The Boxer Rebellion was a failed attempt by China to overthrow imperialist occupants in 1900. Gene Luen Yang fictionalizes this tragic era in China’s long history through two opposite perspectives in companion graphic novels, Boxers and Saints. In Boxer, the reader follows Bao, a farmer’s son given extraordinary magic abilities to drive out foreigners from his homeland. Bao is accompanied by his two brothers and other villagers they recruit along the way to Peking (modern day Beijing). Through a secret ritual, Bao and his boxers summon Chinese gods and heroes that are embodied within them to fight. Boxer is a tale of tragedy, as Bao must not only fight the foreign invaders, but the demons within himself.
A well-defined tragic protagonist
A good balance of fantasy and history
Art is a little too simplistic
Reading the companion book Saints gives away the ending of Boxers
THE RISE OF A REBELLION
Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers follows Bao, founder of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist and instigator of the Boxer Rebellion. The youngest of three sons, Bao learns at a young age the dangers of foreigners. It is these events that shape Bao into the leader of the rebellion. Bao is a complex, vastly developed character in Boxers. He constantly faces insurmountable odds but overcomes adversity every time. At first, Bao is not single-minded in his quest to protect China, often questioning his decisions, but in time he is determined to do anything to rid China of Western influence, including killing innocent people. Slowly, the character becomes progressively violent and radical, despite his initial inhibitions. This internal conflict stems from Bao’s summoned spirit, Ch’in Shih-huang, the first emperor of China who inhabits Bao when he fights. When Bao merges with the emperor, he transforms like Thor or Captain Marvel. However, unlike these heroic personas, Ch’in Shih-huang is stern, cruel, and heavy-handed. Because of his hesitation at obeying the emperor’s amoral demands, Bao becomes a flawed and complicated hero, and the threat of the emperor’s power leaving him makes his journey all the more perilous. The writer does an excellent job developing his characters’ ambivalent personalities while humanizing them in this troubled era.
Boxers contains a ton of Chinese history and culture. Chinese concepts like Yin and Yang, Chinese opera, and local gods create a rich, cultural backdrop that informs the actions of the characters. It has a well-structured plot, with few plot holes and not too much exposition. Any reader can understand it without prior knowledge of the subjects. The story also intersects very nicely with Yang’s companion book, Saints, even if reading one gives away the ending of the other. Surprisingly, supporting characters in Saints become monstrous adversaries in Boxers, and vice versa, because of the opposing perspectives of the main characters from each story. Yang creatively portrays conversations between foreigners and native Chinese by transcribing the foreigners’ speech as a gibberish script that has to be translated into English with an annotation, while the Chinese language is simply shown in English . Although some Chinese phrases do not translate well into English, this self-aware depiction of how foreign language denotes outsider status adds an ironic twist to the novel. With his use of language, Gene Yang captures the racism of the time and nationalistic pride of the Chinese rebels.
SIMPLE BUT FAMILIAR ART
Gene Luen Yang also provides the artwork for the graphic novel. His art style is consistent with his previous works like American Born Chinese. It is simple, using basic color tones and basic rectangle panels. Although it lacks the photographic detail and grandiosity of modern comic art, its basic forms breathes life into Yang’s characters. The artist is able to create a variety of different characters with small adjustments to the face, skin tone, or head shape.
BOTTOM LINE: A GREAT GRAPHIC NOVEL
Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers is a great story with a tragic hero. Bao’s journey from simple villager to revolutionary makes this graphic novel an exquisite masterpiece to read. Gene Yang’s themes and cultural references takes its source material and expands beyond what is available in the comic industry today. It is a history lesson veiled in a comic, which through its thought-provoking ambiguity becomes remarkably relevant in our morally uncertain world today.