A well-placed ampersand can imply many things: a fighting duo, a complimentary pair, or polarizing opposites. In the case of Boxers & Saints, the members of the Boxer Rebellion and their opponents, Westerners and Chinese Christians, retain all three elements in their interactions.
What is engrossing about this graphic novel diptych—the newest work from Gene Luen Yang of American-Born Chinese fame—is how intertwined the stories are, literally and thematically. This dynamic is presented in its bold and eye-catching box design. On one side, the aggressively commanding ghost of Ch’in Shin-Huang, the first emperor of China. On the other, the grim glowing figure of martyr Joan of Arc. Split between them are two young, wide-eyed faces of Little Bao and Vibiana. They stare out at the reader, serious and uncertain. Their expressions symbolize the heart of Boxers & Saints: a story that unpacks the anxieties of an unstable nation, and unflinchingly portrays the people who become swept up by the winds of history.
Yang broke out to acclaim for American-Born Chinese, and while I liked that book, my fondness for him as a writer grew with his handling of the Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels, starting with “The Promise” trilogy and currently continuing in “The Search.” I mean, very few writers can pull together a strong, all-ages storyline that also deals with the effects of decolonization. That same skill Yang uses to paint the political, social, and interpersonal tensions in A:tLA, he brings to Boxers and its companion volume Saints.
The first volume focuses on Little Bao growing up to become a leader of the Boxer Movement by developing supernatural fighting abilities. In Yang’s vision, each fighter becomes possessed by the gods. Typical of Yang’s art style, bright, rich colors, strong lines and vibrant shading for the magical realist elements make these gods—stylized figures draped in Chinese opera costumes—pop out of the page, especially during the fight scenes.
While his brothers and friends merge with mythological giants of old, Bao’s god is the cold and ruthless spirit of Ch’in Shin-Huang, who united all of China with his iron will. The central conflict of his story lies in the increasingly violent methods Bao and his fellow Boxers commit against Westerners and the Chinese converts as Ch’in Shin-Huang pushes him further and further toward more extreme actions. Various other historical groups are highlighted in Boxers: Bao’s fighters encounter the Kansu Braves, a troop of Imperial Chinese Muslim soldiers, and Mei-wen, the female lead, becomes the founder of the Red Lanterns (though it does irk me a bit that the story, Bao names the group after his deceased male mentor, as opposed to Mei-wen naming the group herself).
Not all of the Boxers are noble, and Yang highlights this as the Boxers’ fear of polluting “Yin” and misogynistic rumors about Westerners that partly fuel their disgust. Like how history frames the Boxer Movement in various lights—anti-imperialist, xenophobic, revolutionary—Yang doesn’t shy away from incorporating all this perspectives as well. Bao’s uneasy participation in this group as the movement grows results in him sacrificing more of his values until the heart-wrenching end, which shocked me in its abruptness.
But Saints has to be read to fully appreciate Boxers, especially in the companion volume’s ending. Saints focused on the heroic aspirations of the headstrong Four-Girl, who feels neglected and cursed throughout her young life until she decides to embrace her “inner devil.” Her devil-self is encouraged by a mysterious old raccoon (who is actually the most unsettling creature in both books) until Four-Girl meets the glowing figure of Joan of Arc in the woods, roasting the ’coon on a split. Impressed by this girl in armor as the ultimate “foreign devil,” Four-Girl eventually converts to Christianity as a way to escape her constrained home life and adopts the name Vibiana.
There is no clear-eyed moment of religious conversion for Vibiana during this process, and her life as a Christian is not as liberating as she had hoped. She bears witness to Joan’s life of battles and Godly devotion, and I find her unresolved yearning to be a compelling character arc. Vibiana wants to become a warrior maiden like the one in her visions (and in the climactic last third of the novel, she witnesses the Red Lanterns in an envious “what if” moment). Her own story ends in a quieter, more resigned form of everyday heroism. Her personal unfulfillment evokes the same sense of loss that I felt for the sacrifices Bao makes to attain his goals.
A quibble I have with the volumes is the blurring of a couple of historical facts for narration’s sake. Before the final fight in Peking, Boxers shows General Tung of the Kansu Braves shooting German Minister von Ketteler after he beat a boy in the street. In actuality, it was Manchu Bannerman Captain En Hai that committed the action, though Ketteler’s actions did cause the Kansu Braves to retaliate by attacking Westerners. I also think that there are certain elements about the Boxer Rebellion that would’ve been interesting to explore (such as the fact that a majority of the occupying foreigners were Japanese and not European). The academic in me wishes for a brief prose afterword to address the historical aftermath, although Yang does provide a suggested list for further reading.
But the emotional impact of Boxers & Saints cannot be denied. An ambitious work that makes for compelling reading, Bao’s and Vibiana’s stories resonated with me long after I closed the covers.