Boxers: I See My Brother
This is the first of a two-part reflection on Gene Luen Yang's companion graphic novels, Boxers and Saints. Each story, both of which I highly recommend, follows a young person leading up to and during the Boxer Rebellion, which shook China at the turn of the 20th Century.
"How could a person do that?"
That question always rises to the surface when a terrorist attack occurs. We see the horror of concentrated violence of a 9/11, of an Istanbul, or a Paris and our brains just cannot compute what would drive an individual to commit such an atrocity. And because of that mental discombobulation, we often just assume that the terrorists aren't human. Physiologically we know they are human, but, spiritually and morally, we render them as something darker, something subhuman. The attackers are monsters.
If the terrorist is a monster--if they are something inhuman, something fundamentally broken--then it flattens a complicated narrative into a tale of pure good versus pure evil. And don't get me wrong, the act of terror is pure evil. But the actor? The story of the actor is not always so simple. At least that was the reality I confronted while reading Boxers.
When we meet Bao, the protagonist in this first volume of historical fiction, he is a likable kid. The youngest child, he is picked on by his brothers and professes a love for the stories depicted in operas in his village. When he sees someone being heroic, his vibrant imagination visualizes superhero-like gods of his culture (a smart move to ingratiate Bao to the reader since I'm sure a good portion of Yang's comic book reading audience has daydreamed about superheroes). The young man cares about justice and is proud of his cultural heritage. The reader can identify with Bao. You want to root for him.
The turn is gradual. A priest smashes the village's local earth god next to which Bao always watched his beloved operas. His father is attacked by a foreign soldier. A friend is beheaded after being arrested by Imperial troops. Each step on the path to violence is fueled by a religious and nationalistic zeal. Bao believes that by committing these terrible acts that he is making his country a better place. The story never condones the acts, but the reader can understand why the protagonist follows a road of terror.
Yang does an interesting thing in the depiction of Bao's acts of violence. When the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist go into battle, Bao and his brother-disciples are depicted as those superheroic Chinese deities (the Boxers believed that their gods actually did enter into battle with them). It is almost an Incredible Hulk type scenario. While it is Bao shedding blood, it is not truly Bao. This depiction is, pardon the pun, a double-edged sword. While it maintains the humanity of the protagonist, it also skirts towards the reductionistic terrorist-as-monster narrative I mentioned earlier.
Yet I think Yang does a good job avoiding that pitfall. The depiction of the battling gods seems more a stylistic flourish. The reader knows Bao is ultimately responsible. Bao knows this too. And he seems to struggle with his culpability. Through it all, Bao never completely loses his humanity. He does monstrous things, but he never fully becomes a monster.
That makes for an unsettling read. Because under different circumstances, I could see myself befriending Bao. He is a human. A fellow creation of God. He has family and loved ones. He has passions and dreams. It's difficult because I can see the ways in which he was pushed. He ultimately made the decision to choose violence, but he had a lot of help getting there. And it makes me ponder the ways in which we unwittingly, be it through government decisions or cultural legacies, push individuals into positions where they see committing violence as their only hope. It complicates things because you want to stop acts of terror, but you realize that the roots of these problems go deep and are intertwined with all our cultures.
It brings me back to Jesus' commandment in the Sermon on the Mount: Love your enemy and pray for those who do you harm. If I, a Christian, were around in Bao's day then I would have been his enemy and he would have been mine. And how do you navigate that when violence and fervent beliefs are welded together? I don't have an easy answer for that.
I think Jesus knew that was a complicated command fraught with tension. But at its very root it forces us to confront the humanity in the person that we see as an enemy. We don't get to play the monster card. When I look at Bao, even though he is a fictional character in a graphic novel, I see my brother. Thus I must confront this human knot that occurs when I think about issues of war, terror, and violence. It's only a start. It requires more contemplation, listening, study, and action. But it's a good place to start.