I’ll be honest, before I read these graphic novels, I knew nothing about the Boxer Rebellion except that there was an event in history called The Boxer Rebellion. It’s sad but true. Luckily, Gene Luen Yang has helped dispel some of my ignorance with this beautiful set of books.
I’m trying to figure out the best way to talk about these two titles – do I talk about each individually and rate them on their ability to stand alone or talk about them as one “series” and how they work together? Hm.
I read “Boxers” first. Again, my knowledge of Chinese history was close to nothing so I wasn’t sure where it was all going. “Boxers” focuses on the life of Little Bao, a boy from a small country village in China. We trace his journey from a small, quiet boy to a man who helps start the Boxer rebellion by forming a group of fighters who go from town to town killing “foreign devils.” It’s a fascinating story and while Bao is not an innocent in all of this, you can see why he and the men and women who followed him felt compelled to fight back against the missionaries and their influence.
Oddly enough, very little of it has to do with religion even though they were attempting to wipe out anyone who was a Christian, but much of this hatred spawns from the abuse Bao and his friends suffered at the hands of missionaries and “secondary devils”, Chinese who claimed to have converted to Christianity.
By the end, I was very curious about the Rebellion, and found myself searching on Google, trying to get more historical facts on the events surrounding the start of the fighting. I hoped that “Saints”, being the companion story, would shed some light on the other side of the events.
“Saints” I read in a single evening. It’s about half the size of “Boxers” and, honestly, the story isn’t anywhere as compelling. “Saints” focuses on Four-Girl, a neglected fourth daughter of a Chinese family in a village probably not too far from where Bao grew up. In an act of defiance, she decides she is a devil (since her grandfather keeps calling her one) and she makes a creepy face anytime she is around people. Her family is disturbed and takes her to an acupuncturist. To avoid going back home, Four-Girl asks the doctor about the cross over his desk (which she assumes is an image of a patient) and soon he is telling her stories from the Bible (though she can hardly stay awake for them). She starts seeing visions of Joan of Arc, who gives her guidance in that vague way visions of saints do. Four-Girl ends up converting to Christianity and running off with the missionary and his group.
I was hoping the story in “Saints” would give me an idea of why so many Chinese were converting to Christianity, what the appeal was, in the same way “Boxers” gave me a general idea of why some people rose up against it all. Unfortunately, Four-Girl’s story felt far too specific, and she was a little too odd. I never felt that she truly believed in Christianity or even understood it. While Bao may have been naive, he was an intelligent young man. Four-Girl seems both naive and a bit slow.
The end of “Saints” gives us an “extended scene” from the end of “Boxers”, letting us know what happened to Bao after the final battle. It’s worth reading for that.
So, I would say “Boxers” get 5 stars, “Saints” gets 3 stars, so the set should get 4 stars. It is a great read and I think this could turn a lot of young adults and adults on to a part of Chinese history most of us are not taught about. You do need to read them in order and I would read them back to back so you don’t forget what happened in “Boxers” before getting to “Saints” finale.