Boxers & Saints are a masterful pair of graphic novels that offer perspective on both sides of China's Boxer Rebellion, a decade long struggle that I am ashamed to say I knew nothing about. The struggle hinged upon the arrival of Europeans who brought Christianity to the Chinese along with an unfortunate dose of subjugation.
Boxers focuses on Bao, a peasant boy who loves opera and respects the ancient gods that his people have worshipped for centuries. When Bao first finds his world threatened by an influx of colonial Westerners as well as Chinese converts to their ways, he feels powerless. His once-mighty father is beaten by a white soldier, and his brothers say that Bao is too small to seek revenge.
The appearance of a kung fu master named Red Lantern Chu changes everything. Soon Bao and his brothers are cunning warriors with courage on their side and swords in their hands. The boy and his brothers find themselves embodying various Chinese gods as they fearlessly charge into battle.
Bao's journey from kung fu novice to inspiring leader is empowering, but it is not without its own complications. He makes mistakes that cost lives and his ruthlessness makes him equal parts heroic and monstrous.
Saints focuses on the fourth daughter of a Chinese family who is so unwanted that she does not even have a name of her own. Four-Girl finds her place among the Christian missionaries. She gains the name Vibiana but also makes herself a target for persecution, much like her newfound role model Joan of Arc.
What makes these two volumes incredibly special is how they offer differing perspectives on the event, giving readers a chance to see both sides of such an issue. Our protagonists engage in their separate journeys in each volume with occasional overlaps into each other's lives. It does not matter in which order you read the books, but reading each one will certainly enrich your understanding of the other.
The differing perspectives of a single conflict are very hard to demonstrate, but Yang's storytelling helps to illustrate it well. He shows that the world does not simply break down into black and white or right and wrong. Each protagonist has reasons for the decisions that he or she has made. Tragically, both sides of this struggle have exposed flaws and commit crimes against their fellow man.
It is no wonder that Yang's complex narrative has put Boxers & Saints on the finalist list for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, just as his fantastic title American Born Chinese did in 2006. I encourage you to seek out Yang's books as a cultural lesson, but also to see what revolutionary choices one can make with the medium of comics.
See the book trailer here.