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

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By LI YIQUN For China Daily

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.

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.

He has fo­cused on the peo­ple in China and has al­ways tried to feel China with his heart.” Mo Yan, Chi­nese author, com­ments on John Ran­dolph Thorn­ton’s first novel, Beau­ti­ful Coun­try

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.

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.

John Ran­dolph Thorn­ton’s first novel was pub­lished in English in April.

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