Linden tells Xizhou stories to the world perfectly

Brian Linden, who is a Chicago native, has been living in Xizhou, a town in Southwest China for 16 years, attempting to promote a sustainable model of tourism and balance economic development and local culture protection.

The small town that Linden lives in is famous for the Bai minority culture. Old houses with Bai designs are all well protected, preserving the physical structures.


Linden and his cute guest are taking a walk along the field. [Photo/Wang Junyan]

Linden is the owner of a  a centuries-old boutique Bai courtyard hotel in Xizhou. It is a cooperative project between an American couple and the local government, and regarded as an international communication center.

From a poor guy to leading actor, life is like a drama

Linden was born in a blue-collar family in Chicago in the 1960s. At 15, Linden went to work cleaning carpets for 15 hours a day. "I didn't have any money, so I went to night school, studied at night and washed carpets during the day," he says.

He met a professor working at the University of Chicago one day. There was a map of the world in the professor’s home, on which flags were planted. “Everywhere I go, I put a flag on the map.” The professor asked Linden to help him, “Young man, can you help me put this little red flag on China?”


Linden and his wife. [Provided by Linden]

Linden felt awkward, he said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know where China is.” The professor pointed to the position of China and told him, “there is an opportunity to study in China. You can have a try.”

Although he did not think about it too much, the professor’s sincere proposal arouse his interest about China. Thinking of the professor’s question: ”Do you want to clean carpets for a lifetime?” he applied for the study program of Peking University.

Three months later, Linden received a call telling him that he had received a full scholarship. "Are you calling the wrong number? I'm poor and uneducated!" The man on the line firmly said, “yes, it’s you, because you are a child of the proletariat and the one who needs scholarships most.”

As a result, he was admitted to this key university that would enrich his life along Weiminghu Lake. Namely, he started a journey, pursuing his "Chinese dream".

August 30, 1984, Linden’s second day as an overseas student of Peking University, he was running near the school and a yellow Mercedes-Benz came and stopped by his side. Three people got out of the car and asked Linden if he would like to play in the movie He Came from across the Pacific. “Well I cannot speak Chinese.” They said it can be dubbed. In this way, he became the leading character of that film. Later, he learned that the three people were the executive producer, director and an actor at the Beijing Film Studio.

It made a big splash when the film was released. In the 1980s, an American starred in a Chinese movie, which was a rare thing. CBS came to interview him. Linden seized the opportunity to apply for an internship there. He excelled in photography and got the job as a photographer. In his role with CBS he had the honor of interviewing Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders.


Linden took pictures with locals while visiting some places in China. [Provided by Linden]

Attracted by the unique and mysterious culture of each region, Linden took time to visit most of the regions around China including Xinjiang and Yunnan provinces. Recalling memories of his good times during his first trip to Dali, he said,” It took almost 10 hours to get to Dali by bus from Kunming.”

At the end of his journalistic journey, Stanford University extended an olive branch to him. Linden thought that coming to China made him see the infinite possibilities of life. In his opinion, that young man cleaning carpet would not have been a leading actor or journalist, or even further his education in a key university if he didn’t come to China. He felt responsible to do something for China.

In 2004, with his wife and two sons, Linden sold their house in the United States and settled in Xizhou, a once underdeveloped village without many hotels.


Linden is playing with a child in Xizhou. [Photo/Wang Junyan] 

Restore the building into a bridge for international cultural exchange

Linden has been to over 110 countries, yet chose Yunnan to settle down. Speaking of the reasons of settling in Xizhou, he said,” the culture here is still alive and the people are very accommodating.”

“Xizhou town is a miracle. I can't remember seeing such a decent town in some remote place in China...” Mr. Lao praised Xizhou as a kind of paradise.


The landscape of Xizhou Town. [Photo/Yuan Hongkai]

In Xizhou there are a large number of Bai characteristic residential buildings built in the Ming Dynasty, Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China periods, and Yang Pinxiang’s house built in 1948 is one of them. It covers an area of 1800 square meters and is well preserved. It was designed by Yang Pinxiang, a native of Xizhou and is a traditional Bai dwelling- “three buildings with a screen wall facing the house gate”, which fully reflects the wisdom of Bai People.

With the help of the Dali government, Linden rented Yang Pinxiang's house and transformed it into a boutique hotel named "Linden Centre". At the same time, it has taken on a new mission: providing people the opportunity to have a closer look at China from a more creative perspective.

