Of brave hearts and timid people: Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints

Perusing through the by-and-large sepia-toned pages of the two companion graphic novels that make up Boxers and Saints (barring the occasional spurt of colour to portray heroic moments), rendered in unpretentious dialogue, one is compelled to marvel over the power of simplicity in the act of story-telling. We live in a world where polarities in the acts of narrating a story always gain the maximum attention and eyeballs- on the one hand, we venerate and laud the complex, the grand, or the metaphorical, which push the envelopes of a text; on the other, we mindlessly consume the excesses of mainstream options, feeding us on a diet of repetitive tropes. The space for the in-betweens, the whimsical, the quirky, the sweet-yet-sad, are by and large not given much attention to, undeservedly so. Boxers and Saints is a narrative which lies in this land teeming with much-ignored gems – its tone of empathy, simple dialogue and delightful interplay of magic realism belies a nuanced, restrained take on one of the most violent civil uprisings in Chinese history.

While the work is historical fiction, interspersed generously with fantastical elements, the entire plot is based upon the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900, when drought and poverty-weary peasants took up arms against the English imperialists and the growing influence of Christianity in China. The rebellious militia, known in English as “boxers” began a country-wide campaign of violence and terror aimed at the colonialist forces and Chinese converts to Christianity, spurred by proto-nationalist sentiment and resentment for the weak-willed Qing dynasty which had failed to put up a firm stance against the oppressive “foreign devils”. At the centre is Little Bao, a “village rat” who grows up to become the rebellious leader of the Society of The Righteous Fist, aka the Boxers, and whose journey from a timid, opera-loving Chinese rustic to the head of a major civil warfare comprises the majority of the first half of this series, “Boxers”.  “Saints” is the story of Four-Girl, later Vibiana, an outcast, unwanted Chinese girl who coverts to Christianity to escape her oppressive family, only to die for her adopted religion at the hands of Bao in “Boxers”. Adding to the cast are remarkable characters like Mei-Wen, Boa’s romantic interest who goes on to become the leader of the women-only rebel outfit Red Lanterns, and a host of mythological beings adding a fascinating, dream-like quality to the internal conflicts of the main characters. There is even the spirit of Joan of Arc who guides Vibiana through her journey towards Christianity.

The most remarkable aspect of the series is the way Yang manages to keep an even, nearly objective handle on the subject and portray both sides of the conflict without falling into the trap of making things black and white.  This perhaps stems from the fact that while being a Chinese American himself, Yang is also a devout Catholic, and has himself in interviews spoken of the “conflict between our (Catholic Chinese Americans) Eastern cultural heritage and our Western faith”.  The yin-and-yang perspectives, starting right from the format of the comic, enables us to see both sides of the situation as both the Boxers and the Chinese Christian converts are caught in a situation not of their own making. As readers, we are left scratching our heads about deciding where our sympathies lie- is it the Boxers, like Bao, who for all their nationalist fervour and sympathy for the weak, are not above burning innocent women and children in a church, simply because they happen to have converted to a new religion? Or is it the Chinese converts, like Dr. Won, the “secondary devils” who, despite having having resorted to Christianity were essentially letting go of their centuries-old traditions to simply pander to their new imperialist masters?

Nor is the blame, interestingly enough, solely placed upon the rather inhumane “foreign devils” who are said to have corrupted the Chinese nation with their alien ways. In the character of Father Wey, we get to see a more humane side of those upon whom it is easy to point fingers at – the Christian missionaries set out to “humanize” the “barbaric” Chinese. Pious and obstinate in his beliefs, his principles are thwarted at every stage by more fallible human beings, leading him to become an embittered man who’s increasingly losing faith in his own abilities to accomplish the demands of his vocation as a priest. In him, we are hinted at a man unable to reconcile his steadfast faith to the vagaries of turbulent, changing times.

There is, therefore, a plurality of perspectives that manages to accomplish what many a writer or a movie director is not able to achieve with their creative vision- a rich bank of stories that tell us that fiction, much like life, contains no hues of contrasting colours- everything is a shade of grey, and human beings are only like so many ants, desperately left to the forces of fate to cling on to what they can. This is driven through especially towards the end of “Boxers”, as what had seemed to be a breezy victory on the part of the nationalists turns out to be a mirage in the face of the superior might of the imperial army. Is there really a victor in this rather senseless war? Was there really a coherent idea of a Chinese nation to begin with? Is religion really worth fighting for? These are all questions, variations on which have been asked ad nauseum through various media- what struck me particularly about THIS graphic novel was the way it managed to raise these questions without seemingly having no “agenda” of this kind- despite being a work of political themes, there is no overhanging set of objectives it sets out to achieve.

Rendered in clear art with nuanced, easy-to-understand dialogue, this is a work which reminds me of this year’s Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan’s speech, who, when speaking in the context of novels, says, “…(they) are not content. Nor are they a mirror to life or an explanation of life or a guide to life. Novels are life, or they are nothing.” Substitute the word “novels” with either comics or graphic novels, and the speech holds true for Boxers and Saints, despite its many magical elements.

 – by Sabitha Sudarshan
Sabitha works in advertising, and though she started reading graphic novels and comic books only once she turned 22, she’s taken to it like fish to water in just three years!