October 28, 2013
Boxers by Gene Luen Yang
by Gene Luen Yang
:01 First Second
Boxers tells of Little Bao , a youngest brother who struggles to find his place among his older brothers. He lives in a farming village that follows the traditional ways in spite of the many foreigners (Europeans) in China’s coastal cities. When a priest comes to the village, he is the first foreigner Bao has ever seen. Bao watches, horrified, as the priest smashes the clay statue of Tu Di Gong, an earth god still worshiped by Taoists today. The band of Chinese Christians take food and harass the local people.
When Bao’s father, a just, respected man, attempts to take tell the local magistrate what happened, foreign soldiers severely beats him. He never recovers and this pushes Bao to join the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist.
Known by Westerners (ie, us) as The Boxers, the Society believed that through special exercises, meditations and ritual practices their fighters would become the spirits of great warriors and gods and drive the Europeans out of China. Not surprisingly, they also targeted Chinese Christians. Little Bao becomes a great warrior and leader but struggles to define what is truly just when he is put in a position to kill a fellow villager, a Christian.
You will often see Boxers mentioned with Saints. Together, these graphic novels tell the story of China’s Boxer Rebellion (1899 and 1901). The war came about largely because of the interference of Western powers in China. Given our war on drugs, it is ironic that part of this interference was the importation of opium into China by the west.
Why two books to tell the story? As it says in the subtitle, “Every war has two faces.” The graphic novel format is the perfect face for this complex story. Yang brilliantly pulls various aspects of folk belief that would be hard to describe through text alone but who come to life through his artwork as we see figures of Chinese opera and various gods, goddesses and heroes. To get the full story, you must read Saints as well. Must. Read. I’m serious.
I was thrilled to see graphic novels not only depicting Chinese culture but Chinese history. That said, reading about the the Boxer Rebellion is like watching cowboys fight indians when you know how poorly things turned out for the indians. If you read Saints as well, the story ends with a grain of hope.