Two Faces: On Boxers and Saints

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The back of the books say “Every war has two faces.” Exploring the two faces of the Boxer Rebellion is the premise of the set of two graphic novels Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang.  I first discovered Yang a few years ago when he came to the Festival of Faith and Writing after publishing American Born Chinese, which connects ancient Chinese literature and Psalm 139.  I am not generally a graphic novel reader, but I really appreciate these volumes.  

These are fascinating and heartbreaking books, and there good reasons that they made the National Book Award 2013 Shortlist. They explore an episode in Chinese history that most Americans know little to nothing about. The Boxer Rebellion occurred in China in 1900. At the time, China’s imperial government had weakened and foreigners were trying to assert control. Major cities had concessions—areas that were controlled by foreigners for foreigners. China was full of foreign businessmen, diplomats, missionaries, and soldiers. A group of young Chinese peasants gathered around the desire to preserve their nation. They believed they took on magical powers as they fought against foreigners and Chinese Christians. The Boxers made their way to Beijing, where the Qing dynasty supported them in their fight against the foreigners. However, the foreign nations called in reinforcements and defeated the Chinese in their own country. Over 30,000 Chinese Christians were killed, along with foreign missionaries and Christians during this conflict.

Boxers tells this story from the perspective of a young man who joins the Boxers in fighting against the foreigners. Saints tells this story from the perspective of a young woman who became a Christian and suffers for this faith. Both characters are believable and face questions and challenges to who they are and where they belong. They are both complex—there are things I appreciated about each of them and things I didn’t appreciate.

I loved the way these books brought history, and the complexity of history, to life. History is incredibly important in China. They have thousands of years of history that shapes who they are today. Events from 1900 are recent history in China, and they continue to shape the way that China interacts with foreigners. For instance, the government approved church is known as the Three-Self Church. The three-selves basically boil down to being free from foreign control. And with China’s history, it is hard to blame them.  I’d highly recommend reading these to get a new perspective on China.

As I enter back into this world, these books are a reminder to me of who I want to be. Although I am a Christian, I do not want to be anything like a priest in these books who takes a villages’ statue of their god and smashes it to the ground saying “This is Good News of Jesus Christ.” May I be someone who listens and learns.


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