Study Guide for Boxers & Saints
Created by: Gene Luen Yang, Lark Pien
Published by: First Second
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Book Club Discussion Questions
- Violence is a big part of both the history and the storytelling of Boxers & Saints. Talk about Yang's depiction of violence in his books. His depiction seems rather matter-of-fact and visually simple—for his subjectmatter, did you find it too gruesome, too cartoonish, or just right? Did you find the violence felt different when it was the action of the gods of the opera? If so, then in what way?
- Lark Pien's choice of colours for the two books is pretty different while sharing tonal similarities. What is the principal difference and for what reason do you think Pien coloured the books as she did?
- How familiar with the Boxer Rebellion were you before reading Boxers & Saints? How did Yang's work affect or confirm your presuppositions about the region and era? What do you think of Boxers & Saints as a teaching aid? Did it inspire you to research more about the events described?
- Were you able to empathize with Yang's two protagonists? Did you prefer one to the other?
- The concept of calling or vocation governs both stories in Boxers & Saints. How did you see the drive for purpose governing Bao and Vibiana's sides of the story?
- The books are narrated differently. Boxers from the first-person present tense. Saints from the first-person past tense. What do you think Yang attempts to communicate by using different tenses?
- Do you feel Yang seemed more sympathetic to one side of the conflict or the other? If so, which side? And further, if so, do you feel his sympathies are justified?
- Boxers and Saints sell as two separate volumes. Do you think it important that they be read together? And what about the order in which one reads them? Why do you imagine Yang felt it worthwhile to present the story from both the Boxer and the Chinese Christian perspectives?
Eyes are depicted importantly at several points within the two books. In Boxers Tu Di Gong's eyes are crooked and misshapen in his revised portrayal after Father Bey destroys the villages original idol. Master Big Belly has a tremendous eye in his belly that glows green, filled with mystic vision. With Master Big Belly's passing, Little Bao's eyes glow green to demonstrate that he now holds the same mystic vision. In relating the story of Guan Yin, Mei Wen describes the woman as a goddess of compassion with one thousand eyes to look for suffering and one thousand hands to relieve it. Later, after Mei Wen rejects the transformation ritual, she is seen ministering compassion to Chinese and Chinese Christians alike (a good Samaritan reference) and has drawn eyes on the palms of her hands in reference to Guan Yin. In the conclusion to Saints, Jesus Christ appears to Vibiana, relates the story of the good Samaritan, and then appears with the same eye-in-a-thousand-hands motif, indicating his great compassion.
Boxers and Saints are narrated from different tenses. Boxers, from the first person and present tense. Saints, from the first person and past tense. Additionally, Little Bao (as revealed in the conclusion to Saints) is narrating from after the events of the rebellion, having survived due to Vibiana's kindness in death. Vibiana is narrating from the afterlife, presumably from heaven or purgatory or some actual location in which she would have contact with Kong. At one point, she describes what happened at the church, admitting that she wasn't there for it but later heard what had happened from Kong. She never saw Kong again in earthly life, so the presumption is that they conferred once again in the afterlife. Additionally, Kong wasn't present for the events at the church either and died before being able to return, so the presumption is that he heard about those events from another person who was present (and died) in the church before then relaying news of the events to Vibiana.
While many portions of Boxers are desaturated, there are many things that are colurful as well. The desaturation may contribute to the feeling of famine and waning life in the countryside. The opera gods, representing hope for the Boxers are colourful. The blood is red, the waters blue.
On the other hand, Saints is almost entirely devoid of colour. For the most part, only Vibiana's holy visions possess any colour. This may be due to her place in the afterlife. From there, perhaps, all earthly experiences pale when compared to the afterlife—therefore, only moments of heaven breaking into the earthly realm (through her visions) have any colour at all.
Gods of the Opera
Tu Di Gong - Most chinese villages had a shrine to the earth god, whose administration was primarily agricultural and weather-related. This crops up in Boxers as Little Bao ties the nation's famine to the Hairy One's blasphemous destruction of his village's idol to Tu Di Gong. Four-Girl proves herself an accidental iconclast early in Saints when the hachet slips from her hands and destroys her grandfather's Tu Di Gong idol.
Ch'in Shih-huang - Also spelled Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of unified China. (Incidentally, I recommend The Emperor and the Assassin as a good movie exploring this era.) Little Bao initially takes on his identity in the Harmonious Society ritual.
Sun Wu-kong - The Monkey King, probably internationally the most well-known figure from Chinese folklore, appearing even in Gene Luen Yang's earlier graphic novel, American Born Chinese. Chao Sun-sun, the constable's son, takes on his identity in the Harmonious Society ritual.
