It’s been over two months since I finished reading Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang, and I’m still thinking about it. Told in graphic novel format from the perspectives of two Chinese teens on opposite sides of the conflict known as the Boxer Rebellion, Volume One follows Little Bao, while Volume Two tells Four-Girl’s story. Their narratives intersect briefly as children growing up in rural China during hard times, and then dramatically in a clash of allegiances as the Boxers, a pro-nationalist movement, march towards Peking in an effort to dispel the foreign powers–and their foreign religion–from China by force.
Yang sets the scene with ease, using Little Bao’s passion for folk opera, Four-Girl’s home life, and a host of mortal and supernatural characters, to give us insight into the cultural, social, and political situation influencing China as the 19th century drew to a close. Yang also portrays Chinese culture–even its more outlandish superstitions–with sensitivity and skill. Having read other books about China, I appreciate that his characters are influenced by, but don’t embody these superstitions. Rather, they come across as fully fleshed individuals with human motivations.
Another positive aspect–they communicate in fluent, everyday language. There’s none of the awkward literalness of Young Fu (“lay down your heart”) or the use of broken, pidgin English to indicate when someone is speaking Chinese. It’s only when someone’s language skills are poor–for example, a British soldier or a foreign missionary speaking Mandarin–that the grammar goes wonky. Even more clever, when Yang wants to show that a character is speaking in English, the text appears as deformed boxy squiggles, because naturally, a Chinese person would assume that English is written in characters the way Chinese is.
But it’s the surprising ways Bao and Four-Girl’s narratives parallel and counterpoint each other that make Boxers & Saints stick with you long after you’ve put it down. The obvious example would be the lack of color in their lives. Both Little Bao and Four-Girl exist in a drab palette of sepia. Only when they are visited by their patron saints–folk opera heroes in Bao’s case and Joan of Arc for Four-Girl–does the coloring shift to vivid hues and golden glows, respectively. And then there’s that pair of images at the climax of both volumes (those who’ve read Boxers & Saints will know which panels I’m referring to).
Yang doesn’t stop there with the similarities: supernatural guidance, a deep love for their country, a shared struggle for identity and purpose. But above all, there’s a grayness–more so with Bao–to how they fill their titular roles as Boxers AND Saints. Bao isn’t just a folk hero turned insurgent, and Four-Girl a disenfranchised Chinese Christian turned victim. Though Bao fights on the side of the aggressors, he joined out of a genuine desire to defend the poor and bring justice to a land oppressed by foreign powers–like a Joan of Arc for his time. But to achieve his purpose, he surrenders his identity to a “dark-robed god” and ends up destroying a vital part of the Chinese culture he was fighting so hard to preserve. Meanwhile, Four-Girl’s decisions leave her a victim in the conflict, but unlike Bao, she is more proactive in her life choices. And quite amusingly, she’s not that saintly most of the time.
At the end of the day, their stories fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Yang is very deliberate about this–Bao’s story isn’t complete without Vibiana’s. And in the wider scope of history, Saints makes more sense when told in the context of Boxers.