Boxers & Saints, by Gene Luen Yang (book reviews) – two views of war, graphic novel style

book cover of Boxers by Gene Luen Yang published by First Second Booksbook cover of Saints by Gene Luen Yang published by First Second BooksChina at war with itself in 1900,
tradition versus new beliefs,
cultural identity versus change.

We may have heard of the Boxer Rebellion or Uprising because of its unusual name (and inevitable juvenile snickers about the word ‘boxer’), but didn’t realize that Western countries were eyeing China for conquest and colonialism in the late 1800s.

Now this pair of  well-scripted and evocatively drawn graphic novels examines the larger conflict from the viewpoints of two individuals whose paths cross once (or was it twice?), neither of whom can realistically expect to win the fight of their lives.

Yang uses a muted palette for the drabness of village life, reserving strong colors for battles when Bao and his disciple-brothers and sisters transform into all-powerful Chinese gods and for Joan of Arc’s appearances to Vibiana. The boxed set of both books is gorgeous; check out the spine art’s continuation of the cover sequence.

When is it too late to change your beliefs? When is it too soon to stand your ground, despite the odds?

p.s. I wrote and scheduled this post before the National Book Awards‘ long-list was announced on 16 September – congratulations, Gene!

Book info: Boxers / story and art by Gene Luen Yang, color by Lark Pien. FirstSecond Books, 2013.   Saints / story and art by Gene Luen Yang, color by Lark Pien. FirstSecond Books, 2013.  [author site]  [publisher site – Boxers]  [publisher site –  Saints]  [book trailer for both books]   Review copies and cover images courtesy of the publisher.

My book talks:    BOXERS – Foreign powers want to take China’s wealth in 1900, but patriotic men (and women) will use fists, swords, and fire to reunite their country.

This graphic novel of the Boxer Rebellion traces the roots of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, a people-led army rising from impoverished villages, dedicated to getting justice for the wrongs committed by foreign devils, including Christian missionaries and Chinese converts.

Youngest brother Bao becomes strong and mighty through the Society’s practices, eventually leading them against foreign and imperial troops at Peking. When he allows the Red Lantern maiden warriors to join the cause and fight alongside men, some Brother-Disciples question his motives, though not the women’s killing skill.

Practicing martial arts and stern rituals, Brother-Disciples of the Fist feel themselves transformed into gods of Chinese legend as they fought to wrest the capital city from the ’round eyed’ foreigners uncontrolled by weak emperor Ching.

Yet time doesn’t stand still for gods or empires or young men who are visited in their dreams – the Boxer Rebellion ends just as this book portrays it.

Yang’s companion book, Saints, shows this historic conflict from the viewpoint of a Chinese convert to Christianity who escapes her abusive family to watch history unfold.

SAINTS – The God preached by foreign missionaries might rescue an unwanted daughter in 1900 even as a peasant army marches to kill all the foreign devils who want to drain China of its wealth and debase its heritage.

Four-Girl, born on the most inauspicious day of the year, doesn’t even merit a name as her grandfather blames her for the untimely death of her father. A devil, he calls her, and nothing she does is right. To fight back, she begins secretly learning about Christianity, since its missionaries are known as ‘foreign devils’ to everyone.

Escaping from abuse at home, Four-Girl receives the saint-name Vibiana when she is baptized and travels with the foreign priest to a town with its own church. Away from its orphanage, she sees visions of a slim girl in bright metal armor – the priest says her name is Joan of Arc, a champion of her Church and her country.

Now Vibiana knows she is being called to save someone, even in the face of the Righteous Fist army killing Christians and foreigners wherever they go as the Boxer Uprising begins.

Be sure to read Yang’s companion book, Boxers, to see how a peasant army tries to push out the foreign devils and their converts to reunite the China they love.  (Two of 6,000 books recommended on

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