Boxers & Saints
Created by: Gene Luen Yang, Lark Pien
Published by: First Second
ISBN: 1596439246 (Amazon)
Check out the Study Guide
I’ve argued for a while now that one of the most prominent powers of literature is its ability to promote empathy—and this without the reader ever noticing what’s going on.
Among the greatest troubles when discussing faith and culture is that we all come from such different structures. I and you and everyone you know are by nature unable to project ourselves into experiences we have not had. The shorthand of this is that everything that feels foreign to me feels comfortable to someone else. And what feels cozy and warm to me feels wrongheaded to someone else. And we have a hard time seeing this kind of thing—because we begin in ourselves.
Forget for a moment that most of us in the U.S. are products of a culture that is superbly focused on individualism and the rightness of personal experience. Even without that formidable personal origin, our biological nature prompts this initial self-concern as well. The typical human experience is to perceive the world from behind the eyes and within the head. Proprioception gives us the sense that our thoughts and calculations and beliefs and rational self all exist within the geography of our skulls. Rather than five feet outside ourselves or in that tree over there or in this hand here or even, more romantically, in the space between you and me—rather than any of the thousands of possible places for the self to reside, the general experience is that the έγώ sits firmly and (usually) immovably a couple inches behind the eyes. From this starting place, the entirety of our unadulterated life experience is wholly our own. My life and all that it contains is my own alone. It is not yours and you can only guess at what it would be like to be me. And vice versa. The things others see and feel are alien to us. The only way for us to be someone else or feel as someone else is through the imagination—and even then, we’re still only ever us pretending at what it’s like to be someone else.
She doesn’t even realize that raccoons don’t have tear ducts
This is why it’s so hard to love other people, so hard to engage a true and honest compassion for those who are unlike us. With those who are a bit like us, we can short-circuit our lack of empathy by pretending the other person is us (or near enough). We can think that if they were us, they would want this or maybe that. For most of us, that’s what compassion or charity looks like. It’s doing to others as we would have them do unto us. A fine rule so far as it goes, but when the things that others want are not the things that we ourselves would want, guessing how to do good to them or for them becomes excruciatingly difficult enough that most of us don’t even bother. Hence wars and sexism and religious intolerance and human trafficking and nationalism and homophobia and racism and school rivalries. We who would hope to love fail to love because we simply don’t understand what love would require.
This is where literature comes in as one of the most powerful tools the world has yet devised. In literature, the reader doesn’t just escape their own troubles for the space of a book. In literature, the reader doesn’t merely learn new things about the location or period in which the novel occurs. In literature, the reader doesn’t just sift through new ideas and philosophies in carefully packaged trifles designed to thrill even while delivering pedagogy. In literature, the reader doesn’t simply take in some beautiful prose and carefully worded text. Any or all of those things may occur, but in every novel, readers are silently invited into something more wonderful than any of that.
In literature, the reader is smuggled behind the eyes and into the head of a person wholly different from themselves—and often, into the heads of several persons.11Usually, at the least, the reader takes in the life, perspectives, and interests of the protagonist and the author. In most cases, these are somehow similar but in some ways strikingly different. In literature, through a subtle mystery, we become other people while remaining ourselves. Our desires, interests, circumstances, personality, history, abilities, and beliefs are all altered. We are transformed temporarily. And as long as we can hold on to the memory of that experience, we can better relate to at least one kind of person who is not us. The more books we read and the more often, the better we will be able to relate to that which is alien to us. And the better we can relate, the better we can empathize. And the better we empathize, the better we may love—because empathy is the gateway to love and without it, your love will be hollow and ineffectual.
Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints is, by its nature and structure, a work deeply concerned with empathy. It bleeds the stuff.
