BY BRIDGET G. DOOLEY
Gene Luen Yang’s comic novels Boxers and Saints, two stories that occur simultaneously on opposite sides of China’s Boxer Rebellion, are narratives embedded in one another: Bao, the central figure in Boxers, appears as a secondary character in Saints, a work that revolves around the Christian Vibiana (né Four-Girl). She, in turn, appears as a secondary character in Bao’s book, and the presence of each character in the other’s story has a profound effect on the way we read the works and empathize (or fail to empathize) with the characters and cultures we meet therein.
Both protagonists draw their power and identities from the stories of their respective cultures, stories that are literally embodied by the spirit-like historical figures that aid each protagonist in their respective struggle.
Bao (the Chinese nationalist) derives his abilities from China’s first emperor, while Vibiana (the Christian convert) gleans motivation from the Christian figure Joan of Arc.
By examining these comics’ assertions that cultural identity is built by storytelling, the technical choices that Yang makes to represent embedded narrative, and the repercussions of character’s interpretations (and misinterpretations) of these narratives, I intend to illuminate the complex questions I see Yang presenting regarding the power and influence of Chinese and Christian cultural narrative in The Boxer Rebellion and, perhaps, more widely in the modern world.
What happens when cultural stories have been transmitted to us only in part by missionaries? When we focus only on some of what our ancestors have said? When we take what we want from a canon of stories (their violence) and leave that which bores us (their compassion)?
Whenever an embedded narrative is told in these works the move into narrative is indicated by a change in the shape of panel borders. Although the style of panel borders vary between the two books (with Boxers occurring in crisply lined boxes and Saints’s images contained in ink-brush lines that fit with that book’s more subdued style) both comics’ panel borders change when the stories move from literal action to embedded narrative. In “real time” literal action (as on page 27 of Saints, or 14 of Boxers) the panels have sharp corners, whereas when stories are told by another character the panel’s corners become rounded. Thus point of view and narrative-level are demarcated by shape. Rounded corners are used for the telling of stories that have occurred during the book’s time frame (as in Saints, when Kang tells Vibiana how he met Father Bey (94), or in Boxers, when Bao overhears his older brother retelling the capture and trial of Red Lantern (101) ).
Notably, this same change in panel shape to indicate embedded narrative also occurs when the protagonists are told more ancient religious or cultural stories, such as when Bao learns of the origins of China’s first emperor in Boxers (234) or when Vibiana is told Christian parables in Saints (35). This seems to imply that the religious narratives being told are just that: stories.
The Boxer Rebellion, Wesley Yang explains in a review of the books, began “In the late 1890s, [when] peasants from the north, affronted by Western influence in the empire, formed a secret society to practice the martial and spiritual disciplines of Chinese folk religion, which some believed made them invulnerable to European bullets and cannon fire.” Thus, the rebellion itself is an instance of a people drawing power from their ancestral cultural and religious stories in order to reclaim their homeland from foreign influence.We see strength obtained from Chinese folk religion by Bao and his comrades, who garner their strength from the “Gods of Opera,” characters from stories that exist in their cultural consciousness.
The aim of the “Boxers” is to use their cultural heritage to destroy those who they’ve perceived as intent on destroying it, and the “Boxers” use their cultural stories’ power toward violence in hopes of reaching that end, engaging in acts that Bao, and likely most readers, find morally repulsive.
When Bao resists the orders of his cultural heritage–embodied as the first Chinese emperor–he’s met with threats against his life, reflective of the power that obligation to cultural heritage can have over us. But Bao would rather engage in acts he believes to be wrong, such as the murder of innocent women and children, than betray his heritage.
