Saturday, August 22, 2015


by Gene Luen Yang

I've been a fan of Gene Luen Yang's work since I read American Born Chinese a few years ago.  He has a simplistic approach that gives way to intelligent storytelling with great depth.  Boxers is one half of a two-book set (with Saints, which is on my to-read pile) that examines the Boxer Rebellion in China at the turn of the 20th Century.

Boxers focuses on Little Bao, an illiterate youth growing up in a small village in a remote province of China.  His area is isolated, and while the people are poor, they are able to eke out a decent living.  One day, during a spring festival, they are visited by a boorish lout who rightly gets his ass handed to him by Bao's father.  It turns out that this man is a Christian convert, and like good Christians everywhere, returns to exact revenge, bringing a white man with him.  This man smashes the statue of a much-loved god, and steals food from the village that he believes is rightful restitution.

As time goes on, we see how the influence of the missionaries and European governments are damaging traditional Chinese social structures.  When Bao's father goes to complain to a local government leader about how the village is being treated, he is set upon by foreign soldiers and beaten so badly he never recovers his faculties.

Into this tense setting comes Red Lantern Chu, a brother of the Big Sword Society.  He begins to help the locals to resist the foreigners and the secondary devils (what they call the converts).  He does not allow Bao to participate in his kung fu training, but then begins to teach the youth in secret.

Eventually, Red Lantern is killed, and Bao continues training under a different master.  Here the story veers towards magical realism, as Bao begins to channel a Chinese god when he fights, rescuing his older brothers from certain death.  From here, Bao begins to gather supporters for his fight against the foreigners, leading an ever-growing army towards Peking.

Along the way, Bao meets Mei-Wen, who herself begins to lead a group of female warriors.  We follow Bao and his people through the end of the Boxer Rebellion.

This is a very interesting book.  I don't know very much about this time period, and so don't know where Yang has diverted from established fact (somewhere before all the Gods show up, I imagine).  I do get the feeling that this book has been meticulously researched and is more accurate, in it's unique way, than it isn't.  I know that Saints tells a similar story, but from the perspective of a 'secondary devil', and I'm curious to know that interpretation, especially since my own inclinations lean towards seeing things through Bao's eyes, in a post-colonial perspective.

Yang builds his story very nicely.  He invests a lot of time in developing Bao, who is bullied by his older brothers and then ends up leading them.  He makes Bao's relationship with Mei-Wen believable, as are the internal conflicts Bao needs to resolve to be a strong leader.

There is a sense of misogyny in this work that doesn't sit well with me, as male characters discuss how contact with females can dilute their concentration and power.  There is an attempt to balance this through Mei-Wen, but it's often not enough.  At the same time, this is a work of historical fiction, and I imagine that Yang is being accurate in his portrayal of how women were treated.

Yang's artwork is straight-forward, but very effective in portraying emotion and thought.  He uses a slightly drab colour palette throughout most scenes, but when the gods enter the story, things become brighter and a little garish.

This book is a remarkable piece of work, and I look forward to reading its companion.

No comments: