President’s Book of Choice Is a Novel about China


By staff reporter ZHOU LIN



Beautiful Country

Author: J.R. Thornton

Price: US $15.99

Paperback, 320 pages

Published by Harper Perennial

THE U.S. President Donald Trump has always allowed special media access to his private office at the White House. Recently, one of the items noted on his desk was an English-language edition of Beautiful Country. The novel, published in 2013, is set in China and tells the story of a 14-year-old American boy who comes to China as part of a tennis training exchange program. There he meets a group of Chinese boys and develops wonderful friendships.

Chase came to Beijing to study Chinese and train with the Beijing Junior National Tennis Team. Under the wing of his father’s Chinese friend Victoria, he went to Chinese classes in the mornings and tennis practice every afternoon. On public holidays he looked around the Forbidden City, went to Tianjin to eat steamed buns, visited Panjiayuan antiques market, and hung out at artists’ studios in the 798 art district. In the tennis squad he formed a special friendship with an exceptionally talented Chinese boy called Bowen.

Chase realized that Bowen had grown up amid a clash of new and old Chinese values, in an environment where innovation was constrained by convention. All these inhibited Bowen’s development as a professional tennis player. In the one year that he was there, Chase gained maturity; he learned much about friendship and Chinese culture, but also the meaning of courage, sympathy, and responsibility.  

The author, J.R. Thornton, is the son of John Thornton, the former president of Goldman Sachs. When he was 14, at the suggestion of his “China watcher” father, J.R. Thornton studied in China for a year to learn Chinese and practice his tennis. After he returned to America, he always remembered his experiences in China, and seven years later he decided to write a book about his time there.

Thornton said that he was writing from the viewpoint of an American teenager, observing the rapid change of a fast-developing China. He wanted to capture the dreams of young Chinese people, their efforts, struggles, and confusion. He also hoped that Chinese readers would be able to learn about the lives of young Americans and understand their way of thinking.

When Beautiful Country was published in 2013, 22-year-old Thornton and 58-year-old Noble Prize winner Mo Yan participated in the event: “How The World Imagines China in Writing – Crossing Oceans in Literature” discussing their shared passion for literature and writing, as well as the differences inherent in Chinese and American culture.

Thornton said he had never intended to write a novel. When he first came to China, it was to play tennis – he never imagined he would end up becoming an author. Once back in America, though, trying to explain his experiences in China to his school friends was extremely hard. They had real difficulty understanding, because, to them, China was a very strange country.

In response to this, Thornton started writing a novel. All his friends were keen to read the first draft of Beautiful Country. Thornton realized that if you tell people about China as an abstraction then they will find it difficult to relate to. But if you use the form of a story, people will become interested in the fates of your characters.

Thornton said his friends asked him many questions about China. Some were so interested that they resolved to learn Chinese, and some even took the step of going to study in China. This experience showed Thornton the power of literature. It can broaden the mind, touch hearts and change people’s world view.

Mo Yan praised Thornton as an extremely talented young writer, saying that although his style was simple, it was heartfelt and pure.

“China is a big and complicated country, so accounts exploring China should use different approaches.” Although his is only one viewpoint, Thornton said that perhaps his account of his time in the country could help Chinese authors to reflect upon their own nation.

Immersing yourself in a different culture alters any preconceived attitudes you might have towards that country, opens your mind and helps you gain a better understanding of other cultures. This is exactly what is implied in the public diplomacy advocated by both China and the United States. As increasingly more young people from foreign countries come to China and gain a greater understanding of the country, they will be able to tell others about China, promoting trust between nations.

Niall Ferguson, professor of history and finance at Harvard University, spoke highly of the novel. He called it “a coming-of-age story that vividly encapsulates the complexities of the modern encounter between China and America,” and lauded it as “in many ways the quintessential ‘Chimerican’ novel for the millennial generation.”

These young people, from one beautiful country coming to another beautiful country, are observant, tolerant, and open-minded. They are willing to try new things, and view problems with greater empathy. They become aware of China’s remarkable development and the challenges it faces, from going online, reading blogs, news or perhaps books. Eventually they discover that their formerly imagined traumatic cultural shocks are actually tolerable, memorable, or even funny.

By maintaining a mutually respectful dialogue, even though people might criticize some elements of Chinese society, they still mean well. The role of young people is especially important in public diplomacy. They are, after all, the future hope for improving the relationship between China and America – young people make the best ambassadors.

One day, when a young person familiar with China goes into politics, there might be fewer misunderstandings on issues pertinent to China. When Chinese issues get hyped in the media, hopefully a calm and rational voice might rise in the U.S. These are difficult goals to achieve, but in Beautiful Country Thornton seems to be sending a message of hope.