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Gene Luen Yang Returns With Ambitious New Project, ‘Boxers & Saints’

Gene Luen Yang — the award-winning creator of American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile and writer of Dark Horse’s Avatar: The Last Airbender comics — has announced his latest project: Boxers & Saints, an epic pair of graphic novels about the lives of two peasants during the Boxer Rebellion that took place in China during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.Talking to Wired, Yang – who’s been working on the project since 2006 – said that the books reflect his interest in and ambivalence about the historical event:

When I looked into the lives of the Chinese saints, I discovered that many of them had died during the Boxer Rebellion, a war that occurred on Chinese soil in the year 1900. Back then, the Chinese government was incredibly weak. Western powers were able to establish concessions – pieces of land that functioned as colonies – all across China. The poor, hungry, illiterate teenagers living in the Chinese countryside felt embarrassed by their nation’s weakness, so they came up with this ritual that they believed would give them mystical powers. Armed with these powers, they marched across their homeland into the major cities, killing European missionaries, merchants, soldiers, and Chinese Christians. Because their martial arts reminded the Europeans of boxing, they became known as the Boxers. John Paul II’s canonized saints were among the Boxers’ victims.

The more I read about the Boxer Rebellion, the more conflicted I felt. Who were the protagonists here? Who was more deserving of our sympathy? The Boxers or their Chinese Christian victims? When the Vatican announced the canonizations, the Chinese government issued a protest. They believed the Catholic Church was honoring women and men who betrayed their own culture. In many ways, the Boxer Rebellion embodies a conflict that some Asian and Asian American Christians struggle with, a conflict between our Eastern cultural heritage and our Western faith The two volume structure is meant to reflect this conflict. In one volume, the Boxers are the protagonists. In the other, the Chinese Christians are.

Although both books have, in Yang’s words, “a satisfying beginning, middle, and end so that they could be read separately” and in any order, he said that he “really wanted it to be two separate volumes to reflect its dual nature.”

If the books’ subject matter sounds somewhat off-putting, you should go and check out the 10 page preview Wired has to accompany the interview; it’s some of Yang’s cleanest and most attractive artwork to date, and demonstrates the sensitivity and dynamism that he brings to the subject matter. Judging from this, Boxers & Saints looks like one of the must-read books of the year.

Boxers & Saints will be released as a slipcased pair of graphic novels in September.

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