Gene Luen Yang, 2013
If you’re looking for a quick read with a unique perspective on history, this is it. Boxers is the first part of Luen Yang’s two-part graphic novel Boxers & Saints: a retelling of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1899 that moves at a lightening pace. There is a lot buried within the action portrayed on the pages here that vividly illuminates the struggles of the weak but historically proud Chinese society suffering the embarrassing conquest of imperialism and cultural influence of western religion at the turn of the 20th century.
Boxers focuses on the rising leadership of the young, uneducated and zealous village commoner, Bao. Through the tutelage of a wandering Kung Fu master named Red Lantern, Bao begins his instruction in the ways of Kung Fu. After Red Lantern suffers defeat in a failed attempt to defend another village from foreign influence, Bao seeks tutelage from Red Lantern’s master. After suffering many humbling lessons on the path to wisdom, Bao is gifted with the mystical vision of a mysterious black-robed god-like spirit. Through troubling nightmares Bao later learns that this spirit god is Ch’in Shih-huang, the father of unified China, who guides Bao to lead an uprising against the foreign invasion within China.
Guided by the mystical strength and vision of Ch’in Shih-huang, Bao releases his brothers, disciples of Red Lantern, from captivity and together they form a brotherhood traveling the countryside defending the common villager against the imperial power that is overcoming China. Bao teaches his disciples the power to call upon the gods and the ways of kung fu and his discipleship grows with time and they eventually become the Righteous and Harmonious Fists or “Boxers United in Righteousness” aiming to “Support the Ch’ing, and Destroy the Foreigner,” marching into battalions of rifle armed militia and defeating them with swords, kung fu, and the spirit powers of the gods. Bao also teaches a sisterhood the ways of the kung fu as well and the underground uprising prompts a chain reaction of rebellion from village to village that eventually reaches the foreign overrun capital of Peking.
The narrative arch of Boxers is carried along by the internal turmoil faced by Bao who always recalls his humble villager roots, but is compelled to exact brutal decisions his younger self would not understand, such as the slaughter of many unarmed Christian foreign “devils” and the converted Chinese “secondary devils.” The brutality of his actions intensifies as he breaks his edicts to “have compassion for the weak” as he murders children and even his fellow villagers who have converted to the foreign religion. Bao struggles with dream visions visited to him by Ch’in Shih-huang, who encourages Bao to find justification for his brutality as a necessary cause for the better good for all of unified China. Through his dreams Bao is conflicted by visions of his past and in the waking world he is further conflicted by his love interest, Mei-wen, the leader of the sisterhood fighters. His love for her clouds his perspective as he is conscious that he is breaking the edict to “not lust after women or wealth,” the same weakness that clouded the vision of his mentor, Red Lantern. The internal struggles of Bao develops the dramatic backdrop for what ultimately ends as a tragic outcome for the Boxers.
On first reading, the use of the Chinese spirit gods appeared as a convenient narrative device for the graphic novel form of storytelling. However, after reading this first part of Boxers & Saints I was intrigued to browse the Wikipedia summary of the Boxer Rebellion and was surprised to learn that the Righteous and Harmonious Fists fought with the belief that they were possessed by spirits descending from the heavens, giving them the ability to withstand bullets and perform supernatural feats such as flight. Many of the Boxers were poor young, zealous teenagers encouraged by their training and belief in spirit possession that they were invincible from the foreign invader, as were Bao and his followers. I had always known of the Boxer Rebellion as an uprising against Western Imperialism, but Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel illuminates the perspective and beliefs that influenced the rebellion with dramatic, but tragic quality storytelling.