Chu Ba-jei - Also spelled Zhu Bajie, is a monstrous pig-character from Journey to the West, the same folktale in which the Monkey King prominently features. Hong Kao-ling, the best friend of Little Bao's eldest brother, takes on his identity in the Harmonious Society ritual.
Guan Yin - A bodhisattva of compassion whose story is reccounted by Mei Wen to Little Bao in the library near the conclusion to Boxers. Mei Wen takes on her association after she stops taking part in the ritual and instead begins allowing her actions to form her identity. She draws eyes on her hands to underscore her ministry of compassion.
Chang'e, the Lady in the Moon - Only appears briefly in Boxers as one of Little Bao's imaginary distractions in his childhood.
Spirit Boxers - "Chinese spirit possession is the paranormal/supernatural and sorcerical event in which, allegedly, when Chinese spirits, or gods, or other disincarnate or extraterrestrial entities take control of a human body, resulting in noticeable changes in body functions and behaviour." This was the phenomenon utilized by Little Bao and the other Boxers within the pages of Boxers.
Taiping Rebellion - Mentioned in Saints as the beginning of the curse that fell upon Vibiana's father and the reason her grandfather so despises the foreign faith. Also possibly alluded to in the early pages of Boxers by the constable of Little Bao's village. A rebellion led by Hong Xiuquan, who had visions that revealed him to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. During the rebellion, Hong controlled large portions of Southern China. After his death by food poisoning and the rebellion's end, Hong's ashes were later blasted out of a cannon that he might be denied a final resting place.
Big Sword Society - A peasantry group formed to defend against banditry in light of the government's failure to protect the people. It's notable fighting technique was a kind of martial artistry informed by magical ritual and was called Armor of the Golden Bell—if carried out properly, bullets would bounce off practicioners as if they were hidden within an impenetrable golden bell. The group was led by Liu Shiduan until the execution of he and thirty other leaders in the group in 1896 (as alluded to in the early pages of Boxers).
The Juye Incident - An event in late 1897 in which two visiting German missionaries were murdered. While probably unrealted to the Big Sword Society and more likely the work of bandits, the circumstance provoked Western pressure on the Chinese government and the Chinese responded by officially erecting cathedrals for the foreign faith.
Kansu Braves - Chinese Muslim soldiers from Gansu, numbering about 10,000. They were transferred to Beijing in 1898 and supported the Boxers in response to Clemens von Ketteler's murder of a Chinese civilian. The were intolerant of opium.
General Tung Fu-hsiang - Also spelled as Dong Fuxiang, he led the Kansu Braves during the Boxer Rebellion. The Westerners suffered so badly at General Tung's hands during the Rebellion's offensives that upon their victory, the West demanded Tung's execution. The empress refused, instead exiling him to his home province where he continued to command 5000 troops.
"Support the Ching! Destroy the Foreigner!" - Common slogan amongst the Boxers, as seen on the banner Chao Sun-sun (the constable's son) fashions midway through Boxers.
Red Lanterns - Boxer ideology forbade contact with females for fear that their yin would corrupt the strength of the Boxers. A parallel group to the Boxers, a sisterhood known as the Red Lanterns arose. Their membership was almost entirely teenage women and older unwed women. They dressed entirely in red, with red handkerchiefs and red lanterns. Their leadership structure exactly paralleled that of the Boxers. They were said to have extraordinary magical powers.
Bing Wong-bing (unnamed in history) - The spark that turned the Boxers from occasional violent outburst (such as in Tientsin)and armed protestation into a full-fledged rebellion in Beijing was the murder of a Chinese boy, by Baron von Ketteler. Von Ketteler had flogged a man outside the legation and when the man fled, von Ketteler took to beating the boy who had been in the fled man's company. Von Ketteler took the boy within the legation where he continued to beat him. General Tung demanded the return of the boy but von Ketteler could not oblige, having already shot and killed the boy. This sparked riots from the Boxers and the Kansu Braves, and action against the legation. In Boxers, Gene Luen Yang depicts the flogging of the man who fled and the beating of the boy as two separate events and makes the boy out to be Little Bao's childhood friend, Bing Wong-bing, the dentist's son. Additionally, Bing Wong-bing survives von Ketteler in Boxers, appearing later assisting Mei Wen in the makeshift infirmary.
Prince Tuan - An advisor and close ally of Empress Dowager Cixi, whose niece he married. A leading conservative and strongly anti-foreign politician as well as strong supporter of the Boxers.
Baron von Ketteler - A member of the German diplomatic mission in Beijing, he reacted ruthlessly to the presence of the Boxers, commanding German soldiers to hunt the peasant rebels. Tartgeted for assassination by Manchu captain En Hai for his murder of a Chinese boy.
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