Spotlight on Graphic Novels: Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

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Boxers & Saints is a duology that I’ve been wanting to get my hands on for a while now. It was surprising to me, then, when (1) my library had a copy, and (2) those copies were checked in at the same time. I didn’t even have to think twice. I snagged them off the shelf and checked them out. At the time, I was reading 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami and needed a bit of a relaxing read.

Boxers and Saints covers

Boxers & Saints tell two different stories about the Boxer Rebellion in China. One follows a Boxer, a rebel leader fighting against the forceful Christian sects that had arrived and been spreading into inland and rural China. The other follows a girl who converts to Christianity at the time. The Boxer Rebellion was a very bloody and violent time in both Chinese and Catholic history. You can read more about it here.

Some highlights

Artwork from Boxers

-Yang works hard to show the way that religious doctrines clashed in the formation of the rebel group, the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, and how other existing religious/political factions paved the way for its development. On the down side, the story focuses far less on the group’s history than on the emotional responses that led to rural villagers joining the movement.
-Yang depicts the rigid way that missionaries at the time approached proselytization and how culture clashes fed into conditions for violence. He also shows how the Christian missionaries were used as resources and provided social goods for members of the community. Though Boxers largely depicts the more harsh aspects of the missionaries in China at the time, it also makes sure to humanize the individual who were part of the church, if only briefly. This makes the violence resonate.
-The story focuses on a young man who helps to form and lead the Righteous and Harmonious Fist. Yang makes a point of using this character as a means to show the sometimes self-interested developments in the movement.
Artwork from Saints
-Yang talks alot about how the people came to believe themselves to be empowered by supranatural beings and entities, taking on the powers and personalities of existing Gods. This was interesting, but a bit unapproachable at times to someone not in the know. In Saints, Joan of Arc was invoked. That was a bit more approachable and poignant for me. I especially liked how the community leaders jumped on the idea of a young Chinese girl seeing and having a connection with Joan.
-I wish there had been more history involved. The history was in the story, but at times without context.
-The art was simple, but was able to convey nuance and humor.

Overall, there often wasn’t enough historical context for my taste. It made some of the story harder to follow than it needed to be. I gave the pair a 3.5. I liked the second installation, Saints, more. It had some interesting portrayals of the Church’s missionary work in China and was a bit more approachable.

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