Linden always believes that what attracts people to Dali is not only its beautiful scenery and slow lifestyle, but its long history based on a deep cultural deposit. He wants the world to know about the precious things in Xizhou, like farming culture, ethnic handicrafts, ancient history and so on.


The inside of Linden Center. [Photo/Zhang Yuling]

In order to better restore the old house, Linden hired local craftsmen. "More than 60 to 100 people worked every day, from renovating roofs to replacing rotten wood, we did it ourselves, so as not to damage the original building." It took 540 days (18 months) to restore it as it was. At the same time, the building has been given the new mission.

Nowadays, walking into Linden Centre, people can see swallows busy building their mud nests. Taking a good look at the building, people will realize the greatness of the carvings. On the garden terrace, people can see from afar that some egrets are startled by the working peasant women speaking Bai dialect.


Linden is introducing Xizhou to foreign visitors. [Photo/Wang Junyan]

Linden Centre is committed to the in-depth integration of "living" and "traveling", and makes guests fall in love with Xizhou. In the morning, guests can follow the staff and hang around in the local market where they can buy local cuisine, Xizhou Baba, or they can learn how to make Rushan or the Tie-dye art.

The Linden Centre has received more than 200,000 guests from both home and aboard, including envoys, entrepreneurs, scholars and artists from all over the world. Staying at Linden Centre, they’ve had the opportunity to appreciate the charm of local culture.

In 2011, an historical house in Dali, the Yangzhuoran Courtyard, was restored and put into use as Linden’s first education centre. They have cooperated with many prestigious schools such as Stanford and Yale University along with experts to develop multiple types of educational programs.

Selected students can explore the community to complete inquiry and service learning projects. They either sit in the courtyard to learn about the history of Xizhou, or go to the paddy fields to experience the joy of labor, or to understand the Bai Jiama. In a nutshell, a village with an ancient history could be the best "school".

Once upon a time, a group of students, with an average age of 13, came to spend two weeks with elderly people, approximately 60 years old, in Xizhou. They recorded their stories with cameras to make a series of films named Voices of the Village. Some of them learned skills from local craftsmen. An American student Li Shuang wrote: “I not only learned how to make silver ornaments, but also got close to the customs here.”

Linden introduced Xizhou to the outside world, “let guests know more about the ancient village and being part of it.” He has been doing what he wants to do - inhabit the traditional culture and bring the world here to help them understand China. 

Remain true to our original aspiration and develop the Linden Center to thank China

No matter how the times change, Xizhou still marches to the beat of its own drum and people are working at sunrise and resting after sunset.

Linden often gets up early in the morning and takes his Labrador, Nala, for a walk on the ridge. He likes saying hello to the villagers and talking about business with vendors. Over the past 16 years, he gets along well with locals and they familiarly call him “foreign village head”.

They always chat with each other. Sometimes Linden say a few words in Bai dialect. For him, ”speaking in Bai dialect is a kind of respect for its culture instead of just communication.”


Linden gets along well with locals. [Photo/Wang Junyan]

Linden regards villagers as family, asking for their return in love. One day, when he was walking in Sifang Street, he noticed a shabby man sitting on the side of the road. “He had been without food for a long time and seemed extremely tired, and I bought him a hot Xizhou Baba.” Every time Linden met this guy, he brought him fruit and other food.

The other day, Linden was playing with children and the man ran to him breathlessly, “I finally found you.” The man said while taking out a pot of flowers: "Linden, I just saw a pot of beautiful flowers in the garbage heap. I’d like to give you." Linden will never forget the man's face full of sincereness. “It happens a lot and I am so moved,” he added.


Linden and his friend. [Provided by Linden]

Linden often explains his “original aspiration” to his guest: “It’s kind of friendship similar to gratitufe. I mean I would not have all I have today of I had not come to China.”

Over the past 12 years, the Linden Centre has been recruiting local staff and helps them develop professional skills. It also provides scholarships and even free accommodation for local students, encouraging them to become young-cultural-promotion-ambassadors and inspiring villagers' love for their land.


The landscape of Xizhou Town. [Photo/Yuan Hongkai]

In the future, Linden plans to explore developing a “Linden Centre” in Jianchuan and other places in China, protecting Chinese culture without destroying local resources.

Linden begun to write down his story and publish it in a book. In this book, he wrote: Thirty-seven years ago I could not identify China on a world map; now my identity cannot be separated from this country. I foresee my spirit forever meandering through the lanes of Xizhou. This is my home now and my ghost should reside nowhere else.

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(Editors:Rachel, Christine)

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