Printz Award-winning graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang has written a two-volume work to explain the Boxer Rebellion to American teens. Well, and adults, apparently. I don’t know about you, but my education did not cover this Chinese revolution against foreign invaders and Christian missionaries that took place from 1899-1901. Yang concentrates on the religious elements of the rebellion, portraying two young people as representatives of the opposing sides: Little Bao, who followed traditional Chinese religion and founded the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists (this would never work today, as your Tweet would be done already) and Vibiana, a somewhat accidental convert to Christianity.
Wars are more complex than the textbooks would lead us to believe, and Yang brings out this ambiguity well, as Little Bao and Vibiana charge forward for the sake of their righteous causes, only to be brought up short when the issues blur and they find that people they respected turn out to be flawed or people they hated display compassion and integrity. The conflation of religion and ethnicity has resulted in misery for so many millennia, and the Boxer Rebellion is no exception. We watched Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Metaxas’ biography as he was stunned by the universality of the church when he went to Rome and saw people from all over the globe worshipping God. This phenomenon went against everything he had known as a German Lutheran whose church was wrapped up in his fatherland. Similarly, the Boxers confront the presumed paradox of Chinese Christians. How could this be? Christians were supposed to be foreigners, and their compatriots were supposed to practice “Chinese religion.”
I was privileged to be present when Gene Luen Yang accepted the Printz Award for American-Born Chinese in 2006. He is a devout Catholic and teaches computer science in a Catholic high school. He is an unassuming, really nice guy who used the speaking opportunity to demonstrate the history of American prejudice against Chinese and other Asian immigrants through the decades. It was truly enlightening. In Boxers & Saints, Yang writes with a remarkably even hand and leaves some issues ambiguous. In a civil war, there are never any true winners, just tragedy all around as brothers and friends are pitted against one another and forced to participate in a dehumanizing slaughter that changes their nation forever.
Yang’s artwork is as crisp and appealing as ever, and the story is easy to follow, even if you know nothing whatsoever about Chinese history. No one can argue that he hasn’t chosen a unique topic in young adult literature, and he is probably the only person who could have carried it off. There is even some humor and a bit of romance! Parents and teachers will be able to find many topics for discussion, and reluctant readers will learn some serious history. Boxers & Saints are on the National Book Award shortlist, and rumor has it that the Printz Committee is treating this as one work, and it is definitely in contention for the prize.
Recommended for 12 and up.
Disclaimer: I read library copies of these two books. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.