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Boxers & Saints: An Interview With Gene Luen Yang

Through his works such as American Born Chinese, Level Up, and the Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels, Gene Luen Yang has explored both the internal and external struggles that arise when cultures clash.

BoxersIn his latest project, he continues that theme by examining a key event in the history of modern China in the two-volume set Boxers ($18.99, 978-1-59643-359-5) and Saints ($15.99, 978-1-59643-689-3) (slipcased set $34.99, 978-1-59643-924-5), published by First Second. In these two graphic novels, Yang depicts the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, in which groups of peasants banded together in an attempt to drive out the Westerners who they felt were overtaking the country. Each volume depicts the conflict from a different side – Boxers focuses on Little Bao, a young peasant who comes to lead his villagers against the European and Chinese Christians, while Saints tells the story of Vibiana, a girl who converts to Christianity and joins their side after experiencing a vision of Joan of Arc.

BookShelf spoke with Yang about Boxers and Saints, culture clashes, and the importance of the Boxer Rebellion in modern times.

You've said on your web site you were working on Boxers & Saints for six years. How much and what kind of research did you have to do?

Gene Yang: This was my very first historical fiction project, so I was new to research. I collected books for a few years before formally starting on the Boxers & Saints. Then, after I finished American Born Chinese and the script for Level Up, I began going to the local university one night every week to read and research. I did that for about a year. I also visited a Jesuit archive in France, where they keep letters and photos from missionaries to China. I couldn't read the letters because they were in French, but those photos helped enormously.

All the way through, I had this fear that after the books come out some expert on the Boxer Rebellion would email me to tell me I got this or that wrong. In fact, I'm sure that's going to happen. That's the thing with research—it can be endless. At one point, I just had to call it and move onto actually producing the comics. I realized that I wasn't trying to recreate China in the 1800's. I was trying to create a believable cartoon world based on China in the 1800's.

Boxers almost feels like a '60s/'70s martial arts film, while Saints has a very Western, intimate feel to it. Both seem very appropriate for the perspectives, but how did you decide to approach each book that way?

I knew early on that the two stories didn't match up perfectly in terms of action. Historically, the Boxers went on this long, epic journey. It was easy to imagine their story cinematically. The Chinese Christians, on the other hand, basically just stayed in their villages, defended them as best they could, and then died for their beliefs. Their journey was much more internal. I had to take two different approaches to the two books. I had to give visual signals to the readers that these were different kinds of narratives.

Lark Pien, who colored both books, and I pulled from two different sources of inspiration. For Boxers, we looked at Chinese opera, Chinese war epics, and American superhero books. They're all ways of presenting superhuman conflicts, and they’re full of color and battles and blood.

SaintsSaints had to be quieter, more intimate. I wanted it to read like a journal. Lark and I looked at American autobio comics. That's why she used the limited palette. And that's why I used a font based on my wife's handwriting to letter the captions of the book.

In both books, the spiritual aspects of the stories are depicted as literal events (the Boxers channeling the spirits of the Opera, Vibiana's visions of Joan of Arc). Was this done just to make the stories more dramatic, or was there another reason for this?

The spiritual aspects of the stories are deeply important to both protagonists, and depicting them as literal events conveys that to the reader. Comics is a great medium for this. For example, in his graphic novel Bottomless Belly Button, Dash Shaw has this one character with a cartoon frog head. The rest of the story is very naturalistic, so this character sticks out. As you go through the book, you realize that none of the other characters see the cartoon frog head. It's actually a visual manifestation of what's going on in the frog-headed character's mind.

You've been writing the Avatar: The Last Airbender series at the same time as you were working on Boxers & Saints. Did working on Avatar have an influence on your writing, and/or how you presented B&S?

I didn't start working on the Airbender graphic novels until 2010, and by then the scripts for both Boxers & Saints had been written. I think I was drawing Saints at that point. There is a lot of overlap between the two projects, though. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a blend of Eastern and Western influences. The world of Avatar pulls from both Asian and American cultural reference points. Boxers & Saints is about the relationship between East and West, too. The Boxer Rebellion was the first major war involving multiple European and Asian countries.

I was able to use some of the research I did for Boxers & Saints while writing the Airbender books. For instance, Ba Sing Se, one of the big cities in the Earth Kingdom, draws heavily from Q'ing Dynasty China, and the Boxer Rebellion took place at the very end of the Q'ing Dynasty.

Avatar: The Search Part 1For The Search, the most recent Airbender miniseries, I was able to use some of what I'd learned about Chinese opera. I just love Chinese opera masks. Masks and faces figure prominently in The Search because the whole thing's about Zuko. Zuko's face is his hallmark. It's a physical representation of the struggle inside of him, a struggle to figure out which part of him is a mask and which part of him is his true face.

Zuko spent much of the first season behind the mask of The Blue Spirit. And, one of the few things we know about his mom from the animated series is that she was a fan of the stage, where actors take on masks and made-up identities. We wanted to play with that theme of masks and identities throughout the miniseries.

American Born Chinese dealt with the culture clash between Chinese (and by extension other East Asian) and American culture, and Boxers & Saints deal with the conflicts of the West attempting to overrun the native Chinese culture. Is this cultural conflict a theme you've intentionally explored, or have these just been stories you've wanted to tell?

I'm interested in the way cultures interact, not just the ways they conflict but also the ways they resonate with one another. The Boxer Rebellion, in the big picture view, is a story of cultural clash, of the common people of the East standing up to Western aggression. But as with anything involving humans, it's more complex than that. There's plenty of resonance between Eastern and Western culture.  

For example, you can find reflections of the Boxers within the stories of the West. This is one of the reasons I included Joan of Arc in my narrative. The Boxers were these poor teenagers from the Chinese countryside. They were embarrassed by the foreign incursion into their homelands. Motivated by strange mystical beliefs, they fought an army that was in many ways superior to themselves.

Joan of Arc was very much a Boxer. She was a poor teenager from the French countryside. She was embarrassed by the foreign incursion into her homeland. Motivated by strange mystical beliefs, she fought an army that was in many ways superior to her own.  

What lessons, if any, do you think the Boxer Rebellion can teach people today, and why do you think it should be better known to American audiences?

The Boxer Rebellion stands right in the middle of one of the most tumultuous eras of Chinese history. In the century before, China suffered defeat after military defeat at the hand of the Europeans and the Japanese. In the century after, China underwent multiple revolutions, including the devastating Cultural Revolution. That period of Chinese history speaks to both the dangers of clinging too tightly to the past and the dangers of trying to eradicate it completely.  

The Boxer Rebellion still affects Chinese foreign policy today. As China grows economically, the relationship between America and China will change. In American classrooms, we'll need to study events like the Boxer Rebellion to figure out how to move forward.