By engaging in this violence Bao directly contradicts another facet of his cultural heritage, one he’s failed to listen to: compassion. In Boxers Mei-wen, arguably the only truly sympathetic character in either Boxers or Saints, begins to tell Bao a story. We know that a movement into embedded narrative is being made by the shift, in the bottom panel of 277, into rounded borders: the upper-right corner of the panel, in the panel quadrant where Mei-wen begins reading to Bao in “real time”, is sharp, whereas the other three corners, representing the story Mei-wen’s telling, are rounded. Within Mei-wen’s story we learn of a Chinese princess who becomes the goddess of compassion by, in the top left panel of 279, refusing the King’s orders to set a monastery ablaze. Bao (who’s situated front and center in the breakdown, sleeping right in front of the round-corned denouement of Mei-wen’s story (280) ), is so caught up with his own sleepiness (and own infatuation with Mei-wen) that he misses the cultural story’s moral: it’s better to be compassionate and do what’s ethical than to follow a superior’s orders. Later in Boxers, Bao’s actions are the opposite of those espoused by the Goddess of compassion: he follows the emperor’s orders, foregoing compassion and choosing instead, for the sake of military strategy, to set fire not only to his enemies in their churches but to his people’s library as well (310). Because he has missed out on key points of the cultural canon he destroys the cultural heritage of his people by destroying their stories and, as Mei-wen says, “What is China but a people and their stories” (312)?
The destruction of the library leads to the defeat of Bao’s rebellion and the book’s ultimate tragedy: the fleeing of the Opera Gods (325), the embodiment of the heritage that gave The Society its strength.
Vibiana, too, is guilty of missing out on certain elements of the cultural canon she adopts, sleeping through her bible studies and focusing only on that which excites her–the warrior saint that appears to her, Joan of Arc. But Vibiana does pay attention to the lesson of compassion when it really matters, when Jesus appears to her (158). The breakdown of this page echoes the breakdown of the page wherein Mei-wen tells of the Goddess of compassion, featuring the same illustrations of hands emanating out from the body.
The hands, each of which contains an eye, function as symbols of empathy and compassion: not only seeing others pains but acting to alleviate them, as well. Notably, the panel in Jesus’ appearance are sharp, implying that his presence is, to Vibiana, literal. In Boxers’ similar panel the corners are both sharp and round, perhaps suggesting that the story of the Goddess of compassion has literal significance for Mei-wen but not for Bao.
On the page following Jesus’ appearance, Vibiana meets her killer: Bao. As she’s praying she asks him, “Would it kill you to pay attention?”, a question rife with irony. Because he fails to pay attention to Mei-wen’s story, several “Boxers” die at the library, but because Vibiana succeeds in listening to messages of Christianity she meets her death, martyring herself to avoid denouncing her faith.
Although Vibiana’s end is tragic, she avoids the larger tragedy of Bao’s story: she merely martyrs herself, whereas Bao ruins a piece of his culture. One might question Yang’s implications regarding the relative merits of Christianity and Chinese folk religion on account of this difference, but I haven’t the expertise or the time to go into that here.
When asked by Petra Mayer what he hoped readers would take away from the books, Yang has said he hopes readers “are inspired to look into the actual historical event” and encouraged “to look at both sides of every conflict.
The internet age has brought about a blossoming of exaggerated righteous indignation. I’ve certainly been guilty of it. Maybe some of that will dissipate if we learn to look at both sides with compassion.” Yang wants us to listen to the stories that have shaped both these cultures, and to listen compassionately.
Bridget G. Dooley is pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Western Michigan University, where she is Fiction Editor of Third Coast Magazine, a composition instructor, and a writing center consultant. Her stories have appeared in WordRiot, Banango Street, Apt Magazine Online, and elsewhere.
Yang, Gene Luen. Interview by Petra Mayer. ‘Boxers & Saints’ & Compassion: Questions For Gene Luen Yang.” NPR. 22 October 2013. Web.
Yang, Gene Luen, and Lark Pien. Boxers. New York: First Second, 2013. Print.
—————————————-. Saints. New York: First Second, 2013. Print.
Yang, Wesley. “Views of the Rebellion: Gene Luen Yang’s ‘Boxers’ and ‘Saints’ ” Rev. of Boxers and Saints, by Gene Luen Yang . New York Times 11 October 2013. Web.