Boxers & Saints is a companion set of historical fiction graphic novels that gives a unique look at the Boxer Rebellion of China between 1899-1901. This magical realism tale delivers a heartbreaking look at the violent upheaval that occurred in Chinese society during this time period.
The longer first book, Boxers, sets the stage for young Lee Boa to see how both foreigners and encroaching Christianity are changing his rural village as well as his entire country. Boa is entranced by a local warrior who teaches him and the other peasants a form of kung fu that incorporates mysticism. When his mentor dies, Boa and his band leave their village to roam the countryside to drive out the foreign “devils” and the Chinese Christianity converts whom they call “secondary devils”.
The story does not shy away from bloodshed. This group, who call themselves The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fist, at first are viewed as noble vigilantes that take inspiration from the Gods of old and the first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. But soon their commitment to saving Chinese culture ends up destroying it as their original intent morphs into extreme violence. While Boa remains a sympathetic figure, you can see the conflict in his heart as he struggles with what he feels would be best for China.
The second book, Saints, tells the story of Vibiana, a young girl who is abused by her family. Her conversion to Christianity at first is just an experiment and a way to get away from home rather than experiencing a real love of Christ. But slowly, as she learns more about it, and she is offered different opportunities than she would be given if she remained at home, she starts to actually live out the tenets of the faith. Her inspiration is Joan of Arc, whom she sees in visions.
Boa and Vibiana meet in Peking (now known as Beijing) when the Boxer Rebellion comes to a head. Both are fighting for a cause they feel strongly about and we see where their loyalties lay. We see nuanced views from both perspectives and see the extremes that people will go to in the name of faith and country.
To put the stories in context, in an interview with Austin Chronicle, author Gene Luen Yang said “I wanted to do two volumes because I was not sure which side in the conflict were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and I noticed connections between contemporary terrorists and the Boxers. So in a lot of ways, I was trying to write the story of a young man who was essentially a terrorist, and I wanted him to be sympathetic, but I also didn’t want the book to feel like I was condoning terrorism. So it was kind of a fine line.”
The art is deceptively simple, with a very muted color palate. More color is used in the first book when Boa and his band of rebels transform into Gods of the Opera. Readers are not spared from the blood of the victims, but it is only right to be truthful to the fact that this rebellion resulted in much loss of life, both for the Chinese and the foreign Westerners. Yang draws the people and the traditions of his ancestral land with pride and dignity, and you can tell he spent much time researching the era and region to draw it accurately.
It seems almost a trope to say that this duology is thought provoking, but it truly is. The magical realism both added and detracted from the power of the story for me. Created for a YA audience, this magical element helps show what the young protagonists were thinking, and drives the narrative. As an adult I struggled with it, for I wanted a more realistic rendering of this time in history. But ultimately I believe this set of books is perfect for youth to explore this little known rebellion and will hopefully lead to them studying more about it. Huge kudos to Yang for creating this atypical graphic novel series that will have readers pondering their faith and political views.