When I was in school, we covered the Boxers and their rebellion at least every other year. I still remember the little paintings and illustrations that were used in our textbooks to pique our interest in the movement and its Western response. It may strain credulity, but if I told you I never once grew tired of hearing about the Boxers so often, would you for one minute believe me? You probably should. I never wearied of learning of either the Boxers’ efforts to overcome foreign influence nor of the bizarre names they chose for their movements. This is mostly because we never talked about them save to say, Yes there was a Boxer Rebellion around the turn of the century. Yes America sent a handful of soldiers to China. Yes there were probably other important details there, and Yes we won’t talk about them ever again unless it’s to mention the rebellion in passing and then dismiss it as unimportant.
It’s good to have a slogan
In introducing the historical events of the Boxer Rebellion, Paul A. Cohen describes a group exercise he takes his students through when approaching late imperial Chinese history. He requests they write down in a couple sentences their associations with the Boxers and the Taipings. He reports:22From Paul A. Cohen’s History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth, p. 14. Yang recommends Cohen’s book (among others) in a helpful section labeled “Further Reading” in the books’ backmatter.
The results of the quiz are remarkably consistent. Year in and year out, while a substantial majority of the students have at least a glimmer of information concerning the Boxers and are able to identify them as “anti-foreign” or a “rebellion” or a “revolution,” well over 90 percent have never heard of the Taipings.
While I myself had not heard of the Taipings (or more correctly, had not caught them in my memory when hearing of them), I’m surprised that Cohen reports that most students could tie the Boxers to an anti-foreign element. “Rebellion” is easy to account for since they were only ever referenced in my history class as the Boxer Rebellion. I didn’t know what or whom they were rebelling against. I didn’t even know who was doing the rebelling. Boxers? People who opposed boxing? What was clear was that there was a Boxer Rebellion. Everything else, at least in my two decades of education, was immersed in an impenetrable mist.
Yang’s book does this thing that I’ve found graphic novels particularly useful for. It educates seamlessly, easily. I love graphic novels that explore historical moments because they breathe life into those events in a way I haven’t discovered in any other medium. I was excited to finally be introduced to the Boxer Rebellion in a manner that hamstrung the abruptly curtailed style of history that my typically nationalistic education33If a nation seeks to promote its own ends (and why wouldn’t it?) in education, its courses on history are naturally going to be self-concerned. After all, they will want their citizens to know the story of their people. In my own world history classes, this took two forms.
1) History before the colonization of New England was always concerned with other nations so far as they contributed somehow to the formation of the American Republic. So we learned about Rome and Spain and Britain and the development of democracies and monarchies and republics, but we learned nothing about East Asia, about India, about the Mongols, about Africa.
2) Post-colonial world history always always always concerned the U.S. directly. If something happened in Prussia but didn’t have an effect on US policy or formation, we didn’t hear about it. If something happened in Japan and it didn’t contribute to WWII, radio silence. The Boxer Rebellion got a short footnote in our history books because the U.S. sent troops there. But it wasn’t a big deal to us in that it didn’t change the character or direction of the nation—so it would never be more than a footnote. reveled in. And right away, it expanded my understanding of the flow of world history in exciting directions.
Boxers & Saints is really two books44Sold together or separately, though I’m not sure why someone would wound their experience of Yang’s story by only reading one of the two books., Boxers and Saints. Each represents a different facet of the generalized experience of the rebellion and the events (and kinds of events) that brought it about. Boxers relates the events through a young man who joins the Boxer movement in a leadership capacity after seeing a fantastic vision and follows him and his brothers as they seek to purge China of the influence of the “hairy ones,” the foreign imperialistic forces (notably found in the form of the Christian missionary movement, both Roman and Protestant sects).
(I wasn’t even aware of either the involvement of Christianity in China at the time nor in the prevalence of mystic vision amongst the Chinese people in that era. I’m always slightly more curious about works that involve the way the human condition is interpreted in light of the Mysterious, so discovering this pre-ignited my interest in Yang’s project.)
