When I started writing about religion and literature for my dissertation, I never dreamed that I’d also get to write about comics. I loved comics and knew that they were finally being taken seriously at an academic level, but I still couldn’t connect them to religious studies. That is, until I came across the work of Gene Luen Yang.
Probably like many WWAC readers, I first encountered Yang’s comics through his 2006 graphic novel American Born Chinese. I enjoyed it for so many reasons, including his engaging art, his compelling story, and his bold honesty about racism and Asian American identity. I quickly devoured his contributions to the Avatar comics as well as The Shadow Hero, his collaboration with Sonny Liew.
Throughout this reading binge, I was struck by how Yang consistently and powerfully focuses on representing Asian American issues – including the struggles of both shaping a hyphenated, diasporic identity and dealing with negative societal stereotypes – in his comics writing and artwork. But until I recently picked up his graphic novel set Boxers and Saints (2013), published by First Second Books, I wasn’t aware of how important Catholicism has been to him artistically as well as spiritually.
As a literary scholar working in postcolonial studies and religion, I was immediately fascinated by how Yang merges his interest in both Chinese history and religious identity. Pitched to young adults, the two graphic novels follow main characters Lee Bao and Vibiana as they live with the expansion of foreign imperial power and missionary influence at the end of the nineteenth century in China. Local resentment about this situation spurred the Boxer Uprising that occurred between 1899 and 1901, when many young men with martial arts backgrounds organized around nationalist views and battled the foreign soldiers and missionaries.
Boxers & Saints offers a unique take on this historical moment: it presents two parallel stories, that of Lee Bao, a young boy who becomes involved in the Uprising, and Vibiana, a girl who becomes a Chinese Catholic convert – a “secondary devil” as Lee Bao calls them. Converts like Vibiana were despised and thought to be traitors because they gave up their own Chinese gods. With Vibiana’s story, Yang complicates how religious identity, colonialism, and gender come together.
Vibiana originally doesn’t have a real name – she’s just called “Four” because she’s her mother’s fourth daughter as well as the only child who survived. Her grandfather refuses to give her a name, and the name “Four” sticks with her, even though it also means “death.” She is very much an outsider in her own family, and this constantly worries her.
And this aspect is so important to Vibiana: she finds a home, a family, and a domestic life in the Chinese Christian church. In her own family home, her grandfather calls her a devil and every time she tries to fit in or seek attention from her family, it backfires. She accidentally chops off the head of her grandfather’s god statuette and gets beaten for it. She tries to warn everyone that she’s a devil, just like her grandfather said, and they end up thinking she’s got some kind of disease.
The Christian community she joins isn’t perfect by far – it’s very patriarchal and the foreign priests get most of the control. But she appreciates its sense of community and how she can help others, such as the orphans she cares for. She also finds a spiritual mentor when she has visions of Joan of Arc. Joan sympathizes with Vibiana being an outsider and helps the young peasant girl find personal and religious meaning in her life.
The result is that Four gains a name – Vibiana – as well as an identity. The panel illustrating her baptism shows her smiling and surrounded by the doctor, his wife, and Joan of Arc – the people who have supported her. Of course, her decision once again makes her an outsider, this time to members of the Chinese community who dislike the influence of Western colonialism and religion.
Feminist theologian Kwok Pui-Lan writes that Asian women have historically been very aware of the colonial frameworks of Christianity, including its collusion with Western domination, capitalism, and patriarchalism. But she emphasizes that Asian women like Vibiana have also re-worked Christian elements for their own purposes and contexts. These kinds of stories are also important to understand because they acknowledge and honor the complex socio-religious realities of women’s lives.
By giving Vibiana her own story and not simply enfolding it into Lee Bao’s narrative in Boxers, Yang carves out a clear space for discussing Asian women’s complex experiences of religion. He shows Vibiana’s struggles with patriarchy in her own home, from her grandfather’s preference for her male cousin Chung, as well as her initial indifference to the foreign religion. She’s originally more interested in cookies than Christ. Nonetheless, she decides to convert, an action which emphasizes her agency as well as her desire to incorporate Christianity into her life for her own reasons.
Like Kwok Pui-Lan, Yang complicates the narrative of how Christianity has historically interacted with local peoples, especially women. At the same time, he also explores the trajectory of his own Catholicism and its complicated relationship with Chinese history through his comics. As I’ve had the pleasure finding out through Yang’s work, comics can be a dynamic platform for important discussions about identity, society, and religion.
Pui-Lan, Kwok. Introducing Asian Feminist Theology. Sheffield Academic Press Ltd., 2000.
Yang, Gene Luen. Boxers & Saints. First Second, 2013.