Friday, March 21, 2014

Reader Response: Boxers & Saints

Reader response to the Boxers and Saints pair of graphic novels, for my Teen Materials class.

I was excited about the concept of Boxers & Saints: two sides of a conflict told in companion graphic novels. I'm also on a bit of a Chinese history and religion kick lately. What I saw early on in Boxers was great: folk religion shown as a natural part of a young boy's life in his village. I loved Bao's love for the opera and the way he saw the gods in all different aspects of his life. Big laugh out of his encounter with Four-Girl. I was even fine with the introduction of the jerk priest because there have been plenty of those in history. Symbols for non-Chinese speech that Bao found incomprehensible was a fantastic way of seeing things from his viewpoint.

Where things started to turn sour for me as a reader was when the hilltop master revealed his belly "FILLED WITH MYSTIC VISION." Earlier, the gods were explainable in a way similar to the gods in The Illiad: present in the narrative, but it could easily be imagined that they weren't really present in battle. This edge of possibility continues later, but the way the hilltop master imbues Bao with top-notch fighting skill by opening his robe is both a little creepy and unexplainable in mundane terms. I like many genres, but I don't like genre shifts. Still, I could have dealt with a slipping in this aspect of Boxers without much trouble.

Then the train. As I recall, this is where it became clear that Bao was carrying out a holocaust of foreigners and foreign-influenced Chinese. Bao does question this in a weak way at first. That's what the conflict between Bao and the black robed god is supposed to represent, but Bao doesn't really fight it. The "secondary devils" disgust him and he orders all of the men slain, though he spares the women and children at first. The black-robed god lectures him for showing misplaced mercy, and I was reminded of the Jewish God's command to kill all of the Amalekite men, women, and children. Bao's response? Does he tell off this god? Not really. At Bao's next major test of faith, he asks the slanderer, Lu Pai, to recite lies about the Christians so that he can psych himself up to burn a church full of them alive. Which Bao does. Later, he doesn't need any help to murder Four-Girl.

Boxers bothered me so much that I didn't want to continue with Saints. It bothered me because the style of storytelling celebrated the holocaust. Bao rebelled against his god, but only to become his own new god of fire and death. It's left completely up to the reader to be disgusted by everything that happens here, and I certainly was.

When I did pick up Saints, it didn't help my impression. I did enjoy the raccoon spirit bits, but after that Four-Girl is pretty much useless as a second protagonist in the main story. Her ultimate purpose in life was to teach Bao fragments of the prayer she gave before he murdered her in the ally. Bao's story continues with him waking up in a more-or-less literal Gehenna, which he escapes by passing himself off as a Christian convert with the prayer fragments. The end.

There are flickers of opposition to the main thread of intolerance and murder. Four-Girl's latter story can be seen as a yielding Yin to Bao's fiery Yang. Then there's Mei-wen and the story she tells in the library of the goddess of compassion. In that story, the burning of a place of worship is averted by the goddess. She is slain and travels to the underworld, but is sent back to bring healing and compassion to the world with "one thousand eyes to look for suffering and one thousand hands to relieve it." The same symbolism, incidentally, is shown in the illustrations of Jesus in Saints. Mei-wen is a devotee of this goddess, and even puts the goddess's sign on her own hands while she heals nationalists and Chinese Christians alike in her clinic. Bao breaks his promise and burns down the library, resulting in Mei-wen's own death. But it's not Mei-wen or Four-Girl who come back from a fiery underworld: Bao is the one who comes back from the ditch of burning bodies and there's no indication that these women he killed have redeemed him. He simply goes home in defeat.

So my basic complaint is that the route of balanced strength and compassion shown by Mei-wen in her roles as fighter and healer are portrayed as a nice story, but something with no real effect in a world ruled by the likes of Bao's unbridled violence.

1 comment:

  1. While I don't share your opinion on the books, I'm not commenting to try and change your mind. Reading your post, I realize I evaluated them on very different criteria and have some specialist knowledge about the incident and cultural backdrop (I studying Chinese religious lit) that Yang couldn't have expected his general readers to know.

    I just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading your post on it because it made me think about how other people might react when I recommend these books (my latest favorites) to them. Thank you!