Arts and Entertainment

Bonds of family, duty, and country come to life as Gods and Legends take the stage in Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints

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Set against the backdrop of the Boxer Rebellion in China at the turn of the 20th Century, Boxers and Saints provides readers with a glimpse into the past, from two perspectives on both sides of the conflict. The graphic novels provide a unique take on the story, depicting action-packed panels and scenes, illustrated in dynamic colors. Yang creates a compelling story, following a peasant boy who becomes the inciting leader of the Rebellion in the first novel Boxers, and a young convert girl in the companion novel Saints who provides insight to the opposite side of history.

“Thunder and wind rush in from the east–and the sky is darkened by gods.”

The Boxer Rebellion occurred during the turn of the 20th century–as foreign dignitaries, merchants, and missionaries have swarmed China, choking the land and its people for all their worth. The Boxers, a resistance which consisted of peasants fighting to reclaim China from the foreigners, had their own sense of mythology surrounding them. The Boxers were said to have a special fighting style that made them invulnerable against the forces of the “foreign devils” in battle. Yang honors the myth behind the powers of the Boxers and portrays their powers as something truly divine–granting them the abilities to transform into gods and legends of Chinese history.

It was under such a tree that Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Chang Fei swore their Oath of Brotherhood! They promised to be faithful to one another until death…”

Even though the primary focus is on the power and mythology behind the Boxer Rebellion, there is a secondary theme prevalent throughout the first novel–family and the bond of brotherhood. Bao and his two older brothers form the primary relationship focus within the story, and parallel themselves with the three legendary generals of China’s Three Kingdom period–Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Chang Fei. These three legendary heroes famously swore an oath of brotherhood under a peach blossom tree, to always be faithful to one another until death. Bao and his older brothers make a similar oath near the beginnings of their journey, to strengthen their bond as the three of them fight alongside each other for justice and the people of China.

While Boxers covers one side of the Boxer Rebellion, it’s companion novel, Saints, focuses on the opposite side of the conflict, pulling the focus onto the story of a young girl named Vibiana, who is one of the “secondary devils,” a Chinese convert to Christianity.

“Despite being the most wretched of animals, Old Raccoon didn’t shed a tear. He knew his place in the world and accepted it. That night I resolved to do the same. And that was how I embraced my devil-self.”

Vibiana, originally named Four-girl, seems to be a young woman living under a curse. Her family already believes her to be a devil, due to her connection with the number four–an unlucky omen in Chinese culture as it is a homonym for “death”–and as such, she begins to embrace her lot in life. Through a meeting with an acupuncturist, Dr. Won, Four-girl discovers he and his wife are Christians, converts to the “foreign devils” corrupting religion and influence–at least, that is how her family sees them.

Four-girl views the Won family in a different light, for they see and treat her like a normal little girl, the way a loving mother and father should, and unlike her family whose echoing cries of “devil!” follow her wherever she goes. She grows curious about the crucifix on the wall of the Won’s house, equating the figure of Jesus to a devil like her (since he just appears to be a foreigner and she has no knowledge of his significance at this point) and begins to visit Dr. Won regularly to learn about the “devil acupuncture victim.”

She doesn’t take to her lessons, continuously falling asleep as Dr. Won reads to her from the Gospels, and becomes more inclined to the snacks and treats Mrs. Won makes for her than anything else. It isn’t until she sees a vision of Joan of Arc that she begins to truly embrace the foreign ministers’ faith. Through her conversations with Joan’s spirit, Four-girl chooses her new name, Vibiana, and vows to become a warrior, a protector and fighter for the people she loves, like Joan herself.

“Be mindful of others as I am mindful of you.”

The conclusion of both stories occurs in the epilogue of Saints, as it is revealed the prayer Vibiana taught Bao in her final moments, eventually saves him from his demise; the crushing defeat handed the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist within the capital city of Peking. Bao is saved from the foreign soldiers, believing him to be a Christian, and he is reunited with his brother, coming full circle as the words of their vow of brotherhood beneath the peach blossom tree ring the final words of the novel.

Yang presents a compelling dual narrative within Boxers and Saints, utilizing the strengths of visual illustration and the format of the graphic novel to portray the reality and horrors suffered unto China during the age of colonialism in the beginnings of the 20th century. The illustrated narrative provides a beautiful vehicle for parallel imagery; one of the most compelling images being a shared depiction of the Chinese goddess of compassion, Guan Yi, being framed with the same background as Jesus Christ in Saints. This depiction centers that the most heroic acts portrayed within both stories are the acts of kindness and compassion exhibited by those on both sides of the war.

By Christopher Ball, guest reviewer

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