The Boxers and the Power of Pop Culture

February 20, 2013 by  
Filed under Gene's Blog

When I tell people that my next project is about The Boxer Rebellion, they get this look in their eyes, the same look people get when they’re trying to match a face with a name. Most vaguely remember hearing about it in high school history. Some know it because of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Some think I’m talking about a band.

Understandable. In your average American history textbook, the Boxer Rebellion gets about a paragraph. Before I started writing Boxers & Saints, I didn’t know much about it either. Now that I’ve spent the better part of six years working on my two Boxer-themed graphic novels though, I truly believe that the Boxer Rebellion deserves more attention, especially in American schools. Yes, I’m biased. Very, very biased, in every way a person can be biased. But hear me out.

The Boxer Rebellion is a war that occurred on Chinese soil in the year 1900. At the beginning of the 1800′s China thought of herself as the pinnacle of human existence, the single world power, the Middle Kingdom. By the end, China was utterly humiliated. The ruling dynasty had been weakened by a century of wars with the European powers and could no longer defend China’s borders. The Europeans, the Americans, and the Japanese all established concessions – parcels of land that basically functioned as colonies – in the major Chinese cities. Western missionaries came looking for converts, Western merchants came looking for gold, and Western soldiers came to protect Western interests. Folks speculated that the Middle Kingdom would soon be broken into pieces, and everyone wanted in on the action.

The poor, hungry, illiterate teenagers of the Chinese countryside felt deeply embarrassed by their nation’s weakness. They didn’t have much of a future to look forward to. Their crops had been ruined by a series of natural disasters. They didn’t have enough money to get married. They were constantly victimized by foreign soldiers and by gangs of roaming bandits. Their ancestors had always taken pride in the strength of China, in the glory of Chinese culture, but now that was gone too.

So where did these poor teenagers look for power? Like modern-day geeks, they turned to pop culture. They went to fairs and watched traveling acting troupes perform Chinese opera. Chinese opera told epic tales of colorfully-costumed heroes who fought evil with superpowers and magical weapons. The heroes of the Chinese opera were not unlike the heroes of modern American comic books, only instead of capes, flags flapped at their backs.

Like modern-day cosplayers, the teenagers wanted to embody their heroes. They came up with a mystical ritual that would call the heroes of the opera – the gods of the opera, really – down from the heavens. The teenagers would be possessed by the gods and take on their superpowers. Then armed with these superpowers, they marched through their homeland and into the major cities, battling foreigners. Because their martial arts reminded the Europeans of boxing, these teenagers became known in the West as the Boxers. At first, the ruling dynasty made a halfhearted effort to suppress the Boxers. Then, when it looked like the Boxers might actually defeat the Europeans, the dynasty ordered its armies to join them. It was an ill-fated effort. By the fall of 1900, the European armies had definitively defeated the Boxers and the Chinese military.

There are all sorts of reasons to include the Boxer Rebellion in American history classes. It was the first war in the age of mass media, the first war that people around the world followed through newspapers. Because of all the nations involved, it was the first truly global conflict. It foreshadowed the two world wars. The humiliation of the Boxer Rebellion still colors China’s relationship with the West today.

But in my mind (and maybe it’s just because I’m a modern-day geek) one of the most compelling reasons to study the Boxer Rebellion is that it demonstrates the power of pop culture. The Boxer’s ritual didn’t involve yelling “Shazam!” but it may as well have.

Pop culture isn’t frivolous, it’s empowering. It gives meaning. It is, as G.K. Chesterton described the penny dreadfuls of his day, “the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.” When people feel powerless, they look for power in the stories that surround them. And sometimes there are global consequences.

It’s important to tell good stories.

Enter the Conversation...

17 Responses to “The Boxers and the Power of Pop Culture”
  1. Linda W says:

    I’m looking forward to your series, as I do with any book you produce. I have both on my wish list.

  2. Arlene C. Harris says:

    oh I can’t wait for this. I’m currently researching the Opium Wars for my book and while the Boxer Rebellion is way out of my timeline, the progression of cause and effect from one to the other is clear.

    Also I learned about the Boxer Rebellion from… Tintin and the Blue Lotus XD don’t laugh at me, seriously. I was eight!

    • gene says:

      I read about the Opium Wars when I was doing the Boxer books, too! The 1800′s were an… eventful… century for China.

      I’m not laughing at Tintin and the Blue Lotus! I love that book, actually. It’s an important milestone in Western depictions of the East, imho.

  3. Tim Canny says:

    Well said, sir! I too am looking forward to the publication of your two books.

