Saturday, April 5, 2014


In the mid-1970s in my small-town high school, ninth grade social studies meant learning some history and geography of the world beyond Europe and the U.S. (Each of those got an entire year in high school; the other 87 percent of the world had to share.)

Africa got a term, and Japan seemed to get a lot of attention. India got some, too. I don't remember being taught anything about South or Central America, let alone Indonesia or even the Middle East. It may be my memory at fault.

But we did get some indoctrination on China. One of the primary topics that stuck with me was the Boxer Rebellion.

I found it confusing. Why were boxers running around China? Why did they hate the English and other white people, who were there to help them? Not a lot of detail remains in my head, but that's the impression. I think I may have done a short paper on the topic.

Reading Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel Boxers made it all make a lot more sense. He provides the nuance, if not all the historical detail, missing from my high school class.

The main character, Little Bao, has witnessed the destruction of traditional religious idols by a Christian missionary.

Bao has visions of a personified China, speaking to him and telling him to rid the country of the cultural invaders. Like Joan of Arc, he believes something like god is speaking to him and telling him to destroy the enemy. I would call that delusions and mental illness, of course, but it provides a reasonable motivation in the story.

Despite his visions, Little Bao struggles with the bloody requirements of cleansing China of the foreigners and the Chinese who have converted to Christianity.

Yang has said that he wanted to make Bao's actions understandable without justifying them.

Finally, Bao and the other young people who have become a peasant army called the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist (hence the oversimplified English name Boxers) reach Beijing, where they encounter the European businessmen and government representatives who have taken over parts of the city.

Nothing good comes of these clashes, ending with the Chinese youths being mowed down by imported Indian soldiers under British command.

And that was the end of the Boxer Rebellion.

The thing that struck me most about the story is how very odd my original understanding was of the situation. "Why did they hate the English and other white people, who were there to help them?" I had wondered. Well, from Little Bao's point of view, his country has been invaded by outsiders who took their land and forced a new religion on them. They weren't helpers.

But to me, today, it's hard to believe anyone was surprised that Chinese people might object to being taken over. As if Christian missionaries have the right to convert people wherever they want to. As if England, Germany, and other world powers had a right to divide up the Chinese "market."

That profound cultural bias was invisible to me, my ninth grade textbook, and my teacher.


Boxers has a companion book, Saints, which focuses on a young Chinese Christian woman whom Bao encounters along the way. She hopes to attain the glory of Joan of Arc. I haven't read it yet, but I expect it will add to Yang's complex portrayal of this part of Chinese history.

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