Gene Luen Yang – Boxers & Saints

This was a Christmas present from Sonja over at Literaturschock and I am sooooo grateful. After I devoured the first part in one sitting, I immediately got the second one. This is a historical fiction graphic novel with some speculative fiction aspects. But never mind categorizing it, because brilliant doesn’t need categories.

boxers and saints2BOXERS & SAINTS
by Gene Luen Yang

Published by: First Second, 2013
Paperback: 325/170 pages
Series: Boxers & Saints #1-2
My rating: 8/10

First sentence:
Spring is my favorite time of year.

One of the greatest comics storytellers alive brings all his formidable talents to bear in this astonishing new work.
In two volumes, Boxers & Saints tells two parallel stories. The first is of Little Bao, a Chinese peasant boy whose village is abused and plundered by Westerners claiming the role of missionaries. Little Bao, inspired by visions of the Chinese gods, joins a violent uprising against the Western interlopers. Against all odds, their grass-roots rebellion is successful.
But in the second volume, Yang lays out the opposite side of the conflict. A girl whose village has no place for her is taken in by Christian missionaries and finds, for the first time, a home with them. As the Boxer Rebellion gains momentum, Vibiana must decide whether to abandon her Christian friends or to commit herself fully to Christianity.
Boxers & Saints is one of the most ambitious graphic novels First Second has ever published. It offers a penetrating insight into not only one of the most controversial episodes of modern Chinese history, but into the very core of our human nature. Gene Luen Yang is rightly called a master of the comics form, and this book will cement that reputation.

This is why I love books. I had never heard of the Boxer Uprising before reading these graphic novels, now I have at least some idea what happened in China between 1899 and 1901. But while this is a historical novel, what makes it so great is not that it teaches you something about historical events. It’s a deeply personal story, both for Little Bao and Vibiana.

Boxers tells of the boy Little Bao who struggles to be taken seriously by his elder brothers and has to train kung fu in secret, instead of with Red Lantern, his rolemodel and hero. When the foreign devils (Christians) destroy the village’s god statue, Bao takes it personally. What follows is his journey through the Boxer Uprising, fighting at the front lines for what he thinks is right.

There are certain aspects to this story that qualify it as speculative fiction. Bao has dreams and visions of a very powerful man who tells him what to do, what is right for China. Whether you believe this magic is real or just a figment of Bao’s imagination, it’s a beautiful way to depict his inner conflict in a comic book. The art, while very clean and simple, shows facial expressions so well that a lot of the time, you don’t even need the speech bubbles to know what the characters are thinking.

The one thing that made me insanely happy was that, when they perform their pre-fight ritual, Bao and his brothers and friends turn into gods, one of which is Sun Wukong, the Monkey King (I love him so much I’m going to re-watch A Chinese Odyssey this weekend). These gods bring a lot of color into the otherwise rather bleak, brownish world of the book.

I simply must mention the kick-ass women of Boxers. When the Brotherhood refuses to take the girls along to fight with them, they do their own thing and pretty much end up saving the men’s butts. This was possibly my favorite scene in the comic book. The Brotherhood, almost defeated, and then these colourful, brilliant female godesses coming to help them. After that, needless to say, they fight together.

boxers img

As the story progressed, as I got closer to the end, my heart broke over and over. I found that I cared deeply for Bao and understood his motives to some degree. But his actions, especially towards the end, made it clear that isn’t some pure-hearted hero, that – while he struggles with it – he is capable of doing terrible, terrible things to fellow humans. I may have shed a tear or two…

Saints, which I expected to like even more, didn’t quite get to me as much. It tells the story of Four-Girl (being the fourth child who never got a real name) trying to find a place where she can feel like she belongs. When she is rejected by all who surround her, she decides she might as well become a devil. And then goes on to work on being the best devil there ever was. Naturally, as Christians are called foreign devils, and converted Chinese secondary devils, she becomes a Christian and chooses her own name: Vibiana.

Her story runs parallel to Little Bao’s and if you read them in order, you know in advance where their pathways intersect and how their stories end. Vibiana has visions, just like Bao, but instead of Chinese emperors or gods, she is visited by Joan of Arc, a proper maiden warrior that Vibiana can aspire to become.

As I said, her story never touched me as much as Bao’s, but I can’t really tell you why. My favorite part of Saints was the not-a-romance between Vibiana and Kong. Their interactions, their sword training, Vibiana’s mood swings, were just a lot of fun to read, especially in the midst of all that drama and sadness.

In comination, these two novels are highly recommended. I already put American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang on my to-buy-list.

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