3 February, 2014Issue 24.2Asia & AustraliaLiterature

Email This Article Print This Article

Boxers and Saints: Imagining a Rebellion

Peter Auger

Gene Luen Yang
Boxers & Saints
First Second Books, 2013
512 pages
ISBN 9781596439245 (Boxed Set Edition)

Jin Wang, the young protagonist of Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese (2006), is sitting in a herbalist’s shop, dreaming about becoming a Transformer. He wants to be able to change into a truck and have a trailer magically appear at the back, just like in the cartoon. But his mother doesn’t think so: “Ma-Ma says that’s silly. Little boys don’t grow up to be Transformers.”

Jin is holding another Transformers-like toy on the cover of American Born Chinese, which was the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award. The figurine acts as a master-symbol for the book: the Transformers franchise, co-produced by the Takara Tomy company in Japan and Hasbro in the United States, exemplifies the book’s concern with how popular cultures generate and deny paradigms for self-transformation. In addition to Jin’s fantasies of becoming a robotic haulage vehicle, his tale of settling into West Coast American life is intertwined with two others that ultimately help him to figure out a cultural identity for himself. The lead character of the first of these tales is the Monkey King, hero of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, who also happens, in this version, to own a die-cast toy that can transform from monkey to humanoid. And the second is Chin-Kee: the slit-eyed, buck-toothed, queue-sporting star of a racist high-school sitcom, in which the laughs come from the embarrassment he causes to his white cousin Danny.

Yang’s latest graphic novel, Boxers & Saints (2013), is a remarkable exploration of how cultural images assisted people in far graver and more desperate circumstances than Jin’s to become who they wanted—and who they needed—to be. Boxers & Saints is an ambitious retelling of the Boxer Rebellion, the culmination of 60 years of frustration at foreign exploitation and interference in China after the First Opium War (1839-42). It follows a group of rural workers in Shan-tung (Shandong) Province in the 1890s who, left idle and hungry after a failed harvest, are impelled to react to the continued assaults of foreign missionaries and soldiers, and seek to rid China of its ‘foreign devils’. These men, together with a group of female fighters called the Red Lanterns, undertake martial arts training together (hence ‘Boxers’) and form an organized militia. As their anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement gathers pace, they march on Peking (Beijing) in 1900. There they find support from Prince Tuan, a favourite in the Empress Dowager’s court. The novel ends during the siege of the Legation Quarter, during which the historical Boxers were finally beaten back by an international alliance of mostly Western powers.

Boxers, the first of the novel’s two volumes, relates these events through the eyes of a leader named Little Bao. The companion volume Saints follows a girl whom we immediately recognize as Little Bao’s erstwhile crush. She is Four-Girl/Vibiana, a Catholic convert who seeks refuge from the growing violence among the foreign missionaries and whose path eventually crosses with Little Bao’s again when he attacks her compound. The two volumes can be read independently, but gain much of their poignancy and depth in being placed together as two halves of the same story, or even, as the split title-pages suggest, of the same person. Indeed, Saints is dedicated to the San Jose Chinese Catholic community, and Yang has specifically cited as an inspiration the controversy provoked in 2000 when Pope John Paul II canonized a group of Chinese Catholic martyrs who were killed during the Boxer Rebellion. The narrative encourages sympathy and contempt for both sides: this is no simple story of victims versus criminals.

Each volume foregrounds the mythic tales and images that the protagonists harness. The Boxers instilled physical and spiritual discipline in their recruits by imitating martial arts performers, and in Boxers, the patriots take on the forms of warriors and generals depicted in village operas. Little Bao, who is of a similar age to Jin and similarly prone to imaginative reveries (as is Vibiana), practices spirit possession: he and his followers enter a trance-like state before battle and become manifestations of operatic mainstays including Guan Yu (a historical figure since deified as the God of War), Chang Fei (a general in Romance of the Three Kingdoms), and Sun Wu-Kong (the Monkey King). Little Bao grapples with the proto-nationalism and amorality associated with his conjuration of Ch’in Shih-huang, the first emperor of a unified China. Vibiana, meanwhile, learns about Jesus’s life and receives visions from both a rugged angel, and Joan of Arc, who inspires her vocation to become a maiden warrior.

