American Born Chinese pretty much guaranteed that I would read anything else Gene Luen Yang created, so when Boxers & Saints came out last year to great critical acclaim, I put the books high on my TBR list. The books are sold as two separate volumes as well as in a boxed set, but the stories run parallel to one another and should definitely be read together. Both books begin in 1898, when Christianity was beginning to take a stronger hold on China. In the space of two years, Chinese rebels fought back against colonization and murdered Westerners, “foreign devils” (Christians), and “secondary devils” (Chinese converts to Christianity) in what would become known as the Boxer Rebellion.
Boxers tells the story of Little Bao, a young peasant boy living in rural China. They live a relatively peaceful, hardworking life — though, like many other areas of rural China, suffer because of a drought — but then thuggish Chinese strangers arrive and cause trouble. Little Bao’s father intervenes and the men leave, but they return later with a priest as converts to Christianity; as such, they are above the law. There’s a lot of unrest over the foreign devils taking over China, and when a stranger named Red Lantern arrives and begins training the village men in the art of combat, Little Bao is enthralled. He wants to learn, but his older brothers still consider him a little boy and tell him to get lost. Seeing this, Red Lantern trains Little Bao in secret.
Then the Boxer Rebellion begins in earnest, with Little Bao playing a central role. This is where the book takes on a beautiful speculative fiction approach; before each battle, the rebels participate in a prayer ceremony that turns them into Chinese gods and warrior ancestors. Yang has them fight against the foreign devils as such. Not to be outdone by the men, the women — who’d been banned from training with the men and joining their brotherhood — refuse to sit on the sidelines, form their own alliance, and take their place alongside the men as female warriors and goddesses:
It’s a dazzling way to tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion, but of course this power and success comes with a price. Telling the story through Little Bao’s eyes makes the Boxer Rebellion feel personal, which makes it all the more devastating when Little Bao makes some questionable choices.
Meanwhile, Saints tells the story of Vibiana, a girl who briefly crossed paths with Little Bao when they were younger and who had her own share of hardships in life. “Four-Girl,” the non-name bestowed upon her at birth because she was thought to represent death, was shunned by her grandfather and generally thought to be an unlucky burden to her family. As she grew older, her stubborn streak earned her the label of “devil,” she started walking around with a devil face in an attempt to be the best scary devil she could be.
Ironically, this is how she first encounters Christianity: her mother takes her to a doctor to fix her scary face. The doctor happens to be a secondary devil, and because of her childish curiosity over the cross in his home, he pays Four-Girl more kindness and attention than she’s used to. When she learns that Christians are foreign devils, she’s determined — as a fellow devil — to learn all about this foreign devilry. She keeps returning to the doctor to learn more about Christianity (at least, that’s what he thinks — the lessons are terribly boring, so she’s mostly in it for the free cookies). Once she’s finally learned enough, she’s ready to convert: doing so would give her a real name and a community. Of course, her family is horrified. Because of the Boxer Rebellion, she converts during one of the worst times for a Chinese person to convert to Christianity. Meanwhile, Saints has its own magical touches of speculative fiction: the characters of Boxers may have identified with warrior gods, but Vibiana has visions of Joan of Arc:
I loved Boxers and Saints for a variety of reasons. Both Little Bao and Vibiana came from strikingly different places, but as a reader, I could empathize with both. I also loved how the humor and artwork brought some of the more fanciful elements to the story to life, especially the sequences where the rebels/gods were going into battle. And most of all, I loved — LOVED — the way the books brought the history and culture of another country to life in an accessible and nuanced way. They’re beautiful books, and everyone should read them.
Boxers and Saints were released in October 2013 by First Second Books. They were finalists for the 2013 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature.