Boxers / Saints (Boxset)

boxersandsaintsby Gene Luen Yang

As I said in my notes earlier, my reactions to this two-book graphic novel set are complex and still unresolved even after several days’ reflection.  Partly because that I found so much of it outstanding, so I did not want to be nitpicking about certain details and I don’t want to color anyone’s reaction to this historical fiction based on my largely emotional reactions as a Chinese American reader who wants everyone to know THE WHOLE STORY!!  I also don’t want anyone to think that I KNOW the WHOLE STORY.  In fact, I had to do some research as I read the book since my textbook history knowledge of this rebellion was also mixed with folklore and stories I saw on tv when I was little.

I am quite aware that Yang did not set out to write a historical treatment of the entire movement, but to personalize individual experiences so that he, and the readers, can explore the impacts of these events.  He couldn’t have been more successful in reaching his goal.  I greatly appreciate how there are never easy answers in Gene Luen Yang’s stories — the readers are left to wonder whether to be angry or sympathetic toward the characters; to admire or abhor what they do; and to be enlightened or perplexed by their reasons for their actions.

I’m glad that Yang included a list of the books he used to create this narrative since the origin of the Boxers and their practices are much debated topics amongst Chinese historians.  The references to the boxers’ being spiritually possessed by powerful deities based on folk beliefs are in agreement with most historians’ findings and there was a real leader of the movement named Red Lantern Chu.  I wish, however, that some sources translated from Chinese scholars were consulted and that the main sources have more balanced views from both sides.

I wish that I could have been convinced of Bao’s ignorance of Qin Shi Huang who is one of the most famous personalities in Chinese history — even if he might not have featured greatly in the opera — but was glad that the First Emperor is portrayed with a complexity of his own.

I wish that I had not cringed so much by Yang’s referencing/highlighting the more exotic but less significant aspect of the rebellion: how some boxers believed that foreign forces’ success was due to their utilizing the “yin power” (usually refers to the female spiritual power) which is evil and undesirable (drinking menstrual blood, flags woven from women’s pubic hair, etc.)  Even if these were documented facts (as Diana Preston claims in her The Boxer Rebellion,) I simply couldn’t help feeling ashamed and hoping fervently that young readers won’t mistake such “foreign” notions as typical of my fellow countrymen in the 21st century. (Does the inclusion of such claims enhance the storytelling and the power of this book?  I am too shaken by it emotionally to see it… perhaps someone else could convince me otherwise!?)

I wish that the slogan on the war banner had been written out in traditional Chinese characters because the events happened way before the simplification of the characters.

The above are all pretty much about Boxers — and I didn’t really get a chance to talk about Saints — which, for some odd reason, I found thoroughly convincing and more intense, although it is only half the length of Boxers.  I found the timeline crisscrossing of the two books very effective and the two pages (282 in Boxers and 158 in Saints) depicting compassionate deities (Guan Yin and Christ) with the same visual design absolutely breathtaking.

These two books can generate so much discussion and are so thought provoking that I have to tag them Highly Recommended even if I had some personal reservations…

5 Comments

Filed under Book Notes

5 responses to “Boxers / Saints (Boxset)

  1. Sam Bloom

    It’s interesting to hear your thoughts on this one, Roxanne! I liked it a lot, too, but wondered whether it was historically accurate in some places. My biggest problem is one that I’m guessing many others won’t really care about… did they REALLY have to make it two books? I didn’t get the feel that the stories were so dissimilar that they belonged in different books, so what happens if someone just buys one and not the other? Feels kind of unnecessarily profit-based to me. Still, pretty cool set overall.

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    • fairrosa

      I agree with you — and the two stories are so drastically different in lengths/thicknesses… that it’s hard to make sure that readers coming to one book will necessarily realize that the other is not simply a companion tale but part of the bigger story. I do think, however, to make both into one book will be too thick and the binding might not be able to hold all the pages together securely…

      I did find a recent scholarly Chinese paper here (all in Chinese) http://nccuir.lib.nccu.edu.tw/bitstream/140.119/33564/6/15350106.pdf
      that documented MANY more superstitious beliefs against the foreign devils — anywhere from harvesting human organs, to peeling human skins, to trafficking fetus brains. Now I wish that Yang had included more of these than just the female negative chi!

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  2. Thanks for posting this–though I’ve refrained from reading the actual review. Ever since I heard about these books I’ve been looking forward to them, so now I’m going to check to see if the library has them in the system yet….

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  3. kisaacs

    I agree with you that Saints is the better half, perhaps because both the author and I find this Catholicism a more familiar world. But I think this story does have to be two books to show the war effectively from two sides.The parallels underscore that purpose, and the points where Little Bao and Four-Girl’s paths cross are particularly moving. I can understand your cringing, but it really works to introduce young readers to what will probably be a completely unfamiliar piece of history in a novel and appealing way.

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    • fairrosa

      I agree with everything you said here. Gene Yang came and visited our teachers and students. I discussed with him a little about why I found it slightly unconvincing that Bao would have not known the first Emperor (Qin Shihuan) — but then I decided that for a peasant boy whose entire historical education seemed to have been through popular drama, this was acceptable… (Unless one interprets his dream visitation as from his own subconscious… perhaps it’s buried too deep?)

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