Everybody remembers the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1899, right? Yeah, me neither—so it seems an odd choice for not one, but two intertwining graphic novels. Leave it to the innovative Gene Luen Yang to prove us wrong. While easily read and digested separately, Boxers and Saints are definitely meant to be read as a pair, like two sides of the same coin.
Boxers tells the story of the peasant Lee “Little” Bao, whose path to rebellion is set as a young boy, as he observes a Catholic Missionary Priest destroy his village’s idol. As Bao grows up, he witnesses the villagers’ protests against the growing foreign influence rebuffed by their imperial leaders, often leading to beatings and military crackdowns. Simultaneously, Bao trains in the art of kung fu; first with his idol, Red Lantern Chu, and later with Big Belly, the hermit on the mountain. As Bao returns to the village from training one day, he sees imperial soldiers mistreating his friends. Bao defeats the soldiers, showing his friends that they are not powerless, and his small band of companions becomes the nucleus for the Big Sword Society. As they travel through the land righting injustices committed by foreigners, they gather other like-minded young men and women. Eventually, they become an army of peasants, attracting the notice of the Imperial Army and their foreign advisors, which ultimately leads to tragedy.
Conversely, Saints tells the story of the Boxer Rebellion from a Chinese-Christian perspective. This time, the point of view character is Four-Girl, who later takes the Christian name, Vibiana. Ostracized by her own family, she is called a “devil child” from an early age. As a result, when she sees foreign “devils,” she assumes her place is with them. Vibiana absorbs their Christian teachings without completely understanding them, filtered as they are through the perceptions of her own culture. Yet, even as a Christian, she never finds acceptance; she often mistrusts the motivations of others and chooses to remain ever on the outside, undeserving of happiness. Her own tragedy begins as she is trapped by the rebellion started by Little Bao and his allies, who are fighting to free China from the very devils she has embraced.
Yang’s clean, stylized art serves the stories well, featuring simple line work and solid colors throughout. While Boxers utilizes a large, colorful palette, Saints provides a contrast, using sepia and earth tones exclusively. Yang also excels in his incorporation of mythological elements in both stories, much as he did in American Born Chinese. This device gives life to the inner feelings of his characters as Bao converses with Chinese gods and his ancestors, and Vibiana sees visions of Joan of Arc and Jesus Christ. Yang’s use of magical realism is not window dressing, but rather, it emphasizes the emotional arc of each story.
Once again, Gene Luen Yang has crafted a tonally-perfect story with real characters and real life problems and motivations. Readers may not know anything about the Boxer Rebellion—I sure didn’t—but by the time they are finished with Boxers and Saints, they will understand why it was such a significant historical moment. Again, the two books may be read separately, but the stories of Vibiana and Bao intersect at key moments; each plays a pivotal role, which increases the reader’s enjoyment and understanding as is the author’s intention. As this is a story of revolution and war, there is some violence and bloodshed, but it is always in service of the story and never gratuitous or overdone. Both titles should be a welcome addition to any library’s young adult shelf.