Therefore, visual ethnography…does not claim to reproduce an objective or truthful account of reality, but should offer versions of ethnographers’ experiences of reality that are as loyal as possible to the context, the embodied, sensory, and affective experiences, and the negotiations and intersubjectivities through which the knowledge was produced.
Sarah Pink’s explanation of visual ethnography offers a helpful framework for Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel set, Boxers & Saints. Though his novels are aimed at educating readers about this historical event in China at the turn of the century, his visual depictions of the events clearly reflect the “negotiations and intersubjectivities” of this conflict. The Boxer Rebellion and what historians refer to as “China’s Century of Humiliation,” continue to impact China’s engagement with the modern world. While it does not get much attention in the west, Yang points out that it “still weighs heavily on [China’s] foreign policy.”
Reading Boxers & Saints as a visual ethnography, it would seem that the everyday Chinese experience of life during the late 1800’s was a bland and colorless, with a few exceptions. In Boxers, most people and places are depicted using neutral colors, whereas the opera, the god Tu Di Gong, the apparitions of the gods as the “Big Sword Society,” the cherry-blossom tree, and the foreigners (both good and bad) are bright and colorful. Similarly, in Saints, the apparitions of Joan of Arc stand out as colorful moments in the life of Four/Vibiana. In both novels, color marks the exotic or supernatural, giving the overall impression that the “other” is seen as more vivacious, significant, or powerful.
In Wild Swans, a novel set in the middle of the 20th century in China, I noticed several scenes where the choosing of one’s seat in a social setting was significant. A friend of mine who is an expert on Chinese culture told me, “this seating structure is still around and foreigners get the honored seat.” This comment got me thinking about the fact that the “other” or the foreigners in Boxers & Saints were the most colorful. Was this a way of giving the “honored seat” to the outsiders? Or was this simply a device for highlighting their “otherliness”?
Beyond the visual impact of the novels, I was struck by the profound themes of cultural and religious identity. As a westerner who is a Christian, I’ve not had to wrestle with a conflict between my cultural and religious identities, but Yang reveals how this struggle is very real for those from eastern cultures who identify as Christians. “In China just over a hundred years ago, being a Chinese Christian was seen as a contradiction. Embracing a Western faith meant turning your back on Eastern culture.” This was the tension that he sought to explore in these graphic novels that that tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion along two parallel time frames, with opposing perspectives.
Author Gene Luen Yang, who was raised as a Chinese-American Roman Catholic, explains, “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.”
While Boxers & Saints delves into what happens when cultural identity and religious identity are at odds with each other, I find that in my context the opposite dynamic is at work. French people who have never set foot inside a church a will identify themselves as “Christian” or “Roman Catholic,” because their religious identity is completely conflated with their cultural identity. This leads to religious statistics that say anywhere from 50-60% of French people are Christians. It also leads to North American Christians asking missionaries like me, “Does France really need missionaries? Aren’t they already ‘reached’?”.
That’s why I loved it when an article came out on the Catholic website La Vie, entitled, “France, (de nouveau) terre de mission?” (which translates, “France, once again a mission field?”). This article, published March 31, 2016, says that (and I’m translating here!) “The numbers speak.” According to the Roman Catholic Church’s own data, fewer than 5% of those who claim to be Catholic are “practicing” Christians, and even if they count everyone who shows up for special occasions (weddings, baptisms, funerals) and holidays, that number only rises to 10%. In their own words, “Therefore, 90% of our citizens could be considered a ‘mission field.’”
In both cases, in Yang’s depiction of the Boxer Rebellion and in the mission field of modern France, one theme that rings true is the need for wise contextualization. I found myself so frustrated (as I’m sure Yang intended) when I read how the Gospel was twisted and misunderstood by the Chinese because the missionary priest failed to fully understand the culture. In France, it is the Gospel that gets drawn in dull colors, like a story so familiar that everyone assumes they already know it. It almost need to be de-contextualized in order to be re-contextualized and seen as the radical Good News that it really is. Instead, many French people view Christianity as a backdrop to their modern lives, like the Roman Empire or writings of Charlemagne. They miss the reality of its presence and activity in their world today.
 Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography, 3rd edition (Los Angeles: SAGE, 2013). 34.
 Petra Mayer, “‘Boxers & Saints’ & Compassion: Questions For Gene Luen Yang,” NPR.org, accessed June 21, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2013/10/22/234824741/boxers-saints-compassion-quesions-for-gene-luen-yang.
 Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, 1st Touchstone ed (New York: Touchstone, 2003). 24.
 J. Caleb Mozzocco, “Interview: Gene Luen Yang on Boxers & Saints — Good Comics for Kids,” accessed June 21, 2018, http://blogs.slj.com/goodcomicsforkids/2013/09/19/interview-gene-luen-yang-on-boxers-saints/.
 Mayer, “‘Boxers & Saints’ & Compassion.”
 “Religions in France | French Religion Data | GRF,” accessed June 21, 2018, http://www.globalreligiousfutures.org/countries/france#/?affiliations_religion_id=0&affiliations_year=2010®ion_name=All%20Countries&restrictions_year=2015.
 Mahaut Hermann, “France, (de nouveua) terre de mission ?,” La Vie, March 31, 2016.