These legends literally bring colour to Yang’s retelling of the Boxer Rebellion: Saints is told entirely in sepia tone except for the golden evocations of Christ’s life and fifteenth-century Orleans, while the bright opera costumes of the entranced Boxers add thrill and mystique to their transformations. Such colour risks romanticising these grim historical events, but the genius of Boxers & Saints’s two-volume design is that it is the characters who effect any glamorization. Yang uses mythic imagery to take us into characters’ minds, explain their actions, and show how Boxers and Saints alike possessed the mind-set to commit heroic and horrific acts that they may otherwise have been unable to carry out. The device helps readers unfamiliar with the historical background to understand and empathise with the motivations of both sides.

Yang is alert to the imbalances of power that drive people to seek out such stories. Little Bao commits to defending his people when a Christian missionary and his thuggish converts destroy the village’s statue of the earth god, Tu Di Gong. Threatened with cultural dispossession, Little Bao learns to mobilise the force of the stories inhabiting his native soil: the gods of the opera first sprout from a mystical bean garden. Later on, he hears improbable tales of foreigners supping menstrual blood and harvesting children’s livers and hearts for fuel—and demands to be told those same tales again as he sets light to a church providing refuge for a group of women and children. Little Bao practices self-deception when circumstances insist, and feigns belief too: he prevents foreign soldiers from killing him by voicing the words “Our Father”. His final moral unravelling comes when he decides to attack the Legation Quarter by burning down the Hanlin Academy Library, an irreplaceable repository of the cultural heritage he was supposed to be protecting (which suffered severe fire-damage in 1900): “What”, he is asked, “is China but a people and their stories?”

Vibiana turns to Christianity from a position of weakness too. She is driven from a family that demonises her for a deeply inauspicious birth-date, and drawn towards a kindly acupuncturist, his wife’s cookies, and their stories about Jesus. Yang’s decision to show Vibiana falling asleep while listening to the Gospel narrative not only provides light relief and some necessary narrative distance from this aspect of the author’s personal beliefs—Yang did previously draw The Rosary Comic Book—but it also makes the scene a reflection on the capacity of humans to construct identities for themselves, and the situations in which fabulous stories are thrust upon us.

Boxers & Saints is written with full awareness that the narrative of the Boxer Rebellion continues to be shaped and fictionalized in line with global power structures. In History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth (1998), Paul Cohen points out that the Boxers, because their cause was explicitly anti-Western, are easily characterized as historical “bad guys” in America and Europe, and were mythologized as exemplary patriots during the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-76). The earlier Taiping Rebellion—arguably the bloodiest civil war in history, given estimates placing the number of dead at 20 million, is apparently discussed less often because of its hybrid ideological origins involving evangelical Christianity: its instigator, Hong Xiuquan, was convinced that he was Christ’s younger brother. Splitting the narrative saves Yang from having to choose between sides, though Boxers & Saints has a moral deadweight in the concept of compassion—represented here through the eye-on-palm image associated with the thousand hands and eyes of Guan Yin, Goddess of Compassion, and daringly grafted onto Christ’s wounds.

Just as the appeal of American Born Chinese is far from restricted to its eponymous social group, Boxers & Saints addresses such global matters as colonialism, cultural imperialism, and terrorism. Yet for all its big ideas, Boxers & Saints is (for marketing purposes at least) a work of children’s literature suitable for ages 12 and over; and is witty, lively, and well-drawn. Comic touches abound, for example, during Vibiana’s spiritual frustrations and Little Bao’s martial training. Nonetheless, Yang’s work is more Maus than Mickey Mouse, an immersive work of historical fiction which exploits the unique creative possibilities of graphic novels.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s disturbing documentary The Act of Killing (2012) provides a filmic parallel in its presentation of imaginative manipulations which explain and justify acts of hatred and violence that are inconceivable to most of us. The film, which was much lauded in the UK (it was The Guardian’s top film of 2013), follows a group whose cause does not provoke empathy: former Indonesian death squad leaders in North Sumatra who live in total impunity and boast of their crimes, apparently incited by a government wishing to retain an undercurrent of fear among descendants of the survivors. Oppenheimer invited one Anwar Congo and his fellow perpetrators, who owned a cinema and enjoyed Hollywood films, to recreate their memories in whichever film genres they liked. The viewer recoils from witnessing the re-enacted and glamorised killings while comprehending something of their possible attraction, and in doing so sees exposed the imaginative procedures through which a mind creates self-justifying fictions. Yang also studies failures of imagination and empathy, recognizing the power of images to galvanise and desensitise, the ways in which those images are themselves products of past battles, and the responsibilities that this places upon the humble comic-book artist.

Peter Auger is teaching English literature at Exeter College, Oxford.