Graphic novels offer a way of educating in the palatable form of pictorial storytelling. The duology Boxers & Saints from :01 Books gives a fresh look at the often unremembered yet turbulent times of the Boxer Rebellion in 1898-1900 China. Some might roll their eyes at what could be seen as a boring history lecture, but Boxers & Saints is everything but boring. Chinese American comics veteran Gene Luen Yang tells intertwining stories that are as compelling as they are educational.
The story of the Boxer Rebellion shows a period of China when the once strong and proud empire had been worn down by outside incursion. The many gods of the Chinese pantheon are considered the norm, and strange pale-faced missionaries with big noses and hairy hands have come to bring their religion of a singular god. Foreign armies have twisted the arm of the empress to give these missionaries special protected status, and some have used that status to take cruel advantage of the Chinese poor. It is a perspective rarely seen in the Western world whose history at the time was imperialist.
Boxers gives the story of Little Bao, a farmer’s son who respects the earth god Tu Di Gong and loves opera. When his village comes under the oppression of miscreants claiming superiority as “Christians” by wearing huge wooden crosses, Bao’s father and the town leader go to complain to the capital Peking, only to be intercepted and beaten up by foreign soldiers on patrol inside China. Bao learns kung fu from the mysterious Red Lantern and progresses to take on techniques not even foreign guns can stop. He leads an army to march on Peking, to liberate their own capital and free themselves from foreign incursion. It paints a rich portrait of Chinese philosophy and art, incorporating historical figures alongside mythology to give the reader a view into the unique Chinese culture.
Saints tells another story of the Boxer Rebellion. Four-Girl, the fourth daughter in a culture hesitant about daughters and believing the number four to be unlucky much like some hold 13, is an outcast of her own people. She eventually finds a place among the Christianized Chinese, who are welcoming yet peculiar in their foreign beliefs of a single god and resurrected man. Renamed Vibiana and inspired by visions of Joan of Arc, she tries to follow the foreign god’s will while the world begins to crash down around her as the Boxers’ army marches.
The two tales are intricately linked with major events in both protagonists’ lives. They give two very different takes on an event that, a century ago, rocked the whole world and for months dominated newspaper headlines continents away. Too few study the Boxer Rebellion today, and we all most certainly should as part of learning to respect one another’s cultures while the world continues to shrink. In addition to its great storytelling, Boxers & Saints would make an excellent textbook in literature and history classes or simply for personal study on philosophy, religion, and one’s own world.
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