The Common Good
September-October 2013

'Write Your Life, Live Your Faith'

by Julie Polter, Gene Luen Yang | September-October 2013

Comic book creator Gene Luen Yang on his latest work, Boxers & Saints.

IN 1900, long-simmering resentment over increasing foreign presence and exploitation in China boiled over into a full-scale uprising, the Boxer Rebellion. It was spearheaded by the “Righteous and Harmonious Fists,” a peasant secret society whose members practiced martial arts—Westerners, observing their exercises, dubbed them “Boxers.” The Boxers targeted foreign officials, merchants, and missionaries, as well as Chinese Christian converts.

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Comic book author and artist Gene Luen Yang illuminates two very different fictional perspectives on this conflict in his new two-volume graphic novel Boxers & Saints: The first volume, Boxers, tells the story of Bao, a boy who becomes a Boxer leader after seeing ongoing abuse by Westerners; Saintsfollows Four-Girl, an unwanted daughter who converts to Catholicism, takes the name Vibiana, and must flee the Boxers.

Yang’s 2006 work American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel to both win the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature and to be nominated for a National Book Award. He lives in Oakland, Calif., and teaches in the Hamline University MFA program in writing for children and young adults. Sojourners senior associate editor Julie Polter interviewed Yang in July. Boxers & Saints releases in September from First Second Books.

Julie Polter: The characters in Boxers & Saints are driven by varied combinations of ideology (patriotism, cultural imperialism) and mysticism/faith. The flaws and virtues of different beliefs seem to mirror each other. What led you to this complicated story?

Gene Luen Yang: The genesis of the project was out of my own conflicts. I majored in computer science in college and minored in creative writing. I had a professor who was also a novelist, Thaisa Frank. I remember visiting her during office hours and talking to her about my struggles with writing about issues of faith. Faith, especially in college, became very important to me; it became a critical part of how I saw my place in the world. It was really hard for me to put something authentic on the page. Her advice to me was, essentially, you have to write your life and live your faith—you don’t ever try to write your faith, because it will come out funky. That’s the advice I’ve tried to follow ever since.

She was this Romanian-American Buddhist and I was this Chinese-American Roman Catholic, and I can just imagine our ancestors flipping over in their graves.

In 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized 120 Chinese saints [known as the Martyr Saints of China—87 Chinese Christians and 33 Western missionaries]. I grew up in a Chinese Catholic community in the San Francisco area and my home church freaked out about it—they had celebrations, food, special Masses. When I looked into the lives of these saints, I discovered that many of them were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion. The more I read about the Boxer Rebellion, the more conflicted I felt. I just couldn’t decide who I sympathized with more: The Boxers, these young men who felt powerless, who saw this war of incursion into their lands, or these Chinese Catholics, these Christians on the other side.

As modern people, we tend to look at history through the lens of the oppressor and the oppressed. There’s a lot of legitimacy in that. At the same time I think it sometimes covers over complexities. For instance, one of the things that the missionaries did, especially the Catholic missionaries, was go into the temples and smash the statues of the Chinese gods. That was how they would get people’s attention and start preaching the gospel. Now, from one perspective, that’s an incredibly disrespectful thing to do. But for the people within that culture, there’s going to be a certain segment of the population that were not able to find themselves in the culture around them, and when they see that statue smashed, that can be a sign of freedom for them.

Bao and Vibiana are both being influenced by visions, sometimes ones that contradict what they’ve learned in the past. Bao seems to have internalized very high and noble principles for living and fighting from a teacher, but in visions an unknown god urges him on to a “by any means necessary” approach.

This is a theme in human history; when ideals are attempted to be lived out, there are often brutal consequences. Especially in the case of China—if you look at the history of communism there, some of the ideals seemed noble, but as they tried to live those ideals out, all sorts of terrible things happened.

That god that guided Bao is a historical figure, Ch’in Shih-Huang, considered to be the first emperor of China—he united seven separate nations into a single entity. The Chinese have ambivalent feelings about this person. We’re proud of China and what it is today. But on the other hand, he was incredibly brutal, he buried people alive, he burned books. In a way I feel like his ghost haunts China, all the way through its history. Mao would often compare himself in a positive way to this person. His spirit seems to pop up again and again.

Vibiana has visions of Joan of Arc—which become confusing to her as she realizes the parallels between Joan’s call (to drive English invaders from France) and that of the Boxers (to drive out foreigners and kill Christian converts such as Vibiana). Is there a cautionary tale here about believing spiritual visions?

Maybe that’s something about my own midlife crisis. Since I was in college, my friends and I have talked about calling—what’s God calling us to? A few of us have had clear ideas about what we should be doing, but some of us, 20 years later, are still struggling with that question. That’s the central question of the second half of Saints: What is God calling Vibiana to do—defend her country or stay with her Catholic community?

Ultimately, I guess what I’ve landed on is you can live out your faith even if you don’t feel like you get a firm answer on that question. I’m attracted to the ideas of Thérèse of Lisieux, that even the small things that you do in your day, things that will never impact history, are ways for you to experience Jesus. You may die never sure if you have actually followed your calling. But in the day-to-day of your life, in the small things of your life, you can still experience Christ. That’s what I was trying to deal with through Vibiana’s character.

I was deeply moved by the image in Boxersof the Goddess of Compassion, who has a thousand hands with a thousand eyes on the palms—the eyes to see suffering and the hands to bring comfort. How do you view the relationship between beliefs from other traditions and your own Christian beliefs?

I really like what C.S. Lewis calls “good dreams”— he talks about how pieces of the Christian story, of the story of Christ, of self-emptying love, are reflected in all cultures, and even in biology. I’ve heard different interpretations of this—for instance, from someone who had a more fundamentalist mindset, that this is the Devil putting bits of truth within falsehood. But I think a more generous explanation would be that the story of Christ, of one person making the ultimate sacrifice for another, is so fundamental to the human experience, to the universe, that it’s actually all over the place, and in the stories of other cultures.

Years ago I went to an Asian art museum in San Francisco. They had a painting of the Goddess of Compassion, Guan Yin, surrounded by that halo of hands with eyes on them to see suffering. I was really struck by how much those hands with eyes looked like hands with holes in them.

What do you like about working in comics?

One of the things I love about comics is that the barrier for entry is very low. I started making comics soon after I started collecting them in fifth grade. A friend of mine and I would draw them together after school and his mom would photocopy them; we would staple the copies together and sell them at school for 50 cents apiece. I think I made eight bucks. The division between the reader and the pro is very permeable. There are a lot of people who sit between those two places, you can’t always characterize them. Nowadays if you want to get into comics, you draw a comic and put it online. A lot of people who eventually were published in print started out as web cartoonists.

The other thing that I really like about comics is that they are an amalgamation of two different media, of words and pictures. Each has its own strengths. When you communicate an emotion through words, you filter that emotion through the reader’s mind and can get much more subtle emotions. Images allow you to approach emotion in a much different way—with an image you put the emotion directly into the reader’s gut, bypassing the brain.

I also think there’s a lot of resonance between comics and Catholic history. The Stations of the Cross in every Catholic church are basically a comic book illustrating the passion of Christ.

Have you found your calling?

[Laughs.] Yeah, I think I’m in the right ballpark. Like most of us, I go through periods of doubt about everything. But for the most part, I take comfort in the fact that I can experience Christ even if I haven’t found my calling. 

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