By Angilee Shah
It’s not that the concept of Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints is complex: two volumes tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion from two perspectives.
But within this simple structure, Yang’s graphic novels build a compelling story around a war of identity, set 100 years ago in China. It combines mysticism with the very concrete ways that people decide who they are, in this case a leader in a secret fighting society and a Chinese Christian convert. It has the remarkable effect of allowing readers to explore how stories — saints and spirits — can shape physical events — the blood, gore and battles of history.
A book like this, both approachable and profound, could not come at a better moment. When you can imagine China’s history with foreigners this way, it becomes very difficult to oversimplify the mix of views Chinese people might have today about their spectacular entrance onto the world stage.
Gene Luen Yang spoke with the “China Blog” about Asian and Asian American identity and how people come to embody their stories, and the empathy he felt while investigating the Boxer Rebellion.
Shah: [One of your earlier books] American Born Chinese is about identity and stereotypes in a head-on sort of way. Is Boxers & Saints also about understanding identity?
Yang: I think so. Both American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints come from the same root. Issues of identity and how people construct identities for themselves really interest me. Specifically, I’m really interested in the way people who are caught in between cultures end up negotiating for themselves.
In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized a group of Chinese Catholic saints. I grew up in a Chinese Catholic church that still meets in the San Francisco Bay Area. My home church was really excited about these canonizations because this was the first time that this deeply western church had acknowledged Chinese citizens in this way.
When I looked into the lives of these saints, many of them were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion and their canonization was actually very controversial. The Chinese government issued a letter of protest to the Vatican saying that the Roman Catholic Church was honoring people who had betrayed their Chinese culture. That tension between eastern and western world views and how they existed within the same community, within these Chinese Catholic communities, really interested me.
Shah: If the impetus for your interest in the Boxer Rebellion was the canonization of these saints, how did you come to understand and get into the nuance of this complex event in history?
Yang: From what I’ve read, it seems like the Boxers went through different phases of how they were perceived. Immediately after their defeat, they were seen as backward groups who had succumbed to superstition. Once the Communist Revolution in China got underway, it seems like Communist leaders recast them as patriots, almost as people to be admired. Nowadays, it seems like most modern scholars see them as more complex figures. They embody both some xenophobia and also patriotism.
When I was reading about them, I just felt like their motivation was really understandable to me. It made a lot of sense. I had also read a little bit that compared the Boxer movement to Ghost Dancers here in America. Native American groups, when their cultures were under attack and they felt that they were dying as a people, they came up with this thing called Ghost Dancing. It was really similar to the Boxers, where they believed they could achieve mystical powers by going back to their roots and relying on their stories.
When it feels like a culture is existentially threatened, not just with defeat but with annihilation, these types of things come out. In one way, it’s an act of desperation. But it another way it’s like the stories of the culture embody themselves within these people. I was pretty fascinated by that idea as well.
Shah: Speaking of stories being embodied in people, how much has changed since you began creating graphic novels for representations of Asians?
Yang: I’ve been doing it for 15 years, which seems like a long time to me, but in terms of history it’s a blink of an eye. We’re in the midst of a developing Asian American culture. The term “Asian American” hasn’t been around for a long time. My parents, I don’t think, would call themselves Asian Americans. They call themselves Chinese Americans. It’s only pretty recently that we started thinking of ourselves as Asian Americans.
But there is an emerging Asian American culture where we are starting to tell our stories and make our own music. We’re starting to create a culture that is a subculture of American culture that draws heavily from Asian cultures but is distinct from the cultures of our parents and our grandparents.
Shah: When you starting working on American Born Chinese in 2000, do you think there would have been a market for a book like Boxers & Saints?
Yang: Maybe not. In 2000, it wasn’t just comics about Asian and Asian American issues that weren’t selling. Comics in general just weren’t selling. In the late ’90s, my friends and I would go to these comic book conventions and we’d listen to publishers and artists and authors talk about how we were about to see the death of the American comic book. Marvel Comics, which was — it still is — the biggest comic book company in American, was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time. [They went into bankruptcy in 1996.] People were predicting that if they just blinked out of existence, it would take down the entire American comics infrastructure, that all of the comic stores in America would shut down. The ’90s overall were seen as good times, but within the comic book industry it was a little bit apocalyptic. People were predicting some pretty dire things.
To go from there to now, where every book store has a pretty substantial graphic novel section — where people know what a graphic novel is — it’s pretty remarkable. I do think that some of the reasons that happened are tied into Asian American issues. One of the reasons why comics revived was the growing popularity of Japanese culture in America. Japanese anime and comics, manga, became really popular. For a while, manga was the fastest growing section of the American book market.
It’s gotten to the point that nowadays, I’d say any cartoonist 30 or under draws in a heavily manga style. If you watch TV and look at the American-produced cartoons, like Avatar Last Airbender, which is a Nickelodeon production, and even the latest incarnation of My Little Pony, you can see heavy manga influence on the drawing styles. There’s a blend within modern American cartoon culture, both in animation and comics, of eastern and western styles. So there’s interest in both eastern and western cultures and the way they come together.
Boxers & Saints probably has benefitted from both those things, that comics are no longer a dead media and that there’s this interest now in Asian cultures.
Shah: For people who are interested in China’s history, what’s your number one Boxer Rebellion book?
Yang: The one that I relied on most heavily when I was doing my book? It was Origins of the Boxer Uprising by Joseph Esherick. That was the only one that really took the Chinese side. There were other ones out there but it seems like they were always either mixed in terms of their perspectives or they were heavily European and American. Esherick’s had the most fascinating little details too.
There’s also another one by Ignatius Press that isn’t about the Boxer Rebellion in particular, but it’s called Christians in China. It talks about the movement of Western religion throughout Chinese history. That was helpful as well.
Angilee Shah is an editor and journalist. She co-edited Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (UC Press, 2012), a book of essays about everyday life in China. You can find her on Twitter @angshah.