The OF Blog: Gene Luen Yang, Boxers/Saints

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Gene Luen Yang, Boxers/Saints

I remember an old, but very pointed, witticism from my days studying at the University of Tennessee that went something like this:  In studying history, we mostly were getting only one side of the story, because her story was too often ignored by those writing down events.  There is, of course, much truth to this.  History is written by the winners, written records are privileged (until recently) over oral tales.  The deeds of men were valued over those of women.  Elite culture trumped that of plebeian culture.  In each of these cases, however, there were still preserved elements, if not whole-cloth, of the "other" histories.  They might be mere whispers, barely audible even those who strain to hear them, but the voices of the downtrodden are beginning to emerge more and more in histories and historical fictions over the past generation or so.

One recent example of this is Chinese-American graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang's rendering of the 1899-1901 Boxer Rebellion in China.  A century later, this popular uprising mystifies and fascinates those who look for parallels with our own times.  There certainly are many such elements:  resistance to imperialism, both political and cultural alike; varying amounts of personal/cultural adaptation to foreign influences; infighting over what is to be preserved from one's culture and which is to be adopted from elsewhere; questions of identity and how the past and present can shape a person.  Multiple perspectives are necessary in order to understand the tumult of events such as the Boxer Rebellion.  How did it start?  Who were its targets?  In what ways did rebellion manifest itself in the people infected with a desire to purge the land of new influences?  Who resisted the call to rebellion?  Who were the victims of these purges?  How can one determine a "right" or "wrong" when it comes to what one believes and how one expresses those beliefs?

These are the questions that Yang addresses throughout the course of his two intertwined graphic novels, Boxers and Saints.  Multiple sides are presented here, with matters of "right" and "wrong" deliberately left open for interpretation.  Although the main protagonists of each book, Bao (Boxers) and Vibiana (Saints), present compelling reasons as to why their point-of-view should be most sympathetic to readers, Yang carefully illustrates, both in his drawings and in his scripts, the limits and foibles of each young protagonist.  In Boxers, we see Bao's struggle to find respect and dignity in 1890s rural China, with vivid scenes such as his father's brutal beating and maiming serving as an impetus for him to turn toward the preaching of itinerant traditionalists such as Red Lantern who urge the countryside to revolt against China's foreign oppressors and to remove the shame that has visited the country.  Inflamed with a passion to restore the glory of China's past and its "opera" gods and goddesses, Bao seeks (and at first is rebuffed due to his young age) training in the mystical ways of the Righteous Fists, where he learns how to embrace the spirits of the Chinese gods and heroes.

In contrast, Vibiana has rejected tradition and embraced Christianity after being maltreated by her family and cast out.  She, like Bao, seeks something greater than herself to anchor herself to, but instead of accepting a menial role demanded of village women at that time, she begins to explore the new faith that has been introduced in the region.  Through her views, we see some of the myriad reasons why many Chinese converted to Christianity, not all of which were noble in intent, purpose, or action.  Yang has created in these two characters interesting parallels, not all of which are immediately visible upon a first reading.  If anything, by having the two books be bound separately, the parallels are slightly obscured as the reader encounters mostly the views of one of the two protagonists (with minor appearances of the other through the eyes of each other).  This, however, does not weaken the power of the dual narratives but instead strengthens both, as the understanding one might derive in reading one book first (if it were up to me, I would read Boxers first, as it is the longer of the two and Yang scripted it first) can be deepened (and in some cases, challenged) by a quick reading of the other.  Indeed, one could even read the "chapters" in alternating fashion to create an even more composite view, although this would reveal a few narrative surprises in the process.

Bao and Vibiana are flawed young individuals, each seeking justification for his or her actions.  Things that one blithely accepts are seen by the other as atrocities.  The external forces that drive each can be seen as self-destructive when viewed through the perspective of the other narrator.  Yet taken as a whole, their twin narratives tell a powerful story that leads the reader to ask many of the questions I laid out above.  The result is a wonderfully realized retelling of an important moment in Chinese history that will engage readers from the early pages of Boxers all the way to the ending of Saints.  These two books, when read as a whole, certainly are deserving of their dual nomination for the 2013 National Book Award for Young People's Literature and they are among my favorite 2013 releases to date.  Highly, highly recommended.

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