Great Illustrated Books

Boxers & Saints

Gene Luen Yang and Lark Pien

First Second Books, 2013
Pages : Boxers, 328 pages; Saints, 170 pages
Suggested Ages: 12 and up
ISBN: 978-1596433595

At the end of the 19th Century, Chinese peasants outraged at their country being overtaken by European merchants and missionaries formed a people’s army intent on throwing out the “foreign devils.” They practiced kung fu, which the Europeans mistook for a kind of hand-to- hand combat they were more familiar with -- boxing. History, of course, is written by the victors and the subsequent, horrifying clash between the Europeans and the Chinese became known as the Boxer Rebellion. 

If you remember learning anything about this in history class, it’s not likely you thought, “This would make a great comic book,” but, in Yang’s hands, it absolutely does. In fact, this two-volume set of graphic novels, nominated for the 2013 National Book Award in the young people’s literature category, is a masterpiece. 

Violent, heartbreaking, and (amazingly) even at times funny, the books’ 500 combined pages tell the story of two young people whose lives intersect at a turbulent moment in Chinese history. 

The hero of Boxers is Little Bao, a village boy who loves the traveling opera troupes who put on shows featuring colorfully costumed heroes with magic powers, engaging in epic battles. When a man named Red Lantern arrives looking for disciples to train in kung fu and join his Big Sword Society in fighting the foreign devils, Little Bao watches him from the wings, as well, too young to be recruited. 

Red Lantern and his troops leave, but Little Bao persists, learning kung fu from an eccentric master, and eventually forming his own brigade – the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist. They practice martial arts and before each skirmish use a mystical ritual to call upon the gods of the opera to give them their superpowers. Fortified, Little Bao and his followers march through the countryside fighting European soldiers, missionaries, and “secondary devils,” the Chinese who have converted to Christianity. During battles, the pale palette used to depict regular life is replaced with vivid color. The peasants become costumed warrior gods who avenge the wrongs done to China. 

Saints covers the same historic period from the perspective of the “devils” themselves: Europeans who came to China as businessmen or as missionaries, and their converts. Its heroine is the unwanted fourth daughter of a family who leaves home in search of acceptance. Four-girl, as she is called (her grandfather refuses to allow her to have a name because he believes she is unlucky) finds a home – and a name, Vibiana – among Christian missionaries and their converts. 

Like Little Bao’s fantastical reliance on the Chinese opera gods, Vibiana is repeatedly visited by Joan of Arc, and ultimately decides to become a maiden warrior herself to protect China from the uprising of its own people, who she considers to be enemies of God. 

Four-Girl and Little Bao’s lives first intersect only briefly, on the road as each is traveling in a different direction. But in that exchange a showdown between the two characters – and the opposing sides of the battle that will become known as the Boxer Rebellion – is foretold. If you remember your history, you already know it doesn’t end well for either group of combatants. If you don’t remember, Yang’s account is evenhanded and thoughtful, and has something to say about extremism, needless death, and what can happen when cultures overlap that is still mighty relevant today.

Reviewed by : SC

Themes : Battles and War. Graphic Novels. Historical Fiction.

If you love this book, then try:

Bell, Cece. El Deafo. Abrams, 2014

Kadohata, Cynthia. The Thing about Luck. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2013.

Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. Square Fish, 2008.

Critics have said

"Powerful, thought-provoking storytelling about a historical period that is not well known in the West"
- School Library Journal

"A poignant, powerhouse work of historical fiction from one of our finest graphic storytellers."
- Booklist