Saints, the companion to Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel Boxers, makes the project worthwhile. The two books each present different perspectives on the same set of events in China’s Boxer Rebellion of 1900.
They’re not exactly opposing views. Boxers told the story of a boy caught up in the rebellion, fighting on the side of the Chinese. The girl in Saints is also fighting for the Chinese, the Christian Chinese who were the targets of much of the anger in Boxers. Neither novel presents the view-point of the foreigners, the non-Chinese who ran things in China at the time.
Four-girl, the heroine of Saints, is also visited by a hero of the past like Bao was in Boxers. Once Four-girl becomes a Christian and takes the name of Vibiana, she is visited by the spirit of Jean d’Arc who becomes her role model both for her extreme faith and for her prowess as a warrior. Vibiana longs to be both a great Christian and a great fighter. Her faith combined with her desire to fight back against the men who are attacking China’s Christian communities eventually leads her into a battle she cannot win. In the end, she and Bao from the first novel die at almost the same time, each losing the battle.
While I felt a bit dismissive about Boxers, having the two books together makes me see much more in the series. I’m thinking about the possibilities present in teaching the two together, and I’d kind of like to ask Gene Luen Yang about them.
The two each feature a young person who is the fourth, fourth son vs. fourth daughter. Both are put upon as a result of their position in the family, but the boy’s position in society is clearly the better one. Four-girl doesn’t even get her own name until she converts to Christianity. Both characters are inspired by historical figures, key historical figures in their cultural myths. Qin Shi-huang for the boy who is devoted to a nationalist ideal of China; Jean d’Arc for the girl who is devoted to her new-found faith in Christianity. Both figures are powerful warriors. Both characters end up losing their lives in the name of their cause. What are we meant to see in this? Should we value one cause over the other or hold them both in some contempt? Were either worth dying for at such a young age?
Both characters can be seen as resisting oppression. The boy and his brothers are oppressed by the foreigners just as the girl and her sisters are oppressed by the men in their own society. In each case, resistance will eventually succeed though neither character lives to see this. And we could argue that women in China still have much further to go than their brothers do. Chinese men clearly rule China today.
In the end, I suspect that Gene Luen Yang is as conflicted about the issues in Boxers and Saints as I am. Maybe not quite as conflicted, though he appears to be working out issues in Boxers and Saints that he has not quite resolved. The books raise more questions than they answer if you read them together. Each takes a fairly clear stand only to be undermined by the other.
They are worth a read, maybe even a re-read.