Mar­tyrs and ma­raud­ers of Chi­nese his­tory

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By KELLY CHUNG DAW­SON in New York

In the late 1890s, against a back­drop of eco­nomic dis­cord and grow­ing Western in­flu­ence, a group of Chi­nese peas­ants formed The So­ci­ety of the Right­eous and Har­mo­nious Fists, later known as the Box­ers. Be­liev­ing their mar­tial arts pro­vided spir­i­tual pro­tec­tion from Euro­pean bul­lets, thou­sands marched into Bei­jing and man­aged to kill 30,000 Chi­nese Chris­tians be­fore dis­cov­er­ing their pow­ers to be use­less in the face of an al­liance of armed Western and Chi­nese sol­diers. In the years fol­low­ing, the Box­ers were al­ter­nately cast as id­iots and he­roes; to­day, they are mostly re­mem­bered for stand­ing up against for­eign­ers who sought to carve out in­flu­ence us­ing both re­li­gion and a thriv­ing opium trade at a time when the Qing Dy­nasty was weak­en­ing.

For Gene Luen Yang, a graphic nov­el­ist and Catholic Chi­nese Amer­i­can, the legacy of the Box­ers pre­sented an illustration of the am­bi­gu­ity faced by peo­ple who claim more than one cul­tural iden­tity. In Box­ers & Saints, a new two-part graphic novel re­cently an­nounced as a fi­nal­ist for the Na­tional Book Award, Yang tack­les the com­plex­i­ties of Chi­nese his­tory in dual com­ing-of-age sto­ries that ques­tion what makes any­one a “good guy” or oth­er­wise.

“Even now, when I look at the Boxer Re­bel­lion, I have a hard time pick­ing out the good guys and bad guys,” Yang said. “I started out think­ing I’d tell the story of the Chi­nese Catholic com­mu­nity, but the more I learned about the Box­ers the more I found them fas­ci­nat­ing. Peo­ple on both sides were brave in the face of death, with mo­ti­va­tions that feel in­cred­i­bly un­der­stand­able to me.”

Yang, whose 2007 graphic novel Amer­i­can Born Chi­nese won a Printz Award, notes that many of the men who con­verted to Chris­tian­ity in those years did so to avoid le­gal pun­ish­ment for crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity. Ac­cord­ing to the un­of­fi­cial rules of the time, Chris­tians were sub­ject to a dif­fer­ent set of laws sanc­tioned by the Church. Other con­verts were sim­ply out­siders, like Yang’s Four Girl, the young fe­male pro­tag­o­nist at the heart of Saints. Lit­tle Bao, the boy whose story is told in Box­ers, is also a mis­fit. Al­though the two cross paths only twice, their sto­ries are deeply in­ter­twined.

Four Girl is vis­ited by the spirit of Joan of Arc, whose in­clu­sion is clearly in­tended to rep­re­sent a par­al­lel for the Box­ers, who like the French hero­ine truly be­lieved them­selves to be fight­ing to save their coun­try from for­eign pow­ers.

In mir­ror­ing scenes in each story line, spir­i­tual fig­ures are de­picted in sim­i­lar im­agery in­spired by a paint­ing Yang once saw at the Asian Art Mu­seum in San Fran­cisco. In that paint­ing, Guan Yin, the Chi­nese God­dess of Com­pas­sion, is sur­rounded by hands, each bear­ing an eye. He was struck by the sim­i­lar­i­ties to Chris­tian im­agery de­pict­ing Christ’s bleed­ing hands, and later learned that hands also ap­pear in Ju­daism and Is­lam as sym­bols of com­pas­sion.

“There are strands of that com­pas­sion run­ning through the sto­ries of ev­ery cul­ture,” Yang said. “One side con­tains a piece of the other, al­ways. No hu­man be­ing is purely evil or purely good.”

In both books, Western char­ac­ters speak in an il­leg­i­ble font meant to rep­re­sent the man­ner in which Chi­nese viewed out­siders at the time, Yang said. Al­though they’re ini­tially pre­sented to the reader in the same two-di­men­sional fash­ion, the Western char­ac­ters are grad­u­ally re­vealed to be as hu­man as their Chi­nese coun­ter­parts. A pri­est ar­rives in China ex­pect­ing the na­tives to be en­tirely pure, and is saddened to find that they are equally flawed. In Yang’s world, no one re­mains en­tirely un­scathed.

As a Chi­nese Amer­i­can, the ten­sion of cul­tural con­flict has long been a source of cre­ativ­ity, Yang said. Chil­dren of im­mi­grants grow up deal­ing with a con­stant ne­go­ti­a­tion of cul­tures, of­ten us­ing one name at home and another at school. For Chi­nese Chris­tians, a third name might be used at church.

For non-Chi­nese read­ers, Box­ers & Saints is in­tended to present a part of Chi­nese his­tory that is rarely stud­ied in depth in Western classrooms.

“Mod­ern China is still deal­ing with the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of what it be­lieves to be a cen­tury of hu­mil­i­a­tion at the hands of Western­ers,” Yang said.

“As China con­tin­ues to grow stronger and as the re­la­tion­ship evolves, I think we’ll see more im­por­tance as­cribed to Chi­nese his­tory. I hope that the books will in­spire read­ers to pause and re­ally take a look at both sides in any con­flict,” he said.


In the for­mat of a two-part graphic novel, Yang ex­plores the his­toric am­bi­gu­ity of the Boxer Re­bel­lion.


Au­thor Gene Luen Yang

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