In his two-volume set of graphic novels, Boxers & Saints, Gene Luen Yang explores a period of Chinese history, the years of the Boxer Rebellion, from two different main perspectives — that of the so-called “Boxers,” who were actually martial arts practitioners — and the “Saints,” who were made up of the “foreign devils” and “secondary devils,” that is, people from other countries like England and France, and also the Chinese that they converted to Christianity.
As you read each book, you will get carried away in the drama that unfolds, and Yang’s likable characters make it easier to understand their points of views and the choices that they make, whether you agree more with the side of the Boxers or the Saints.
In the first volume of Boxers & Saints, Boxers, the year is 1898, and the main character is Little Bao, the youngest brother in his family. His older brothers pick on him, and give him a hard time –that is, until Red Lantern stops by the village, selling cooking oil and looking for disciples to train in the art of kung fu, so that they can fight alongside him and the other members of the band of people dedicated to fighting corruption and the foreign devil and secondary devils, the Big Sword Society.
Red Lantern begins to train the males there in kung fu. Little Bao, who is taken with the gods and goddesses he’s seen portrayed in a traveling opera troupe, also wants Red Lantern to teach him how to fight; but, Little Bao’s older brothers ridicule his attempts to get Red Lantern to allow him to learn with the others.
Little Bao looks up to his father, who is a good fighter who wants to stand up for what he believes is moral and just. However, his father and the Constable of their small village gets beaten up by a band of foreign soldiers when they go to make a complaint to a magistrate in another town about a foreign devil, a priest, who comes to their village and smashes one of their pottery gods on the ground. Little Bao’s father is never the same again.
Fairly early on in Boxers, Little Bao sees a girl who he becomes smitten with, because she makes a face that reminds him of an opera mask. Before his father gets beaten up, Little Bao imagines him dressed up as a god in an opera, also. For him, the gods and goddesses of the traveling opera are very much real, and can come alive and avenge the wrongs that he feels the foreign devils have brought to China.
The Boxer Rebellion began in China in 1900. Red Lantern gets killed, but the spirit of god of the first emperor or China speaks to Little Bao in visions, and gives him the strength to carry on the fight against the Foreign devils, and the secondary devils, the chines who they have converted to Christianity.
At first, Little Bao’s quest to drive the foreign devils from China seems to be a virtuous and noble one. The actions of the priest, for example, in destroying his village’s god seem to be malicious, though the priest likely had a different perspective on the matter. He is one of the main characters, along with the girl Little Bao thinks has a face like an opera mask, in Saints.
The Europeans and the Japanese had established areas in every major Chinese city that were basically colonies. The Chinese felt deeply embarrassed by this, and came up with a way that they thought would call down the Chinese gods from the heavens, who would then possess them, and turn them into fierce, practically invulnerable warriors.
The revolt against the foreign devils and secondary devils was largely a youth movement. The martial art, kung fu, reminded the Europeans of boxing, so they called the rebellion the Boxer Rebellion.
The youths, lead by Little Bao, eventually march on Peking, to try to take the city and drive the foreign devils from their country. One problem is that, somewhere along the journey to Peking, Little Bao and his group, who call themselves the Society of the Righteous Fist, lose their sense of morality. Killing becomes acceptable, as long as the people killed are either foreign devils, or secondary devils.
The first emperor of China, who increasingly takes over control of the situation in Little Bao’s mind, orders him to kill even women and children who are secondary devils, though these people have no part in anything nefarious. They just want to live their lives, and practice their religion of choice, freely, without being afraid of repercussions.
Little Bao and his rag-tag group of warriors make a lot of progress at first, and seemingly conquer towns with little effort. But, one of Little Bao’s brothers gets shot in the head, then others die. It’s no game that they’re playing — despite their having remarkable fighting skills, they are just as vulnerable to death as anyone else.
In Peking, at first it seems as if even there, Little Bao and his followers will succeed. But, just as they appear to be on the verge of their biggest success, they are handed their biggest and most tragic defeat.
That’s pretty much where Boxers concludes, and Saints covers much of the same time period, except from the perspective of the young girl Little Bao has fallen in love with — until he feels deeply conflicted inside, upon learning that she’s a secondary devil.
In the second volume of Boxers & Saints, the young girl is known as Four-Girl. Her grandfather has not allowed her to receive an actual name, because he feels that she has brought death upon their family. She is the fourth daughter of her mother, and all of the other girls died. Four is a homonym of death in the Chinese language, and she was also born in the fourth month on the fourth day of the month.
Four-Girl is treated pretty shabbily at her home. She eventually becomes attached to a couple in a nearby town, really more for the plates of cookies she’s indulged with than the fact that they’re Chinese who have converted over to Christianity, but the husband of the couple (Dr. Won) thinks that she’s a very enthusiastic young girl ready to also become a Christian.
Four-Girl feels that she is at least being feed a bit better, and sh’e getting free cookies. Learning about Jesus is secondary to her, and at first, she thinks that the man she sees on the cross is a patient of an acupuncturist, as he has his hands and feet pierced.
Eventually, the priest that’s in the town — Father Bey, the same one who was in Boxers — takes an interest in her, as well, and baptizes her. She takes the name of the saint, Vibiana, as her new name.
Vibiana has visions of her own, just as Little Bao did. Her visions are of Joan of Arc, who hasn’t yet been yet recognized as being a saint. Vibiana learns of the movement that’s sweeping the countryside, of the Society of the Righteous Fist, and she decides to be like her new heroine, Joan, and learn to use a sword to fight against the Society, who she considers to be the enemies of God.
Saints is a shorter graphic novel than Boxers, but it’s no less intense. The color in Boxers & Saints was done by Lark Pien. The books are meant to be considered as one book, but in two volumes. The history of the Boxer Rebellion is brought to vibrant life by Gene Luen Yang and Lark Pien, and I got a sense as I read about the underlying heroic nature and nobility of both the Boxers and the so-called Saints, but also the futility of the rebellion, and of the needless death that occurred on both sides. I highly recommend this two-volume set — check it out today!
Written by: Douglas Cobb