Boxers, by Gene Luen Yang

boxersTitle: Boxers

Author: Yang, Gene Luen (Author’s Website)

Genre:  Graphic novels, historical comics, historical fantasy

Bibliographic: First Second, 328 pages, Paperback List Price $18.99, Box Set (with Saints) List Price $34.99, ISBNs 9781596433595, 9781480615113, 9780606323048, 9781466843806

Publication Date: September 10, 2013

Rating: ★★★★☆/♥♥♥♡♡ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors:  Sympathetic, character-driven, moving, serious, bold illustration, cartoony, muted colors

Why I picked it up: It was assigned for discussion in my readers’ advisory class (which was very exciting, since I really liked American Born Chinese).

S.I.A.S.: Bao is fed up with Christians taking over China, so he raises an army of Boxers.

Summary: Little Bao looks forward to spring all year, because he loves seeing operas at his village’s festivals. He watches them with the local earth god, Tu Di Gong, while his father and his two older brothers gamble. The characters from the operas stay with him year-round.  One day, he sees a stranger assaulting an old woman at the fair. Little Bao’s father intervenes and sends the stranger packing, which makes Bao see him in a whole new light. From now on, he vows, he will do whatever his father says. Two weeks later, the stranger (a Christian) comes back with his friends and a clergyman, who takes things from Bao’s father in the name of justice while Bao watches, shocked that his father and the village authorities are allowing this to happen. Eventually, Bao’s father takes a tribute to the magistrate to complain about the way the Christians — “the foreign devils” and the “secondary devils” — have treated them, but he is attacked by a group of foreign soldiers on the way there. He never fully recovers.

A few years later, heavy rains bring flooding, which forces the people of Bao’s village to relocate to high ground for a few weeks. When they return, they have nothing left. There is a new man in town — his name is Red Lantern, and he is ostensibly there to sell cooking oil, but he gains the affection of the locals by fixing their ailments and training them in kung fu. Little Bao’s brothers won’t let him train with them, but Red Lantern gives Bao secret lessons at night. Eventually, it is revealed that Red Lantern is a leader of the Big Sword Society, an organization dedicated to protecting China from foreign influence. When Red Lantern, Bao’s brothers, and their best friend go on a journey to release some Chinese villagers who were wrongfully imprisoned by European missionaries, Red Lantern directs Bao to begin studying under a man named Master Big Belly. Master Big Belly teaches Bao a ceremony to invoke the gods, and when he is killed Bao finds that he is able to take on the personality of a god, which helps him to defeat the foreign devils (foreign Christians) and the secondary devils (Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity). Bao and his brothers and friends begin traveling around the Chinese countryside, protecting villagers and murdering Christians.

As Bao’s army grows, they come to believe that because they have the support of the gods they cannot be harmed by any human weapons. Eventually, Bao’s army — which calls itself The Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist — is joined by an army of women called the Red Lantern, and they decide to reclaim Peking.

Evaluation:  I haven’t read Saints yet, but Boxers absolutely lives up to the hype. The gods of the opera are integrated into the story in a way that I would call magical realism at its best: as a reader, I’m not sure I believe that opera gods exist, but I believe that the characters believed it. I would have liked a little bit more information on who the gods were. For example, I was somewhat familiar with Sun Wu-kong, the Monkey King (from American Born Chinese), but I had never heard of the Peach Blossom Tree Oath or Chu Ba-jei, and I would have liked to have gotten more background on the Chinese mythology. Are all of these gods warriors? Do they all have abilities directly related to battle?

Most of the characters were realistic, especially Bao. The only person I really wanted more information about was Vibiana — why was Bao so interested in her? I’m hoping that Bao will be a bigger character in Saints than Vibiana was in Boxers. I want to know how their stories interact.

Parts of Boxers were very enjoyable to read, but overall I don’t think I can say the book was. This is because of the subject matter, which is very difficult and about which I knew absolutely nothing before picking this up. I think it would be great for middle schoolers or high schoolers, despite the violence.

Significance: This is the second book by Gene Luen Yang, author of the first graphic novel ever to be nominated for the National Book Award, and it was also nominated for the National Book Award.

Readalikes: Maus, by Art SpeigelmanPersepolis, by Marjane SatrapiSamurai Shortstop, by Alan Gratz.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Bao becomes a murder and engages in violence in order to save his country from what he sees as a hostile invading force. Is the use of extreme violence ever justified? In what circumstances?
  2. Why are Bao and his friends so scared of the idea of Christianity? Given the history of colonialism, they are clearly justified in their fear of outsiders, but do they have a realistic grasp of what’s going on?
  3. What is the significance of opera in Bao’s life? How does his relationship with these stories impact the rebellion?
  4. What did you know about the Boxer Rebellion before reading this book?  Have your impressions changed? Do you feel inspired to learn more?
  5. What is the relationship between religion and culture? Bao is motivated by his desire to keep China “pure,” but how much of that has to do with a desire to avoid Christianity and how much is motivated by general fear of change?

Lists and Awards: Booklist Editors’ Choice — Books for Youth — Older Readers Category: 2013. Conflicted: Life During Wartime (2014). Los Angeles Times Book Prizes: Young Adult Literature. School Library Journal Best Books: 2013. YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens: 2014.

Professional Reviews: Publishers’ Weekly. Kirkus. New York Times. NPR. Tor.

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