of investigation. Just as David Livermore encourages a surrender of one’s own cultural bias in favour of the other, so too does Gene Yang let go of a traditional Western approach to faith in Christ, instead revealing guideposts for the Way embedded deep within Chinese culture.
One example is found in how Yang introduces Christ to Four-Girl (or Death-Girl, who later changes her name to Vibiana). Face frozen into a devil-grin, she is taken by her mother to visit the acupuncturist. In his home, for the first time she sees a crucifix on the wall, interpreting this as Jesus receiving some sort of divine acupuncture as His hands and feet are pierced through. As Isaiah 53 states:
“He was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.”
Four-Girl receives her own healing that day not through acupuncture but by grace when her opera-mask face dissolves into laughter. She selects the name Vibiana, an unknown saint from the 3rd century. Yang, as a Catholic Californian, would know that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is dedicated to her, and her remains are interred in its cathedral.
In this graphic novel series and with a Chinese perspective on historical events, Gene Yang helps us remember nameless faithful Chinese Christians who gave their lives in martyrdom during the Boxer Rebellion. Now we have a name: Vibiana. “Who was she? She is an enigma. She is nobody and everybody…. All we know about her is that she was a martyr. And that is enough. She stands for all of us, the insignificant ones who will never be written about in history books.… Yet we too can be like Vibiana, faithful disciples of the Lord.”
Through the piercing of Jesus’ acupuncture, we are healed. Even those of us without a name.
 Alvyn J. Austin, Saving China: Canadian Missionaries in the Middle Kingdom 1888-1959 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), 63.
 Ibid., 63.
 Gene Luen Yang and Lark Pien, Boxers (New York: First Second, 2013), 9.
 Gene Luen Yang and Lark Pien, Saints (New York: First Second, 2013), 115.
 James Bucky Carter, “A Necklace Is Still a Chain: A Review of Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints.” Language Arts Journal of Michigan 29, no. 1 (January 1, 2013), 50. Accessed May 24, 2018. https://doi.org/10.9707/2168-149X.1986.
 Julie Polter, “Write Your Life, Live Your Faith” Sojourners Magazine, September 2013, 42, 45-48. Accessed May 24, 2018. https://georgefox.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/docview/1430426739?accountid=11085.
 Isaiah 53:5, NIV.
 Cathedrals of California website, “Saint Vibiana, the Patron of Nobodies”, Accessed on May 25, 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20101224003638/http://www.cathedralsofcalifornia.com/?p=19.