Beautiful Country: Young US writer's touching tale of China

Updated: 2016-09-15 12:02

By Li Yiqun(China Daily USA)

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Twelve years ago, 14-year-old John Randolph Thornton was sent to China for a year's study by his father, John Thornton, a banker and a visiting professor at Tsinghua University.

John Thornton always had full confidence in China's future development.

At the age of 20, John Randolph Thornton, who was studying at Harvard University, completed writing his book Beautiful Country after nearly four years of hard work.

Before its publication in the United States in April, the novel's Chinese version was released on the Chinese mainland in May 2013.

Because of his memorable experience of studying in China as a teenager, China unexpectedly became the source of inspiration for John Randolph's first novel.

Beautiful Country won the LeBaron Russell Briggs prize in 2012.

Beautiful Country: Young US writer's touching tale of China

In the book, Chase, the hero, joins the Beijing Youth Tennis Team for professional training and meets Bowei, a talented Chinese tennis player from a poor family. The two boys become good friends. Three years later, Chase comes back to Beijing together with his father for the Olympic Games in 2008, and he sees his good friend Bowei in another city close to the capital.

Chase finds Bowei, who once dreamed of becoming the top tennis player in the world, building a wall with bricks under the searing sun at a construction site by a tennis court.

The book is a sincere effort by a young author. It is different from how professionally trained writers write.

It has helped that John Randolph has had a strong love for both writing and tennis since childhood. He began to record what he experienced during his first visit to China, and that prepared him for writing his first novel later.

The novel is based on the shared experience of growing up and true friendship between two teenagers, one from the US and the other from China.

Chinese author Mo Yan, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2012, expressed his appreciation of John Randolph when commenting on the novel.

"He has focused on the people in China and has always tried to feel China with his heart," Mo Yan says.

Jiang Fangzhou, a young Chinese writer, believes John Randolph is like the boy from The Emperor's New Clothes, the famous short story by Hans Christian Andersen.

"His views on China are especially true," Jiang says.

By writing about the differences in tennis training and athlete selection as well as in the ideas of life and family education, the American author presents two different worlds.

Yu Hua, a Chinese writer, comments in the preface for the English version of the novel that the book makes Chinese readers understand more about their country and about themselves.

Three years ago, when the Chinese version came out, John Randolph visited international schools in Tianjin and Shanghai to talk about it.

There he found high school students, who wanted to go abroad for further studies, interested in knowing about how to get into globally prestigious universities.

Beautiful Country: Young US writer's touching tale of China

His experience and passion for writing has opened a window for such students to get to know more about the US.

An American teenager who hadn't yet formed any prejudice, he lived and studied in China for a year, during which time he saw traffic jams, dusty streets and the suffocating smog as well as the unfair treatment suffered by his Chinese best friend.

Despite all this, he still regards China as a beautiful country.

This has aroused deep feelings in Mo Yan, whose works were previously misunderstood in China.

During a dialogue with John Randolph in June 2013 in Beijing, he commented that people are created by society, the environment, history and compassion, as emphasized in Beautiful Country. This is indispensable in exchanges between people of different countries.

Mo Yan stressed that what is most important is to present the complexity of mankind in literature. At a human level, there are no differences between the East and the West.

For Bowei, the US is a beautiful country. For John Randolph, China is a beautiful country.

He wrote in his book that, while playing tennis in China, he was most impressed by the professional quality, maturity and ambition of boys whom he played with in Beijing. They were very focused on the sport that they loved, and he was greatly inspired.

He believes that, for any society, as long as there is a young generation that works hard, the future is bright.

John Randolph was in Beijing earlier this month. He will continue his study of China under the Schwarzman Scholars program at Tsinghua.

For China Daily