In Boxers by Gene Luen Yang, Little Bao is born into a world in which China is run by corrupt officials and foreign missionaries and soldiers. The imaginative boy is constantly picked on by his brothers, and he’s shocked when a foreign priest destroys his village’s representation of a local earth god. Five years later, a man enters Bao’s village and begins training the men of the village how to fight and protect themselves. Despite Bao’s desire to learn, his brothers mock him and refuse to let him join the training. The teacher, Red Lantern Chu, begins teaching Bao kung fu in private. When Red Lantern takes the men to protect a nearby village, Bao is denied the opportunity to join them. Red Lantern instead sends Bao to a mysterious man on a mountain for spiritual training.
When tragedy strikes, Bao is filled with rage and a need for vengeance. He is graced with the power of many Chinese gods and ancestors, and after teaching others to harness their power, he and his newly formed band, the Disciples of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, begin roaming the country, protecting villages and travelers from “foreign devils.” However, the band begins to take a nasty turn when they deem all followers of Christianity to be “secondary devils,” and Bao, as leader, demands that they, too, must die. They stop focusing on defending the innocent and begin leading attacks on foreign cities.
In the companion graphic novel, Saints, an unwanted fourth-born daughter called Four-Girl searches for acceptance and love, which her family doesn’t provide. She finds it, and a new name – Vibiana, in Christianity. Vibiana has a very minor role in Boxers, and her story is fleshed out here. Saints fails as a standalone graphic novel, but it complements Boxers very well and brings an additional viewpoint to the rebellion.
Like Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, the artwork is simple and attractive. Color plays important roles in Boxers & Saints. The majority of the books are in muted, earthen tones, but when Vibiana and Bao interact with their spiritual figures, colors scream into the scene. Golden, warm tones fill Vibiana’s visions, while a multitude of hues make up Chinese spirits and Bao’s dreams.
Neither Bao nor Vibiana is very likeable as the stories progress. In the beginning, readers will feel sympathy and understanding for both character’s plights, but Vibiana’s selfishness and Bao’s zealotry make them unpleasant. Bao’s desire for a free China is an admirable goal, but his insistence to kill every man, woman and child who follow Christianity will remove some of the reader’s sympathy.
Ultimately, Boxers & Saints introduces a little-known rebellion (to Western readers) that occurred in the late 1890s in China. It’s a fascinating history, and the largest omission in the text is a lack of an afterword giving information about the Boxer Rebellion. I think a bit of context would increase enjoyment in this graphic novel duet even more. Fortunately, a list of additional reading is provided at the end of both books, and I fully intend to read more about it. Overall, this series is a page-turner, and I fully recommend to readers of all ages.