Gene Luen Yang, author of the acclaimed graphic novel American Born Chinese, returns to BEA with a new book—really two books that work in tandem—Boxers and Saints, the story of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, told through the lives of two young Chinese from the early part of the century (First Second, Sept.). The two books fuse history and fable to tell the story of the rebellion from both sides: that of the “Boxers,” an uprising of messianic young men from the countryside determined to drive foreigners and Catholic missionaries out of China, and the story of the “Saints,” the Chinese converts and Catholic missionaries targeted and often massacred by the Boxers, who see them as oppressors.
In Boxers, Yang tells the story of little Bao, a young Chinese boy who sees arrogant Catholic missionaries destroy Chinese religious idols and watches British soldiers brutally beat his father. He eventually joins the Boxers, who combine traditional martial arts training with mysticism, and believed that not only were they impervious to harm but that they could call spirit soldiers from the heavens to fight alongside them. In the companion volume, Saints—the covers of both books are designed to combine in a beautiful graphic tableau when set face-out, side by side—we meet Four-Girl, a “devil” girl and misfit, always in trouble, who repeatedly sees a vision of Joan of Arc and converts, though, as in all things, for her own quirky and not completely pious reasons.
Yang’s interest in the subject was piqued when Pope John Paul II canonized about 80 Chinese martyrs in 2000, and he noticed most of the saints were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901). This led him to create what turned into two graphic novels set in the period—his first works of historical graphic fiction. Yang, who is Catholic, said he and his Chinese Catholic community in the Bay Area were excited at the time, but “the Chinese government protested the canonizations because the ‘Saints’ are seen as traitors who betrayed Eastern culture.” But Yang notes, “This conflict resonated with me—speaking Chinese and talking about Jesus—it embodies the same inner struggle I was facing between faith and culture.”
Yang says he sees parallels between the Boxers—young, poor, and powerless Chinese peasants—and modern geek/comic book culture, which also sees itself as alienated from the mainstream. “Most of the Boxers were introduced to the exploits of colorful and powerful Chinese gods by Chinese operas. They were like the comic book superheroes of today. I was sucked into comics by my own disempowerment and found personal power through these powerful comic book characters.” The Saints, he said, were much the same: poor, marginalized, and brutally dismissed from mainstream Chinese society. Early Chinese Christians, he said, were like manga fans in the U.S. looking to find themselves in other cultures. “Early Chinese converts to Christianity were often women and criminals, people with no place in Chinese society,” Yang says, noting that his mother is a modern-day Christian convert; “I pulled a lot of stories about converts from my Catholic community.”
Yang, who was nominated for a National Book Award for American Born Chinese, has a busy BEA schedule. He signs his books today at 2:30 p.m., Table 8 in the Autographing Area, and tomorrow at 11 a.m. at the Dark Horse booth (1003). At 3:15 p.m. tomorrow he will be at the CBC Author Tea in Room 1E12–1E13. He’s also on “The New Graphic Novel” panel today at 4 p.m. on the Uptown Stage.