Saints takes on the perspective of a Chinese girl (and then young woman) who joins the church and experiences visions of the Maid of Orleans (or Joan, if you’re on familiar terms). Life becomes more tumultuous as she seeks to understand her calling—what she is meant for—and the countryside becomes increasingly hostile toward “foreign devils” and “secondary devils” (those Chinese who’ve converted to the foreign gods).
Death to the stutterers
The books each tell their own story (and are stand-alone to some degree) but intersect in crucial points and cannot be fully understood apart from each other. A person may read one or the other and feel satisfied in the story presented, but together they illuminate each other. This, interestingly, is a reflection on the reality of human existence itself. Living life wholly from my own view, I may gather a seemingly complete story of a life—of what it was to be me. But it’s only when one considers also the lives with which mine intersected—how theirs reflected on mine and how mine affected theirs—that anything approaching a true vantage of who I was can emerge. In taking the stories of Little Bao (Boxers) and Vibiana (Saints) on their own, we see a fraction of their realities. Yet taken together, the two figures come into fuller relief, a touch closer to their real selves.
Early on in Boxers, Little Bao sees Vibiana (then known as Four-Girl) and describes the moment as “meeting his future.” Despite how little their paths will cross in the books, at the point from which he narrates, Bao knows just how important their interactions have been. But since the powerful fruition of their relationship isn’t revealed until the final pages of Saints, it takes the reader exploring both books to make sense of what exactly happens with Boxers' lead. Further, Saints climaxes with a particular religious vision (Vibiana sees visions throughout the entirety of the book), the details of which seem mere artistic embellishment unless one has already gone through the final pages of Boxers.
Since her previous name was Death-Girl
even a name like Vibiana is a step in the right direction
The manner by which Yang weaves these two narratives together is wonderful. They at first feel simple and rather straightforward, solid but nothing spectacular. That is their deception and a mark of Yang’s gifts. The more I return to their pages, the more the complexity of Yang’s story unfolds. And not just in their cross-pollination, either. The books chart a careful course through the details of the history, drawing in events and figures in such a way that readers will feel comfortable that, though historical fiction and though likely a compression of timelines and events, this is for all its fictions a true story of the Boxer Rebellion.
And even as the books differ with respect to protagonists and perspectives, they vary in size and composition. Boxers is nearly twice as long as its companion, Saints. Lark Pien’s precise and judicious colouring tells different stories in each book. Little Bao’s rise to powerful figure within the movement and eventual fall as the rebellion is crushed55Not really a spoiler since it happened 100 years ago and is a major moment in history… that you may never have learned about. Like me. So yeah, maybe a bit of a spoiler. is a colourful affair—not the least because of the inclusion of the gods of the opera, who possess the Boxers, enabling them to fight with skills beyond mortal ken. There is still plenty of sepia dust in Bao’s story, but the skies are blue, the waters are blue, and fires rage red and gold. Vibiana’s story is sepia throughout. Mud skies, mud water, mud fire, and mud blood. The only exceptions are Vibiana’s mystic vision (which interrupts with striking clarity), Vibiana’s and Father Bey’s narration, and flames in the epilogue to Saints.66There are two other instances of yellow in Saints: Old Raccoon’s eyes and a particular action by Father Bey. The reason for this is well-considered and really only unveils itself after the fact. There are other tricks to narration that play themselves out according to each book’s purpose, but it would be unfair to spoil them here.
It’s okay mei-wen
We all go a little crazy in the midst of bloodbaths and massacres
Yang’s art is brilliant for his task. His figures are simple and clean. His wide cast features a variety of looks and body types, and all are wrangled neatly into the stable his style maintains. He produces characters whose presence is cartoony but dignified. These are not figures meant to be laughed at,77Well, sometimes they are. but instead objects of interest and compassion. Yang is proposing a real world represented in spare lines and bold actions. And it works just as you’d expect if you previously read his American Born Chinese, in which he used a similar style. These books are beautiful and fully merit the careful production value of their publishing.
This is like one of those Dude-Where’s-my-car moments
where you wake up out of a crazy trip to find you don’t quite know what you’ve done
A couple days ago, my wife and I were discussing Boxers & Saints in relation to the non-fictional history book I was reading on the subject (to supplement this review). As well as commenting on how interesting Boxers & Saints is, she (a teacher) remarked on just how powerful a tool for teaching things like this could be. Graphic novels are uniquely digestible. They are able to present a full story in a vessel that can be consumed in a couple of hours, and then poured over in order to absorb further details.88For example: the many connections between the two books that could easily be missed on a first reading; many of the historical figures and events that slide so easily in and out of frame; and some of the narrative and thematic details like the books’ colouring—or the fact that the hero of Saints is originally named Death but chooses a new name meaning “lively” and then what happens next…! Something like Boxers & Saints would not take the place of a history textbook, but would make a wonderful complement to that text. I spent forty years not knowing a thing about the rebellion, but after reading Yang’s books here, I found myself on Wikipedia discovering more—and then even checking out a whole book on the matter from the library. I imagine I would have behaved similarly in junior high, had this kind of thing been available.99There are actually a pretty great and growing collection of books that treat real-life subjects and could be used to bolster an educational curriculum for those with the freedom to do so. Primates introduces the lives and work of three prominent primate behaviour researchers. Clan Apis provides great insight into the life cycle of the honeybee. Feynman provides a biographical sketch of the physicist of the same name. Logicomix introduces the life and principle work of Bertrand Russell. Louis Riel biographizes the life of the controversial figure from Canadian history. And the brand new March is the first volume in a series by Congressman John Lewis recounting the early days of the American civil rights movement.
In Boxers & Saints, I find something beautiful that’s rather elusive in the bulk of religious works by religious folk. Boxers & Saints, while from the pen of a religious person (Yang is part of a Chinese Catholic community) and religious in nature (the books definitely work out of his faith structure), does not really feel like a religious work. Certainly we may acknowledge the parts in which Christian doctrine filters in and actually directs the books’ conclusion. And there are evidences of Yang’s personal eschatology at play, his sense of what becomes of the believer’s self after death. But the book plays so honestly with the faults and beliefs of its characters, Christian and pagan, that it just feels like an exercise in human observation—a riveting story of the condition of the species. Yang treats the Boxers with the same humanity with which he treats the saints. Part of this stems from his recognition of his own kind as fallible, a humility he describes in an interview with Wired from last January:
“The more I read about the Boxer Rebellion, the more conflicted I felt. Who were the protagonists here? Who was more deserving of our sympathy? The Boxers or their Chinese Christian victims? In many ways, the Boxer Rebellion embodies a conflict that some Asian and Asian American Christians struggle with, a conflict between our Eastern cultural heritage and our Western faith”
My advice: when Jesus is telling you a story, you don’t rush him
To this end, Yang has intentionally created a work designed to interact with our sense of self by pushing us to understand the human story from multiple vantage points. We are ourselves. Simultaneously, we become Vibiana, who struggles to find balance between her heritage in a nation that despises her and a new heritage that proposes she sacrifice everything for the good of a new and heavenly nation. Simultaneously, we become Little Bao, who sees Christians and their foreignness as a very real threat to the goodness and sanctity of Chinese life. Simultaneously, we become Father Bey, a hardened priest whose frustration with the besetting sins of all who surround him drive him to feel betrayal at every turn. Simultaneously, we become Mei-wen, a woman who straddles the line between warrior-maiden and goddess of mercy and compassion. We are made victims and victors and victims again. Yang offers us a wealth of opportunities to see through eyes unclouded by hate. In a vision, the crucified Christ admonishes Vibiana to be mindful of others as he is of her. By proposing so many windows into so many souls, Yang fulfills his own Lord’s will somewhat, giving the reader the chance to inhabit the souls of others and learn to be mindful of them—a practice run for carrying the conviction into real life.
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