Boxers & Saints
by Gene Luen Yang
Fair warning up front. This is not a graphic novel two-shot meant for the faint-of-heart or for the light reader. It is a historical-fiction manhua
about the Boxer Rebellion, with theological overtones and elements of magical realism.
There are actually two stories involved in this series, which overlap and intersect with each other at various points, and whose protagonists' destinies are intertwined with each other in odd and mysterious ways. And yet, the visual styles and the presentations of the two stories are dramatically different. The first one reads and plays out like a Chinese tragic drama; the second one is just as tragic, but it reads more like a diary. The first follows Xiaobao, a child from a poor village in rural China, who has a strong attachment to the local gods (notably the Tudishen) and the few street performances he gets to watch every year. When the Europeans come to his village, they (along with some local Chinese good-for-nothings) cheat and beat up his father and destroy the Tudishen; seeking redress, the young men of the village - including Xiaobao's friends and brother - band together and begin learning martial arts from a wanderer named Red Lantern Chu.
Xiaobao, left out of the training at first, is later approached by Chu and given training after dark; he is directed to the master who taught Chu, who turns out to be a Daoist who teaches Xiaobao to empty himself. Once he completes his training and the Daoist master dies, Xiaobao is able to channel the spirit of Qin Shihuang - he then teaches his friends and brother to channel various heroic spirits of Chinese operas, notably Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. They then begin administering rough justice to the villages around China which have been victimised by the Europeans and by the 'secondary devils', now calling themselves the 'Society of Righteous Harmony'.
Xiaobao meets a girl by the name of Meiwen, who joins the newly-formed Society and leads its female contingent, the Red Lanterns. Meiwen has been immersed in China's literary culture, and knows a number of ancient tales and Buddhist stories; Xiaobao very quickly begins falling in love with her. Along the way they meet the Hui Muslim Gansu Braves, who had been sent out by the Qing government to destroy them, but who end up sympathising with Xiaobao and letting them go. At one point, the Boxers slay an entire Christian village.
They advance on the capital; seeing the abuses that the foreigners have inflicted upon the Chinese there, the Boxers and the Gansu Braves begin killing the foreigners in the streets. The foreigners wall themselves inside the Foreign Quarter; their way inside is blocked by one of the great libraries of the Qing. Meiwen makes Xiaobao promise not to destroy the library, but he breaks that promise as it becomes clear that it is their only way to smoke the foreigners out.Saints
tells the other side of the story. It begins in the same village, with the 'cursed' fourth daughter of another family in the village: 'cursed' because according to Chinese tradition, four is an unlucky number (四 being a homophone for 死, death). She doesn't even have a proper name; everyone just calls her 'Four-Girl'. Her whole family hates or distrusts her, leading her to be incredibly lonely. Her only friend is a wild raccoon, which urges her to become a demon and to curse her whole family for real. However, she fails to convince the local doctor, Won, who is a convert to Catholicism. Subsequently, after witnessing a European priest destroy the Tulishen, she decides she wants to learn the 'devilish' ways of the foreigners and goes back to Won.
'Four-Girl' begins her catechesis; at the same time, her friend the devilish raccoon is killed by an apparition of Jeanne d'Arc, who appears to her as a glowing figure in gold armour. Her journey into Catholicism is accompanied by these visions of Jeanne d'Arc, who appears to her at various stages fighting for the liberation of France. But it is only when she learns that through baptism she can at last have a proper name that she embraces her new faith, albeit with some ambivalence - taking on the name Vibiana.
She struggles to fully embrace the faith, and never really manages to belong anywhere, even though she truly desires to protect everyone she meets, even from themselves. The visions she has become more cryptic, and she wonders whether she ought to join the Boxers or whether she ought to protect her fellow Christians.
However, when the Boxers attack Vibiana's village and begin killing the inhabitants, she is led behind a house by Xiaobao, who begins to interrogate her.
These books are pretty bleak. But they delve incredibly deep into Chinese questions of identity and cultural pride, and don't let anyone really off the hook easily. One can understand the motives of both the Chinese and the European characters, for the most part, though a handful of each group really are despicable. At the same time, these manhua
are remarkably Christian in their outlook, despite repeated parallels being drawn between Guanyin and Christ, and the strangely-parallel ways in which the Chinese and European characters oppose each other. In this tale of civil war, grace is almost always hidden, and it is far from cheap... but it's the only thing that ends up 'saving' Xiaobao.
No, not a light read at all. But I'm certainly glad I read it.9 / 10