Saturday 10 May 2014

#CBR6 Books 44-45: "Boxers" and "Saints" by Gene Luen Yang

Total page count: 495 pages
Rating: 4 stars

In Boxers, we see the origins of the Chinese Boxer rebellion through the eyes of Bao, who becomes one of its leaders. Bao grows up in rural China at the end of the 19th Century. He lives for the spring every year when travelling troups perform operas, full of drama, excitement and ancient stories of heroes and gods. The stories stay with him throughout the rest of the year when he performs his chores and is teased by his older brothers. His life changes irrevocably the day one of the foreign white men, one of their priests, come to the village and smashes the idol of the village's local earth god, Tu Di Gong. Bao's father and the village constable go to try to complain about the actions to the local magistrate, but never reach their destination. Along the way, they ran into a troop of foreign soldiers, who beat them badly and stole all their tribute to the magistrate. Bao's father survives, but is never the same. He spends his days staring out the window, mumbling incoherently.

Years later, a travelling warrior named Red Lantern Chu arrives at the village, and starts training all the young men in the art of kung fu. Bao wants to train with the others, but is chased away by the jeers of his brothers and their friends. He trains in secret instead, aided by Red Lantern at night. Red Lantern is one of the disciples of the Big Sword Society. He wants the local young men to join with him in fighting the foreign influence in the country. As he leaves the village, taking the most promising recruits with him, including Bao's brothers, he sends Bao to be trained by ancient master on the top of a nearby mountain, who Bao calls Master Big Belly. 

However, Red Lantern's mission did not go well. He was executed along with the other rebel leaders, and the village men were lucky to escape. Now imperial soldiers are looking for them. Bao, filled with the mystical fighting spirit of old gods, attacks the soldiers and rescues the men, making himself their de facto leader. The men take up Red Lantern's cause and travel the countryside, training any and all men who want to fight against the influence of "the foreign devils" in China. Soon the Society of the Righteous and Harmonius Fist, as Bao renames them, is picking up supporters in every village, and the rebellion is spreading. Of course, in the course of ridding the country of "foreign devils", they are also met with the "secondary devils", native Chinese who have converted to Christianity. Do they need to die too, to rid the empire of the foreign influence?

In Saints, the companion volume to Boxers, we see the impact the Boxer rebellion had on some of the "secondary devils", the converted Chinese, and discover why some of them may have chosen to convert to the foreign religion. Four-Girl is the unwanted and unwelcome fourth daughter in her family and doesn't even warrant a proper name. She feels like an outcast in her own family, and decides that since she is clearly evil and twisted, her face should represent this. She sets her features in a hideous grimace every time someone looks at her, until her mother drags her to see the local acupuncturist, who also happens to be a Christian. 

He "cures" Four-Girl with kindness and feeds her. Meeting acceptance and affection in his home that she never gets at home, she keeps returning, claiming she is interested in Bible stories, when in reality she's mostly there to eat as much as she can. She keeps having visitations by visions of a tall white girl in golden armor, who she's told by the missionaries are Joan of Arc. The visions, as well as Four-Girl's general interest in the Bible stories, make them suggest that she convert. Once Four-Girl discovers that by converting to Christianity, she will become a proper "devil" and that the Christians will give her a new name, the choice isn't a particularly difficult one. Rejected by her own family and their traditions, she seeks out a new family among the "secondary devils". 

Once her family discovers that she has converted to Christianity, she is beaten and thrown out. Four-Girl, now Vibiana, goes with the foreign missionary to a large settlement not far from Beijing and devotes herself to working in the orphanage. They keep hearing stories of the atrocities committed by the Society of the Righteous and Harmonius Fist against the foreign Christians and the Chinese converts, and toward the end of the two volumes, Bao's and Vibiana's stories intersect. 

I have to admit, despite having a Masters degree in history, I knew next to nothing about the Boxer Rebellion, except what little was shown on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. My degree is focused on European mediaeval history, and there's so many interesting parts of world history that I wish I knew more about. So it's safe to say that almost everything I now know about the Boxer rebellion, I learned from these two graphic novels, which are both excellent.

Allowing us to see the rebellion from both sides is an excellent touch, and even when we understand the dissatisfaction of the Chinese peasants about the favour shown to the "foreign devils", white missionaries, diplomats and soldiers in China, as well as to the "secondary devils" who joined their cause. Being a peasant in a totalitarian regime is never fun, and it's understandable that too much mistreatment fosters rebellion and strife. It's still difficult to sympatise with Bao and the others as they cut down not only hostile imperial troops or thugs, but men, women and children who are peaceful, and just happen to be praying to a foreign god. After seeing the way Four-Girl/Vibiana is treated by her own family and relatives, it's not surprising that she seeks acceptance elsewhere and converts to get a chance at a different, and hopefully at least slightly better, life. It's also shown that while it may have been the thought of ample amounts of food that first drew her to other Christians, Vibiana grows devout in time, to the point where she is willing to die for her faith, if necessary. 

The storytelling is magnificently done, and the art is brilliant. I haven't read Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese yet, but will absolutely be seeking it out after this. Boxers and Saints have won countless awards, well deservedly, and show that while a lot of people consider comic books and graphic novels as silly, shallow entertainment, truly profound and important stories can be told through the medium. Anyone interested in history, or just good stories, should check these books out.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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