‘Boxers & Saints’: Gene Yang blends Chinese history, magical realism

Sept. 10, 2013 | 5:05 p.m.
boxers cov 300rgb Boxers & Saints: Gene Yang blends Chinese history, magical realism

The cover for "Boxers," Part 1 in Gene Luen Yang's "Boxers & Saints" graphic novel set. (Gene Luen Yang / First Second Books)

saints cov 300rgb Boxers & Saints: Gene Yang blends Chinese history, magical realism

The cover for "Saints," Part 2 in Gene Luen Yang's "Boxers & Saints" graphic novel set. (Gene Luen Yang / First Second Books)

boxers final optimized 100 132 Boxers & Saints: Gene Yang blends Chinese history, magical realism

A page from "Boxers," Part 1 in Gene Luen Yang's "Boxers & Saints" graphic novel set. (Gene Luen Yang / First Second Books)

boxers final optimized 100 135 Boxers & Saints: Gene Yang blends Chinese history, magical realism

A page from "Boxers," Part 1 in Gene Luen Yang's "Boxers & Saints" graphic novel set. (Gene Luen Yang / First Second Books)

It’s hard to know whom to root for in Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel diptych “Boxers & Saints.” At once humorous and heartbreaking, the books’ 500 combined pages examine both sides of the Boxer Rebellion in turn-of-the-century China, seamlessly weaving magic and history to tell two interconnected stories.

“Boxers” follows Little Bao, a peasant boy who learns kung fu and harnesses the power of the Opera gods to free China from the “foreign devils” — Western soldiers and Christian missionaries. “Saints” tells the tale of Four-Girl, an unwanted daughter who finds acceptance (and a proper name — Vibiana) among the Christian missionaries and their Chinese converts. Both protagonists are haunted and inspired by visions of historical figures — Joan of Arc for Vibiana and Ch’in Shih-huang, China’s first emperor, for Little Bao.

Gene Luen Yang, author of "Boxers & Saints." (First Second Books)

Gene Luen Yang, author of “Boxers & Saints.” (First Second Books)

“Boxers & Saints,” out today from First Second Books, isn’t Yang’s first foray into Chinese history and mythology. His 2006 graphic novel “American Born Chinese” (also from First Second) blended the story of a second-generation child of Chinese immigrants as he adapts to his new home in a white suburb with the tale of the Monkey King, the deity from the 16th-century classical Chinese epic “Journey to the West.” In addition to earning Yang his first Eisner Award, “American Born Chinese” was the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award, and the first to win the American Library Assn.’s Printz Award.

Currently, Yang is a writer on the Dark Horse Comics continuation of “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Hero Complex caught up with Yang to talk about the Boxer Uprising, magical realism in comics and what’s next after “Boxers & Saints.”

HC: Why the Boxer Rebellion?

GY: The Boxer Rebellion is fascinating on so many levels.  As a geek, I saw all sorts of connections between it and modern geek culture. The Boxer Rebellion is a war that was fought on Chinese soil in the year 1900. The Europeans, the Japanese and their Chinese Christian allies were on one side. On the other were poor, starving, illiterate Chinese teenagers whom the Europeans referred to as the Boxers.

The Boxers knew their government was too weak to defend against the foreign aggressors, so they did what modern-day geeks do: They found empowerment in the pop culture that surrounded them. Back then, acting troupes would travel from village to village performing snippets of famous Chinese operas. The operas were their comic books, their movies, their TV. They told stories of colorfully costumed heroes with magic powers, engaging in epic battles.

Like modern-day cosplayers, the Boxers wanted to become their heroes. They came up with a mystical ritual that would call these heroes – these gods of the Opera – down from the heavens. The gods would possess them and give them superpowers. Then, armed with superpowers, the Boxers marched through the countryside fighting European soldiers, European missionaries and Chinese Christians.

HC: How long has this idea been percolating, and how did you decide on the two-book format?

A page from "Boxers," part one in Gene Luen Yang's "Boxers & Saints" graphic novel set. (Gene Luen Yang / First Second Books)

A page from “Boxers,” Part 1 in Gene Luen Yang’s “Boxers & Saints” graphic novel set. (Gene Luen Yang / First Second Books)

GY: I began reading books about the Boxer Rebellion in 2000, when Pope John Paul II canonized 120 Chinese Catholic saints. This was the very first time the Roman Catholic Church had acknowledged Chinese citizens in this way. I grew up in a Chinese American Catholic community, and my home church was really excited about the canonizations. They had all sorts of celebrations and special Masses. When I looked into the lives of these new saints, I discovered that many of them had been martyred during the Boxer Rebellion. The more I read, the more ambivalent I felt. Did I side more with the Boxers or their Chinese Christian enemies? The two-book format is an expression of my ambivalence.

HC: Your main characters – Little Bao and Vibiana/Four-Girl – are so distinctive and relatable. Where did you find inspiration for them and their quirks? Did you base them on historical figures in your research?

GY: Bao and Vibiana are both fictional. Nobody really knows for sure how the Boxer Rebellion started. It began among the poor, and the history of the poor is rarely written down. I read this book by Joseph Esherick called “The Origins of the Boxer Uprising.” He talks about the possible causes and what might have happened. I incorporated those details into Bao’s story.

Vibiana was inspired by a relative of mine, a convert to Catholicism. She was born on a bad day according to traditional Chinese beliefs, and as a result, her grandfather treated her horribly. She was considered bad luck. She never connected her conversion to her childhood experiences, but to me the connection is clear as day. She couldn’t find a place for herself in Eastern stories, so she turned to Western ones.

A page from "Boxers," part one in Gene Luen Yang's "Boxers & Saints" graphic novel set. (Gene Luen Yang / First Second Books)

A page from “Boxers,” Part 1 in Gene Luen Yang’s “Boxers & Saints” graphic novel set. (Gene Luen Yang / First Second Books)

HC: Your use of magical realism is beautiful. Why did you decide to blend magic and history in this particular way? Why Joan of Arc and Ch’in Shih-huang?

GY: The facts around the Boxers suggest a blend of magic and history. They believed that the gods possessed them, that the gods gave them superpowers. They believed warriors could spring from magic beans. They believed charms would make them bulletproof. They gave me a theme to carry through the entire project.

As I was researching, I was struck by how similar the Boxers were to Joan of Arc. Joan was basically a French Boxer. She was a poor teenager who wanted to do something about the foreign aggressors invading her homeland. She found power in strange (to the modern mind, anyway) spiritual beliefs. And she was an underdog all the way through, just like the Boxers were. So in the stories told by the Boxers’ enemies was a figure very much like themselves.

Ch’in Shih-huang is the first emperor of China. He united seven separate kingdoms into a single nation. He built the Great Wall and was buried with the terra-cotta soldiers. The Chinese have mixed feelings about him. They’re proud of the nation he created, but he was a maniacal tyrant. He slaughtered thousands of people. He buried scholars alive and burned entire libraries of books. I feel like his spirit has haunted China over the centuries, especially during China’s darkest decades. Chairman Mao liked to compare himself to Ch’in Shih-huang, bragging that he’d buried more scholars and burned more books than the emperor.

HC: I was surprised at how funny the books are in some parts. How do you balance the use of humor with the serious nature of the historical events?

GY: I’m glad you found parts of the books humorous! I think I included those in an attempt to lighten the mood, even if it was only for me. I was immersed in the Boxer Rebellion for six years, and so much of it is so tragic. I needed to make myself laugh every now and then just to keep going.

HC: The books give readers a glimpse at motives on both sides of the uprising. At any point did you struggle to relate to the characters on one side or the other?

GY: “Saints,” despite being shorter, was definitely a harder book to write. The Boxers lent themselves to narrative. They were active. They went on an epic journey. They strove and struggled and fought. The Chinese Christians’ journey was much more internal. They mostly stayed in place and waited for the Boxers to come. How do I convey their struggles with doubt and fear in a visually compelling way? I tried to make “Saints” more intimate than “Boxers” by borrowing the conventions of American autobio comics. Lark Pien, who colored both books, used a limited palette for “Saints.” I used a font based on my wife’s handwriting for the captions.

The covers Gene Luen Yang's companion graphic novels, "Boxers" and "Saints." (Gene Luen Yang / First Second Books)

The covers for Gene Luen Yang’s companion graphic novels, “Boxers” and “Saints.” (Gene Luen Yang / First Second Books)

HC: Is there a scene in either book you’re most proud of?

GY: Years ago, I saw this beautiful old painting of Guan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy, in a museum. She was surrounded by a halo of hands with eyes in the palms. The hands-with-eyes were symbolic of compassion. The eyes showed that Guan Yin was constantly looking out for suffering. The hands showed that she was constantly working to relieve it. To me, those hands-with-eyes looked remarkably similar to crucified hands. I’ve wanted to explore that similarity in a graphic novel ever since. I’m thankful I finally got it out of my system and onto paper.

HC: Many of the ideas and arguments you highlight in “Boxers & Saints” are relevant today. Is there a message you want to share about religion? About extremism?

GY: I hope the books encourage readers to look at both sides of every argument. I also hope it encourages them to think carefully about the relationship between cultures, not just the ways they clash but also the ways they overlap. The Europeans and the Chinese regarded each other as “other,” but in my research I was continually surprised by how their cultures reflected one another. For instance, among the Chinese rumors circulated that the Europeans would pluck out babies’ eyes and grind them up for medicines. This was taken as evidence of how monstrous the Europeans were. Yet in the stories of the Chinese, Guan Yin plucks out her own eyes to make medicine for her father. Among the Europeans rumors circulated that the Chinese would sacrifice their own children to their heathen gods. This was taken as evidence of how monstrous the Chinese were. Yet in the stories of the Europeans, Jesus Christ is a son sacrificed by his own father.

HC: What’s next for you?

GY: I’ve been writing the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” comics series for Dark Horse Comics. I’ve gotten to work closely with Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the creators of the original animated series. It’s been a blast. The next volume will be out in October, and we’ll finally be revealing what happened to Zuko’s mom.

Also, I took a break between “Boxers” and “Saints” to work on a light-hearted, uplifting superhero project called “The Shadow Hero.” I wrote it, Singaporean artist Sonny Liew illustrated it, and First Second Books will be publishing it next year. The Shadow Hero is a revival of an obscure hero from the 1940s called the Green Turtle, who has since fallen under public domain.

The Green Turtle was created by Chu Hing, one of the first Asian Americans working in American comics. Rumor has it that Chu Hing wanted Green Turtle to be of Chinese descent, but his publishers didn’t think it would fly. Chu Hing reacted passive-aggressively. In those original Green Turtle comics, the hero’s face is almost always obscured. Supposedly, Chu Hing did this so he could imagine the Green Turtle the way he wanted, as a Chinese American. The Green Turtle only lasted five issues, so we never learn his origin story. That’s where Sonny and I are stepping in. We’re telling his origin story and firmly establishing him as the first Asian American superhero.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+


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One Response to ‘Boxers & Saints’: Gene Yang blends Chinese history, magical realism

  1. cellenbogen says:

    Looking forward to it!

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