Q&A with Gene Luen Yang, cartoonist of ‘Boxers & Saints’

You’re forgiven if you’re not well versed in the China’s Boxer Rebellion from 1899-1901, where poor, uneducated Chinese rose up against foreigners, missionaries and Chinese Christians, leaving thousands dead.

Award-winning cartoonist and teacher Gene Luen Yang, a Chinese Catholic, became fascinated with the Boxer Rebellion in 2000 when Pope John Paul II canonized some Chinese Catholics, many of whom were martyred during the battle.

Yang, whose graphic novel “American Born Chinese” was a National Book Award finalist in 2006, has now released a pair of graphic novels, “Boxers & Saints,” featuring tales from each side of the Boxer Rebellion.

amNewYork spoke with Yang about the books, which are also finalists for the National Book Award this year.

What interested you about the Boxer Rebellion?

To me, the Boxer Rebellion externalizes a struggle between East and West that I’ve experienced internally from time to time.

Why do two books?

The two-volume nature of the project comes out of my own ambivalence about the Boxer Rebellion. … I couldn’t decide who the heroes should be. I sympathized with both the Boxers and their Chinese Christian victims. … They both wanted to preserve their identities and the foundations of their communities. So I did two books. The protagonists of one are the antagonists of the other.

As a teacher, can you discuss the educational value of these books?

I was like most Americans: I knew very little about the Boxer Rebellion. I vaguely remembered hearing about it in high school history. In China, the Boxer Rebellion is still very much relevant. It sits right in the middle of a time period the Chinese refer to as their Century of Humiliation, which affects China’s policies toward the West to this day. I believe American high school history classes will start to pay more attention to events like the Boxer Rebellion. I would love for “Boxers & Saints” to be a part of that. That said, “Boxers & Saints” is historical fiction. … I hope the graphic novels will inspire readers to look into the actual history.