Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

boxersHere I go again with the 2014 Hub Reading Challenge! First year was great, last year I didn’t finish, and I’m giving it a go again this year.  As usual I’m starting with the Great Graphic Novels. In part because I can read them more quickly, but also because I really like good graphic novels, but never read them unless specific good ones are pointed out to me.  I think Gene Luen Yang is a fantastic author, so I was really looking forward to these. I knew they were two sides of a story about the Boxer Rebellion, but nothing else. And I really mean nothing else-apparently I knew nothing at all about the Boxer Rebellion other than that it happened in China. Thus I found this story fascinating and horrifying. (I was hoping for a historical afterward, but there was not, so I had to turn to Wikipedia for a brief summary.)

Set in 1899-1901 this pair of graphic novels goes together. I believe you are supposed to read Boxers first and Saints second, but I read it the other way around (and liked it that way!) Saints tells the story of a young girl in a rural Chinese village who learns about Christianity from a missionary and is baptized.  She has visions of Joan of Arc and feels a kinship with her, as someone who is connected to God and fighting a good fight.  Eventually the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist breaches their stronghold and attacks all of the people inside. Vibiana (as she is called when she converts to Christianity) had a pretty lousy life up until the Christians took her in.  You really feel for her and are appalled by the violent brutes who would come in and kill, just because she dared to take to a foreign religion.  Every story, especially in a conflict or war or rebellion, has two sides, and Boxers tells the other side of this same story.  The main character of this one does meet Vibiana as a young child, but then their paths part.  He grows up and is impressed by a man who comes to their village and teaches them how to fight.  I liked Vibiana’s visions of Joan of Arc, which I could see as visions, but this volume had a much more literal mystical element to it.  When the men fight they are depicted as characters from an opera, all taking on different elements and qualities (like fire.)  Now, although ever story has two sides and I ended up thinking everyone in 1900 China was crazy and violent (and impressionably ignorant), I found myself more on Vibiana’s side.  It was hard to relate to Bao believing the stories he heard about Christians and foreigners so much so that he would burn a church with women and children inside.  Vibiana and Bao are not inherently bad people, but each does turn to violence, caught up in passionate beliefs.

Both books are quite violent and brutal, depicting with stark honesty the atrocities committed. Boxers is longer as it continues the story well after Bao and Vibiana meet again as young adults and tells the story of the peak of the conflict, in Peking.  Yang did not shy away from difficult and tragic elements and overall I found the story (as a whole, told in both volumes) disturbing, sad, moving, and educational.