Review of Boxers & Saints, by Gene Luen Yang

the two volumes of Boxers & Saints
image source
Today I finished reading the graphic novel Boxers & Saints, by Gene Luen Yang. It was a good read—and a quick one—with engaging illustrations and a great concept behind it of viewing the Boxer Rebellion from two intertwined perspectives.

These perspectives are related in two short volumes titled Boxers and Saints. Boxers tells the story of a village boy who comes to lead men into battle as part of the Yihequan, or the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists (the "Boxers"). Saints tells the story of a village girl who converts to Christianity and helps the refugees fleeing the Boxers.

I found a lot of positives in this graphic novel, but I wasn't entirely blown away by it, either. I'd recommend reading it to almost anyone, but let me explain my thoughts first:

Boxers & Saints has a great concept behind it: Many stories from history should be studied and retold from multiple perspectives, and the two perspectives Yang chooses are great. Both perspectives come from young, poor Chinese, a boy and a girl, who each choose very different but very logical paths to follow in the course of their experiences. I'm very glad Yang didn't choose to portray a foreign perspective, though of course foreigners are much involved in the stories; Western perspectives are almost always overrepresented in stories from East Asia's modern history.
magical realism in Boxers
source: a great interview with Yang

Unlike Red: A Haida Manga, the storyline of Boxers & Saints is very clear and easy to understand, even when fantastic elements are involved like visions of gods, Qin Shi Huang, or Joan of Arc. I also appreciate the linguistic touch of the foreigners' speech being rendered as gibberish, or as ungrammatical English when they wouldn't have been speaking fluent Chinese. (In Saints, foreign languages are still shown as gibberish but are "translated" for the reader beneath.)

The illustrations in Boxers & Saints are striking and memorable. All of the vibrant colors in Boxers show the reader how much the gods of the opera mean to Bao, the male protagonist, and the muted colors in Saints show the reader how much the visions of Joan of Arc mean to Vibiana, the Christian convert originally named Four-Girl.

In spite of these highlights, I still wasn't entirely satisfied with Boxers & Saints, especially when it came to the novels' endings. I don't want to spoil them for anyone, but the way Yang fits the stories together to create some elements of dramatic irony and poetic justice (or injustice) just fell flat for me. Additionally, the level of magical realism in the stories was a bit too high for me, although perhaps that's a personal problem, since I'm such a literal-minded historian.

Being an educator now, one question I asked myself after reading Boxers & Saints was whether it might be good to have students read this book in class—a world history class, for example. My conclusion is a qualified yes: Students could definitely benefit from this book in understanding the Boxer Rebellion and turn-of-the-century China, but only if they had some background instruction before and/or after the reading.

Of course, I would encourage anyone to read Boxers & Saints outside of school, students and adults alike: It takes an engaging look at an important topic, and even more than that, it's an all-around great story.

Note: Thanks to Ketchikan Public Library (@KTNlibrary) for having this book!