Wednesday, February 18, 2015

boxers & saints

gene luen yang
first second
published 2013

China, 1898.  Bands of foreign missionaries and soldiers roam the countryside, bullying and robbing Chinese peasants.  Little Bao has had enough.  Harnessing the powers of ancient Chinese gods, he recruits an army of Boxers - commoners trained in kung fu - who fight to free China from "foreign devils".  Against all odds, this grass-roots rebellion is violently successful.  But nothing is simple.  Little Bao is fighting for the glory of China, but at what cost?  So many are dying, including thousands of "secondary devils" - Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity.

China, 1898.  An unwanted and unwelcome fourth daughter, Four-Girl isn't even given a proper name by her family when she's born.  She finally finds friendship - and a name, Vibiana - in the most unlikely of places: Christianity.  But China is a dangerous place for Christians.  The Boxer Rebellion is in full swing, and bands of young men roam the countryside, murdering Westerners and Chinese Christians alike.  Torn between her nation and her Christian friends, Vibiana will have to decide where her true loyalties lie...and whether she is willing to die for her faith.

I am conflicted by Gene Luen Yang's parallel books.

I grew up Jodo Shinshu Buddhist and do not believe in God.  Christianity never had (and still doesn't make sense to me), but what always bothered me about religious people is their belief that you should believe as they do.  I have little respect for missionaries who make it their life's work to convert what they consider 'heathens'.  To me it's arrogant and insensitive.  It is, in a very true sense, a killer of cultures.

So with Boxers I sympathized with Little Bao and his desire to rid China of these 'foreign devils' who have not only come to China to convert the people, but take over land as if they've a right to it.  I could also see how Little Bao becomes conflicted by all the death surrounding him.

With Saints, I think Yang's choice to write a character who is so completely unlikable was probably not the best way to show a different side to the Boxer Rebellion, but maybe that was his intention.  Four Girl is selfish and mean and following a religion only because she got cookies out of it and wanted to become a devil, not because she wanted to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The writing is great and I was engrossed from beginning to end with both volumes.  I loved the art, it's just that the characters, Four Girl and Little Bao were not the heroes one is looking for.  I would have loved to follow Mei-wen's journey instead as I found her to be much more interesting than both main characters.  But I wonder, in this rebellion were there really heroes?  Another war, senseless killing because of religion.  It's a sad state of affairs that continually repeats itself.

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