Two teenage boys, separated by culture and connected by the universal experience of growing up in a changing world, search for their identities and learn that what brings people together is more important than what keeps them apart. This is the story of Beautiful Country
, a new novel recently published by Tianjin People's Publishing House.
Beautiful Country is the first work by author John Randolph Thornton, a 21-year-old senior at Harvard University. He based the fictional story on his experiences living in China as a teenager. Like Thornton, the novel's protagonist Chase was just 14 when he came to the Chinese capital to spend a year learning Mandarin and training with the Beijing Junior Tennis Team. Chase meets a young Chinese boy, Bowei, and the pair's journey explores the experiences of China's new generation—establishing their identities in a country rapidly changing both economically and socially.
"The narrator of the book is a character similar to me. He is a 14-year-old American playing tennis within the Chinese state tennis system. While there, he befriends one of the players on the Chinese team who is exceptionally gifted, very independent and somewhat rebels against the limits and rigid structure of the system," Thornton said.
John Randolph Thornton (HUANG WEI)
The coming-of-age story ultimately focuses on the moral choices the boys make as they search for their place in the world and what kind of men they want to be, the author said. It is about what connects humanity, rather than the differences that define cultures. It is a theme that Thornton said he experienced firsthand.
"I went to China with a blank slate, with no expectations and ready to take it all in," Thornton said. "I looked for the similarities, not the differences, and one thing I noticed with the boys I played tennis with who were 14 and 15 [years old] is that we shared a lot. I think many cultural differences that people try to create—if you don't look for them—don't exist."
The novel was first published in Mandarin, to great critical acclaim from the Chinese press. Kai-fu Lee, Founding President of Google China and CEO of Innovation Works, commented, "This is a beautiful novel. The author's unique perspective, notably on the struggle and destiny of Chinese adolescents, really makes this a worthwhile read for young Chinese."
The title of the book was inspired by the duality of the novel's Mandarin title Meili De GuoJia and the Chinese word for America, meiguo. Both can be translated as "beautiful country."
"I like the idea that the book was about the United States and China and that the title refers to that. There are a lot of elements to the book that are quite sad, but I do think it is positive. The novel is about hope and following your dreams. I wanted the title to reinforce that," Thornton said.
The title also (unintentionally) reflects the phrasing of one of Chinese President Xi Jinping's goals for his country: "Beautiful China". The new leadership has pledged to deliver reforms that protect China's ecological riches, rather than solely focusing on economic growth.
"Our people expect better education, more stable jobs, better incomes, more reliable social security, a higher standard of medical care, more comfortable living conditions and a more beautiful environment," Xi said in his debut address as the newly elected Party General Secretary in November 2012. "People's aspiration for a good and beautiful life is the goal for us to strive for."
As China matures and becomes a more active player on the international stage, its younger generations are experiencing that "good and beautiful life" to which Xi refers. They have the economic stability to pursue their dreams—and face the same challenges and opportunities that other teenagers face in the developed world. Connected by the Internet, these youths are less defined by where they were born and have a more global identity than previous generations. Thornton's novel represents this transition.
Since living in China as a teenager, the author said he has visited four or five times. He said he has noticed rapid changes in Beijing, as it becomes more developed and "more international." Thornton is now working on the English publication of the novel and wrapping up his studies at Harvard.
For now, Thornton said he plans to focus on his writing and work on a series of short stories and revisions to Beautiful Country.
"I was totally surprised and blown away by the book's reception. Just to be published was an incredible feeling," he said, adding that he advises young aspiring novelists to follow a disciplined approach to writing.
"Last summer I won a fellowship to write some short stories set in the American south. It was the first time I had three months to be totally focused on writing. Before, I was always trying to fit it in between school and tennis. Every morning I would wake up and write until lunchtime. Having to write that much every day was hugely beneficial and I got a lot out of it. Like most things, you should get as much practice as you can."
The author is a contributing writer to Beijing Review, living in New York City
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