Book Check: Boxers & Saints, by Gene Luen Yang
Title: Boxers & Saints
Tell Me About the Author: Gene Luen Yang is a graphic novelist who has been publishing comics since 1996. His American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award, and it won the Michael L. Printz Award for teen literature (think the equivalent of the Newberry Medal for children's literature. His latest creation, Boxers & Saints, also recently made this year's National Book Award shortlist.
And this Novel is About What? It's a graphic novel in two volumes that filters China's Boxer Rebellion through the lens of two teenagers, Little Bao and Four-Girl. Little Bao is the youngest of three sons. What he lacks in stature, he makes up in imagination, as his days are filled with encounters with the gods of the operas he loves so much. His youthful daydreams of adventure are halted as reality becomes grim; the peasants of China, his small village included, are under siege by a foreign army.
This army isn't of the military sort, at least not initially. What Little Bao and his people are facing is the growing presence of Christian missionaries and their monotheistic faith. When his father is beaten by foreign soldiers for refusing to surrender his right of way, Little Bao and the other young men of the village decide to harness the power of their traditional gods through the discipline of Kung Fun. They then join their master, Red Lantern, in his mission to protect and bring justice to the people of China.
Christianity may be destroying the cultural foundation of the Chinese people, but it is also giving voice to those who previously had none. Such is the case with Four-Girl, an unwanted fourth daughter of a working class family. She yearns for the affection of her grandfather, but receives his beatings and verbal abuse instead. It's under the auspices of the local foreign priest that she finds a hospitable home, a vocation, and a true name, Vibiana. Granted, Yang makes clear that Vibiana's newfound allegiance to her Christian brothers and sisters is a misguided attempt to find a community, but at least she is safe and wanted.
Yang's books are published as young adult graphic novels, but he doesn't sanitize his content. Rather, he used the visual element of the form to bring the grimmest elements of war to the fore. After Red Lantern is captured and tried as a rebel, he is executed and his head displayed on a spear. Little Bao listens to the story of his master's murder in shock. In two pages of frames, he runs into the open field and falls to his knees, tears running down his face.
In the last frame, he sees the speared head in the distance. The reader turns the page and is the confronted with a close-up of Red Lantern's head, face bruised, nose bloodied, and his eyes rolled back to the sky. It's a horrific image, but one that is necessary to show exactly what Little Bao and Brothers of the Big Sword Society are fighting for. This is war Yang is writing about, and all wars have blood. Some of the images are chilling, but nothing is gratuitous. If anything, Yang's work shows that war of any kind isn't a matter of political tactics, but an assault on humanity itself.
Should I Read It? Boxers & Saints not only illustrates a pivotal piece of Chinese history, but reminds the reader that history is just as much about perspective as it is about documented narratives. Little Bao and Vibiana are on opposing sides of the rebellion, but as Yang asserts through his beautiful and honest artwork, there are no winners when the common enemy is colonialism. If you have reservations about graphic novels as heavyweight literature, Boxers & Saints is a good introduction. Yang's art is inspired, but his carefully chosen words pack an equally emotional punch.
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