My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I read Yang’s American Born Chinese years ago. I don’t remember everything about it, but I do recall that I enjoyed it quite a bit and was especially impressed with the way Yang treated both traditional Chinese mythology and Christianity, managing it in a way that neither belittled nor cheapened either. I hadn’t realized it was still possible to treat Christianity seriously in modern literature (and I definitely include many graphic novels in the category of modern literature) without making it the whipping boy for clashing cultures or post-colonial guilt.
Whereas Christianity and Chinese culture can coexist and and make American Born Chinese successful, no one can accuse Yang of ignoring when this has not been the case. Indeed, Yang takes one of the most famous and tragic confrontations between Western Christianity and Chinese culture as the focus of his latest two-volume work, Boxers & Saints. Here Yang combines history with magical realism, excellent artwork and storytelling, and cultural tact to present a retelling of this conflict from two complimenting viewpoints that is as poignant as it is tragic, as haunting as it is visually effective.
I call Boxers & Saints a two-volume work, but it is not a chronological division. Boxers, the longer of the two, tell the story of a Chinese peasant boy who becomes the leader of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, known to Westerners as the Boxers, who rebelled against growing Western influence in China in the first years of the twentieth century. Saints tells the story of a Chinese peasant girl who becomes a Christian during this period and is a first-hand witness to the consequences of the Boxer Rebellion, particularly its targeting of Chinese Christians.
There are no good guys or bad guys in this book. Even the martyrs are simply people trying to do what they think is best. This is a huge strength of the work, something that Yang accomplishes by splitting the work into its two complementary pieces. We see the threat that Western influence represented to Chinese culture and the domineering presence of many Christian missionaries through the eyes of the hero of Boxers. And we see all the blood and death and ultimate personal tragedy that resulted because of it through the eyes of participants on both sides.
The shades of grey get even deeper in Saints, as we are given a glimpse of the mundanities that led many Chinese to embrace Christianity as well as the genuine piety that resulted. Even the saints are ambivalent though, and it’s a stroke of genius that it is Joan of Arc that appears to the heroine of this volume, making the parallels between her attempt to unify France and repel the English invaders and the Boxers’ attempts to do the same for China painfully obvious, even to the Christian protagonist. There are a lot of painful loyalties; there’s a lot of death and tragedy. That’s what makes it so real though: people living through things that really happened, making actual, complicated choices that are often wrong and never black and white.
What makes Yang’s work especially powerful though, like American Born Chinese, is that he never reduces these complicated choices to materialism alone. Magic and spirituality are real here. The heroine from Saints interacts with Joan of Arc throughout the narrative. The hero from Boxers is transformed into a Chinese god who turns out to be the first Emperor of China, returned to save his country through the peasant boy whatever the cost. The Chinese gods are as real– as they were undoubtedly– to the Boxers as the Christian saints (and Jesus, who makes an appearance) were to the Christians. Yang shows us that people don’t put themselves in danger or make sacrifices on behalf of others for physical reasons alone; they do so because of the spiritual realities– the magic– that underlies the world that Yang creates.
The story is told through Yang’s simple, straightforward artwork– pleasingly flat and colorful without ever being two-dimensional or distractingly cartoonish. It is a comic of simple lines and drawings, lacking the depth of shading or detail of something like Joe the Barbarian. In Yang’s work though, this is a strength. The effective simplicity frames the story quite well.
The two volumes are not clearly indicated vol. 1 or vol. 2, but I would suggest reading Boxers first. The stories of the two heroes intersect only twice in their narratives, once in passing at the beginning and again near the climax, but having read Boxers first you can understand the epilogue of Saints better.
Yang does an admirable job navigating what might for anyone else be a minefield of cultural and religious stereotypes to tell a compelling story that underlines the tragedy of religious war by making both sides understandably human. But the paradox, as I mentioned above, is that it does this by treating the spiritual aspects seriously without cheapening or patronizing either East or West. This doesn’t mean it’s all random shades of grey with no white: the true answer, the real heroism comes, Yang seems to be saying, where true compassion is present. There, whether embodied in the crucified Christ or the Chinese goddess of compassion, Yang says, there is hope.