  4. PLUGO says:

    An insightful piece that makes me all the more eager to get a hold of Boxers & Saints. I’ve always thought there was rich potential in telling the tale of the Boxer Rebellion. It’s made for a handful of great wuxia type movies and as someone who’s profession keeps me immersed in Kung Fu lore, this historic event holds a very significance place in the oral history of several Chinese Martial Arts. Several styles were born specifically out of the need to develop a bullet-proof martial art; and the traveling Chinese Opera . . . oh man. you must have had some serious fun on this project.

    • gene says:

      Thanks, Patrick! The research was definitely a lot of fun. (And utterly horrific in some places.) I do make a small reference to “the Golden Bell Armor”, the technique that supposedly deflected bullets. Ever seen the Shaw Brothers’ Boxer Rebellion movie?

      • PLUGO says:

        I’ve never seen the whole Boxer Rebellion Movie (thanks for that Link I’ll be watching it after MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS tonight!). I saw a chunk of it during a presentation given by Kung Fu Historian Ric Meyers, years ago at a tournament.

        I have, however, seen live Golden-Bell A.K.A. “Iron Shirt” demos. It’s part of a whole method of Hard-Qigong. Iron-palm, Iron-finger, Iron-throat Iron-Crotch and so fourth.

        Here’s a look see:

        I would have been heaving that log along with my buddies if I wasn’t busy filming.

  5. Dave C says:

    Gene, I am a HUGE fan of your comics. Couple that with the fact that I’m also HUGE fan of Chinese history… and you can say I’ll totally be looking forward to this one as well!!!

    Keep up the good work buddy!

    PS: I think you’d smile to know my bookshelf has a Gene Yang section :)

  6. Shawne Myers says:

    I had the privilege of hearing you speak this evening with my son at the workshop in Knoxville. My interest was peaked in your upcoming works, as I must admit my knowledge of the Boxers is limited to how Spike and Drusilla handled themselves in it on “Buffy”. I thoroughly enjoyed your presentation (as did my 10year old) and look forward to expanding my reading to include graphic novels, specifically yours! My son requested that I pre-order the next Avatar as well as Boxers and Saints, so I began reading your blog from your Amazon page. Your posts on Legos crack me up. You have two new fans in Knoxville!

  7. YC Chan says:

    While the history of colonization is interesting, I find it infinitely more relevant what happens when the colonists leave.

    I come from Hong Kong. Like many Hong Kongers fearing the Communists, my family and I went overseas to obtain foreign citizenship before “the handover”. Also like many Hong Kongers, we couldn’t give up Hong Kong for good. We returned to Hong Kong almost immediately after obtaining our foreign citizenship, just in time to witness the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong first-hand.

    At the time, I was eight, not quite nine and didn’t understand what was going on. I was in fact excited about Hong Kong “returning to the motherland”. But now I see how China is ruining Hong Kong. Our economy has been cannibalized, with Chinese turning Hong Kong into their own shopping paradise for everything from designer handbags to infant milk powder. Mainland investors have driven Hong Kong property prices sky high. The local government is a joke, an inept bunch of Beijing-controlled puppets. Increasingly, Hong Kongers are becoming second-class citizens in their own home. Many Chinese visiting Hong Kong feel a sense of superiority over Hong Kongers, saying things such as “without our money, Hong Kong would be a dead city”, “without our water, what would Hong Kongers have to drink?” and “where’s your British daddy now?” There are even some who say Hong Kong escaped British colonialism only to be colonized again.

    I’m extremely glad about The Promise. My first thoughts were, “finally, a story about us”. I’m glad how you showed how decolonization was much more complex than “just give the place back to whoever owned it before”. I hope for many, many Yu Dao stories to come, showing the continuing struggle of its residents to maintain its own identity separate from both the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation. With luck, Hong Kong will be able to do the same.

    • gene says:

      Hey YC! I agree- colonialism is such a complex thing. The Promise was really hard to write because of this. I didn’t want to condone it IN ANY WAY, but at the same time I didn’t want to turn away from the fact that good things can sometimes result from it. (Look at Singapore! Look at Hong Kong!) This quote from Chinese political activist Liu Xiaobo gave me a lot of food for thought. When asked what it would take to reform China, he answered: “[It would take] 300 years of colonialism. In 100 years of colonialism, Hong Kong has changed to what we see today. With China being so big, of course it would require 300 years as a colony for it to be able to transform into how Hong Kong is today. I have my doubts as to whether 300 years would be enough.”

  8. Leon says:

    Can’t wait to see it. When I was growing up in Hong Kong, American comics and magazines were my “pre-introduction” to America, before actually coming here. So, yeah, I appreciate pop culture.

    I think it would be interesting to see how you portray the Boxers from different points of view, like how others see them, and how it all turns into some crazy mix.

    • gene says:

      Hey Leon!

      Thanks for dropping by. I’ve been wondering, how has Hong Kong’s pop culture changed since 1997? Has American influence on movies, comics, and magazines lessened?

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