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Gene Luen Yang on Boxers & Saints

All told, Gene Luen Yang just released about 500 pages’ worth of graphic novel. He’s spread that out over two phenomenal books, Boxers and Saints, both of which detail the Boxer Rebellion from decidedly different viewpoints. We took a walk back through history with Yang and interviewed him about the creation of these two impressive titles.

How huge of an undertaking was this, and what made you want to do it?
I worked on Boxers and Saints for about six years, ever since American Born Chinese came out. It has been my most difficult project yet. Boxers and Saints is my first foray into historical fiction. I had to do more research for these graphic novels than all my previous ones combined.
It definitely scared me when I started on it. I teach as part of Hamline University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. This is what I tell the writers I work with: You know that idea that scares you a little? The one you plan to do when you’ve matured as a writer? Do it now!
I was trying to take my own advice.
Why the Boxer Rebellion? What drew you to that time and inspired these two books?
The Boxer Rebellion is fascinating on so many levels. Some historians argue that it was a harbinger to the two world wars. It was the first global conflict involving both the East and the West. It was also the first war in the age of media, the first one that people around the world followed in their newspapers. And it was the culmination of China’s century of humiliation, a century that still affects Chinese foreign policy today.
I personally got interested in the Boxer Rebellion in the year 2000, when Pope John Paul II canonized 120 Chinese saints. I grew up in a Chinese American Catholic church, and my home church was incredibly excited by the canonizations. After all, this was the very first time this Western church had recognized Chinese citizens in this way.
When I looked into the lives of these new saints, I discovered that many of them had been martyred during the Boxer Rebellion. The more I read, the more conflicted I felt. Who were the good guys and who were the bad guys? The Boxer Rebellion embodies this struggle that many Asian and Asian American Christians deal with, a struggle between Eastern culture and Western faith.

Given your own faith, was it hard to present both sides to the story of the Boxer Rebellion? Or did it perhaps have the converse effect, making it easier for you to give both sides?
I’m still a practicing Catholic, but my faith has always been a struggle. One of my favorite stories in the Old Testament is about Jacob wrestling with an angel. In the end, Jacob gets a busted hip and a new name. It kind of describes my own faith journey. I think wisdom often comes out of tension: tension between the individual and the community, the religious and the secular, the East and the West, tradition and progress. In many ways, Catholicism itself embodies tension. The central figure, Christ, is at once divine and human, a nobody and a somebody.
My approach to Boxers and Saints comes out of this understanding of tension. I hope that the two books work in and of themselves. I hope each has a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. But I also hope folks who read both books will get a little something extra from the tension between the two.
What was the most difficult element to capture in these two stories?
Nobody knows for sure how the Boxer Rebellion started. It started among the poor, and the history of the poor often goes unrecorded. This was both a difficulty and a blessing. I didn’t have many concrete, historical characters to work with when I was writing about the beginning of the movement, so it was nearly impossible to get the details right. But at the same time, it gave me the freedom to introduce characters of my own.
Boxers is twice as long as Saints. When you began this entire project, did you know that would be the case, or were you surprised to see how Boxers expanded as it unfolded?
I realized pretty early on that Boxers would be much longer than Saints. The Boxers went on this epic journey from the rural villages of the Chinese countryside to their nation’s capital. Their story is full of action and color and blood. The Chinese Christians, on the other hand, stayed in their homes, tried to defend them as best they could, and died. The scopes of the two stories are completely different. If I wanted a more even match, at least in terms of scope, I probably should’ve done one book about the Boxers and the other about the European soldiers.
So I tried to signal to my readers that they aren’t meant to match up in that way. The motivating question behind Boxers is, what does it mean to be a hero? The answer had to be long and colorful, like a Chinese war movie. I pulled heavily from the aesthetics of American superhero comics. Lark Pien, who colored both books, used a full palette for this volume.
The motivating question behind Saints is, what does it mean to be a saint? This story had to be smaller, more intimate, and more humble, since humility is such an important part of the answer to that question. I looked at American independent comics for this one, especially autobio comics. Lark used a much more limited palette here. Most of the pages are done in grays.

How did you relate to both Bao and Four-Girl/Vibiana as you wrote their stories? Did you see yourself reflected in them?
Pieces of me end up in all my protagonists. I’m not sure I know another way to write. Bao and Four-Girl/Vibiana are both motivated by a search for identity. I think that’s been a strong motivation in my own life as well.
Did you have certain perceptions about the Boxer Rebellion before beginning these books that changed as you began working on them?
To be honest, I didn’t know all that much about the Boxer Rebellion before starting these books. I didn’t know much about Chinese history in general. I’m definitely no expert now, but I do know a little more. I was surprised to discover how much of what happened over a hundred years ago still lingers in our world today.
Both of these stories have a fair amount of violence. Did that have an effect on you as you wrote and illustrated them?
Boxers and Saints is the most violent project I’ve ever worked on. The history dictated the violence. The Boxer Rebellion was just a bloody, brutal incident. I did feel weighted down by the violence, especially since I was thinking about it for several hours a day, over the course of several years.
After I finished drawing Boxers and before I started Saints, I had to take a break. I wrote a happy, upbeat superhero story, reviving an obscure Golden Age superhero. The book is called The Shadow Hero, and it will be released by First Second Books next year. It’s written by me and illustrated by the prodigiously talented Sonny Liew. Back in the 1940s, there was this tiny little publisher called Rural Home that published the adventures of this superhero nobody remembers called the Green Turtle. Some folks argue that the Green Turtle is the first Asian American superhero. He only lasted for five issues, though, and we never got to find out his origin story. That’s what Sonny and I are going to do. We’re going to tell the Green Turtle’s origin story.