I’m fascinated by the Boxer Rebellion because I’m a geek.
The Boxer Rebellion was a war fought on Chinese soil in the year 1900. On one side was a coalition of European soldiers, Japanese soldiers, missionaries and Chinese Christians. On the other was a loose-knit army of poor, illiterate Chinese teenagers, who we now refer to as the Boxers.
Despite the century that separates us, the Boxers and modern-day geeks have a lot in common. The Boxers loved pop culture. They didn’t have movies or television or comic books, but they did have China’s long tradition of opera. Chinese opera, much like American superhero comics, told stories of brightly-costumed heroes with magic powers fighting epic battles. When the Boxers watched their heroes’ stories, they had the same impulse today’s geeks have when we read our comic books. They wanted to become their heroes.
"The Boxers and modern-day geeks have a lot in common."
Instead of making fancy costumes for cosplay, the Boxers invented a mystical ritual that they believed would call the heroes of the opera down from the heavens. The heroes would possess them, give them superpowers and empower them to stand up to the Europeans.
My inner geek didn’t just sympathize with the Boxers. I found pop culture connections to the Boxers’ Chinese Christian enemies as well. Many early Chinese converts were people who couldn’t find a place for themselves in mainstream Chinese culture. Many were women or criminals or indigent. Because their surrounding culture treated them like outsiders, they looked for a home in the stories of the “Other,” in the religious stories of the Western missionaries.
This dynamic of looking to foreign stories for one’s own sense of self reminded me of another corner of modern-day geek culture: American manga fans. Now this certainly isn’t true of all American manga fans, but a certain subculture of that subculture is made up of individuals who were treated like outsiders by the American culture that surrounded them. Their response is similar to that of the early Chinese Christians. They look to the stories of the “Other,” to Japan’s cartoon stories, for reflections of themselves.
The Boxer Rebellion was a tragedy through and through. By the end, hundreds of thousands had lost their lives on both sides. Many historians believe it to be a harbinger of the bloody century that followed. Just as significantly—to me, at least—the Boxer Rebellion demonstrates the importance of the geek’s primary concern: pop culture. After all, “pop culture” is simply a label we give to the stories we use to define who we are.
Gene Luen Yang is a Chinese American author of graphic novels and comics. His graphic novel American Born Chinese was the winner of the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award and was the first graphic novel to be a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.