Between 1898 and 1901, the Chinese people rebelled against foreigners who had gained power in their country, and specifically against foreign missionaries who were converting more and more Chinese people. Boxers and Saints, a two-volume graphic novel set by Gene Luen Yang, tells the story of the Boxer rebellion from two very different perspectives. The first volume, Boxers, is narrated by Little Bao, whose impoverished village receives help from the Big Sword Society. Little Bao learns kung fu from this group, and joins them to fight for China’s freedom and to help other people like himself. He calls on the ancient Chinese gods for strength (he knows about them mostly from opera), and during battle, he and his friends actually change into the form of these gods, terrifying their enemies. Eventually, they go to embattled Peking to lend their support to similar Boxer groups from all over the countryside.
Saints is narrated by Four-Girl, a child whose family believes she’s cursed and neglects her as a result. Looking for any scrap of affirmation or attention, Four-Girl turns to the local missionary, Father Bey. She isn’t terribly interested in his stories, but before she has a chance to learn much about the Christian faith, she begins to have glowing visions of a foreign girl in unfamiliar armor. It turns out to be Joan of Arc (!!) Four-Girl (now named Vibiana, after her baptism) admires Joan and her fight to make France whole and get rid of foreign rule, but Vibiana is stuck caring for missionary children and doing laundry. When violence does come to Vibiana and the missionaries, everyone has choices to make.
The fact that the Boxer rebellion is narrated from two different perspectives means that Yang wants us to understand that there isn’t just one clear answer here, one way of seeing right and wrong. Colonialism has… maybe an infinite number of heavy evils on its conscience. But Vibiana finds friendship among the Christians where she couldn’t find it with her own family. Little Bao spares Christian women and children because he worries about the bloodshed. But then Christians slaughter Chinese with no thought of mercy.
One thing that’s interesting about these books is that there’s no question that the gods and visions are real. They’re more real than most of ordinary life. Especially in Saints, the palette is mostly brown and white, except Vibiana’s glowing golden visions of Joan. The same is true in Boxers, where the gods are vivid, bright colors that contrast with the brown and black and white of the everyday. The art is cartoonish (if you’ve read American Born Chinese, it’s similar) and clear.
These books aren’t numbered, but Teresa’s review suggested reading Boxers first, and I think that’s the best way to read them. Saints narrates, and ends, the battle in Peking in such a way that it reflects on both books, and on the gods of both characters. I’ve been waiting to read these for quite a while. They were definitely worth the wait.