Acclaimed cartoonist Gene Luen Yang’s two-volume graphic novel set, Boxers and Saints, was recently named a finalist for this year’s National Book Award. Boxers and Saints, which is available as a two volume set or as individual books, is a work of historical fiction set during the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). The two books tell parallel and intersecting stories about two young Chinese who are each caught up on opposing sides of the conflict. While Boxers is the story of a young man who leads the rebellion, Saints is the story of a young woman who converts to Catholicism.
Author Gene Luen Yang took the time to answer some of our questions about religion, cultural identity and history by email.
How much did you know about Chinese history, in general, and the Boxer Rebellion in particular, before taking on this project? How about the Chinese myths that inspired the Boxers?
Like most Americans, I knew very little about the Boxer Rebellion before I started the project. I vaguely remembered it from high school history class, but that was about it. Before I started writing and drawing, I spent about a year or so learning all I could. And in the end I felt like I had just scratched the surface. China is such an old, old country with such a long, long history.
As for the myths, I experienced them through my parents. My mom used to tell me Chinese stories at bedtime, stories about the Monkey King and other mythical figures. I loved them, but my experience of them was indirect.
You’ve said in other interviews that you felt conflicted when working on Boxers and Saints. Did you start the project with your sympathies more on one side than the other? Did that change as you did more research and as you worked on the books?
I first became interested in the Boxer Rebellion in 2000, when the Roman Catholic Church canonized a group of Chinese Catholic saints. I grew up in a Chinese American Catholic community, and my home church was very happy about the Vatican’s announcement. I looked into the lives of these saints and discovered that many were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion.
Because that was my entry point, I started off more sympathetic to the Boxers’ Chinese Christian victims. After all, we shared the same faith background. I imagined they, like me, struggled with integrating Eastern and Western worldviews. But the more I learned about the Boxers, the more intrigued I became. Their anger was very understandable to me. I could feel it as I was reading about them. And the way they turned to the popular stories of their time for empowerment reminded me of how today’s young people turn to our pop culture, to movies and television and comic books.
In Boxers, Little Bao is a generally sympathetic character. And yet he does some truly horrific things when he becomes the leader of the Boxers. How did you make the decision about how sympathetically to portray him?
Through Bao, I expressed how I felt about the Boxers. I find their motivations understandable, but then they committed these horrific acts of violence. How did could young men be capable of such things? That’s a part of what Boxers and Saints is about.
Following on from the previous question, the two books can make for quite uncomfortable, violent, reads, particularly as the Rebellions comes to a head (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that books about the Boxer Rebellion show violence). And yet your style is the same as it was in what I’ve seen of your previous work. It is quite a cartoony style. As well, despite the violent, bad things the characters suffer, witness, and perpetrate, I would say that each of the book is mostly light and funny. Can you explain a bit about why you chose to go with that tone?
A lot of that comes from my lack of drawing talent, I think. I really only know how to draw in one style. I have friends who can illustrate in many different styles, and I’m always a little jealous of them.
My style is cartoony, simple, and animation-inspired. The entire project took me six years to complete. Focusing on such a tragic event for so long was depressing. I added jokes here and there just to keep myself going.
One of your previous books was American Born Chinese, a work that was also in part about the conflict between different identities. Do you see a connection between that work and Boxers and Saints?
I’m intrigued by the clash of identities. This shows up again and again in my work, not just in American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints, but also in Level Up and The Shadow Hero. Perhaps it’s because I grew up as the child of immigrants, with one culture at home and another at school. Two names, two languages, two sets of expectations. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to mesh the two together.
Who do you hope will read Boxers and Saints? Do you think there is an interest in this subject among the general book-reading ( or graphic novel-reading) public? American Born Chinese really spoke to me, as a first generation Chinese immigrant to Canada. I’m curious about your other readers. Were they generally immigrants? Chinese immigrants?
The short answer is, I hope as many people as possible read Boxers and Saints. 🙂
I’m categorized as a Young Adult author, and I think I fit that category pretty well. Young adults deal with issues of power, belonging, and identity, which all show up in my stories.
I’ve had the opportunity to travel, give presentations, and meet some of my readers. It seems that American Born Chinese particularly resonates with immigrants’ children, regardless of where their parents are from. That negotiation between two cultures is something many of us have gone through.
The protagonists of both Boxers and Saints have direct experience of the supernatural (and/or divine). At one point, for instance, the Boxers really do seem to gain powers when they perform their rituals. As well, Vibiana [the main character of Saints] has visions of Joan of Arc, and learns things from the life of Joan of Arc that she couldn’t have learned elsewhere. How seriously should we take those revelations? And (if it’s not too personal a question!) is religion and the divine in your life?
I grew up within the Roman Catholic faith tradition. After going through a period of doubt in college, I embraced my childhood faith as my own. It’s an integral part of me. The magical realism in my comics is an expression of that. Religion is a contentious subject these days for understandable reasons. I try to be very careful when I bring up spiritual topics in my work. I rely heavily on the feedback of my non-religious friends. But religion is rooted in deep, fundamentally human longings. I hope that – on that level, at least – readers will be able to connect with my characters regardless of their worldview.
Buy Boxers and Saints on Amazon.
Boxers and Saints is written and drawn by Gene Luen Yang and coloured by Lark Pien.
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