Review: Boxers

Boxers by Gene Luen Yang. First Second. 2013. Review copy from publisher. Boxers & Saints, Volume 1.

The Plot: In 1894, Little Bao is the youngest brother of three in Northern Shan-tung Province, China. He likes watching the traveling operas that visit the village in springtime; his older brothers tease him; he admires his father.

Slowly, over the next six years, as Bao becomes a man, this changes. A foreign Christian priest interferes in a local matter and destroys the village’s God of Earth. Bao’s father goes to seek justice and instead is brutally attacked by foreign troops. Injustice after injustice adds up, all the result of foreigners in China who are trying to control the country. Almost as bad as the foreigner devils are the secondary devils, the Chinese who have adopted the religion of the foreigners.

By 1900, Bao has had enough. He uses the training he and his brothers have had from the Brother Disciples of the Big Sword  Society to begin to fight back. At first, Bao and his followers stand up for their countrymen, calling themselves The Society of the Righteous Fist. History will call them Boxers. As the movement grows and their followers increase, their uprising sweeps across the country. Along the way, tough decisions are made about who to attack, who to kill, what to destroy in their quest for justice and freedom.

The Good: Boxer is the first of a two-volume set, telling the story of the Boxer Rebellion from the point of view of the Boxers. The story of the Boxers is Bao’s story: a story of injustice and floods and famine driving peasants to fight back. Along the way, though, when does “fighting back” stop being fighting back and becomes something else? It’s easy when it’s a soldier with a sword to a brother’s neck, but what about the child? Is a child innocent? Or, if that child is spared, will that child come back to seek vengeance against you for the harms done to it?

Bao and his brothers learn karate and other skills, and this is part of what fuels their anger, their fighting, their victories. What also fuels it is their belief in their religion, in their gods: before each battle, they ceremonially bow to the bean garden, swallow the ashes of charms, and exhale all that is within — and then become gods themselves. It is the gods who fight — and because this is a graphic novel, we see the gods inhabit the men and women who fight, we see them become something else.

Bao’s god tuns out to be Chin Shih-huang, the first Emperor of China. He offers wisdom and guidance to Bao, but it is a harsh and brutal wisdom. It is his advice, for example, to not leave anyone alive as they drive towards Peking, destroying not just the foreigners but also the Chinese who side with them, either politically or religiously. The decisions Bao makes are tough ones, and a few times, I thought “oh no he didn’t.” But this isn’t about a hero; it’s about history, with flaws, the good and the bad. The genius of Boxer is that by the time atrocities are committed, I have sympathized so much with Bao that I find it hard to condemn him. Also? It turns out that sometimes Chin Shuh-huang was right: “a nation is forged from the blood of the young and the old, the innocent and the guilty.”

Mei-wen, a young woman Bao meets, creates her own group, the Red Lanterns, who fight with the Boxers. Mei-wen is more educated than Bao. Mei-wen illustrates the role of women in the Boxer Rebellion; she also shows some of the contradictions going on. Her desire to be compassionate; the value she puts on China’s cultural history.

One of the people Bao runs across is a young convert, Vibiana. Vibiana’s story is told in Saints, volume 2 of Boxers & Saints.

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