Guest Review: Boxers (Boxers & Saints) by Gene Luen Yang

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At the close of the nineteenth century, once-proud China is in the thrall of European powers with superior weapons wielded by soldiers experienced in colonial conflicts. The government is a puppet, forced to keep the land safe for swarms of foreign merchants and missionaries, lest their home countries seize control of China directly. All of this seems distant to Little Bao in his small village. In the summer, he enjoys watching travelling troupes of players perform operas about ancient heroes and imagines these operatic characters all around him for the rest of the year as he helps tend the crops. After Little Bao’s father is badly beaten by foreign soldiers, his village floods. In the wake of starvation that follows, a kung fu practitioner named Red Lantern Chu arrives and begins training young men in the martial art. He is a brother-disciple of The Big Sword Society, a loosely organized brotherhood dedicated to fighting the injustices of “foreign devils.” Bao trains with Red Lantern’s teacher, Master Big Belly, who imparts to him mystic visions. When he takes up arms against foreigners and Chinese Christian converts, or “secondary devils,” he sees himself as a mysterious, black-robed operatic god whose name he does not know, while his fellow Big Sword Society fighters become legendary characters more familiar to him. Bao dreams of the persona he takes on, finding him harsh and demanding, always holding him back from helping friends and family. Eventually, he confronts the stranger in his dreams, who reveals himself as Ch’in Shih-huang, the first to unify all of China under one rule. This alter-ego urges Bao to put aside personal concerns, and surrender all in order to keep China whole. Bao renames his group The Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, and leads them to Peking to root out the poison which he believes has infected the heart of his nation. Along the way, he sacks a walled Christian enclave, where he kills Vibiana from Saints, and then burns a church filled with women and children under the watchful glare of Ch’in Shih-huang. Once in Peking, he hesitates to attack the communities of foreigners and the troops garrisoned there as his relationship with his female counterpart — the head of the Red Lanterns — blossoms. Only when it is too late does he make his move. I recommendBoxers, especially in combination with Saints, as a dramatic and stirring but thoughtful perspective on a conflict driven as much by mutual incomprehension and clashing values as belligerence and arrogance. Few, if any, characters are outright villainized; their worthy and petty motivations are generally well-illuminated, leaving the reader to genuinely consider both how they might act given the complex situation, and if it might have been possible to avoid the bloody conflict. The art of Boxers, while drawn and laid out in much the same manner as Saints, does not depict the same drab world that Vibiana inhabits. Rather, Bao’s world is both more colorful in general and more brightly accented when elements from his imagination or real conflict enter the panel. This may be symbolic of the more favorable position Bao inhabits in traditional Chinese society compared to Vibiana, as well as the more exciting life he leads. You would like this book if you like… A Chinese Life, Rashomon, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, or The Great War.

- RET3, Guest Blogger