Feature: Leisure meets heritage at rural China cultural center


Brian Linden and his wife Jeanee pose for a group photo with team members of Linden Center in Xizhou old town, southwest China's Yunnan Province, Aug. 28, 2022.(Xinhua/Cao Mengyao)

Over a decade after opening his first hotel and cultural center in Xizhou town of southwest China's Yunnan Province, Brian Linden and his team opened their third project in 2021 in the province's Shaxi township, with the new site overlooking an ancient Bai ethnic village and a tranquil lake.

In 2008, Linden, an American entrepreneur, and his team restored and repurposed heritage buildings and turned them into popular destinations for experiencing the rich cultural traditions of the respective surroundings, naming the boutique hotel brand the Linden Center, a center for cultural and interpersonal exchange.

Without the involvement of private investors, Linden and his partners aspire to restore local buildings and work for heritage conservation.

"In the past, many foreigners came to China for economic opportunities, but very few spent extended time to learn from the country's rich history," said Linden. "We want to encourage foreigners to view China differently, not solely for the financial purpose."


Before first coming to China in 1984 as an international student, Linden worked as a carpet cleaner in Chicago.

"I was cleaning the carpet at the house of a professor of the University of Chicago, who had just returned from a trip to China, and he asked me to put a red flag onto China on the world map," recalled Linden. "But with minimal education, I didn't know where China was."

Out of curiosity about the country, Linden applied for a Chinese government scholarship. To his surprise, his application was accepted and he received an opportunity to study in Beijing.

His first encounter with China was full of surprises and unexpected opportunities.

"When I was working out on the street on the third day after my arrival in Beijing, I was approached by a director who asked me to act in the first Chinese film starring a foreigner as the lead role," he said.

Four years later, Linden left China with his wife, whom he met in east China's Nanjing city, to pursue doctoral studies at Stanford University.

He later began to work on educational projects all over the world. During his extensive international travels, what disappointed him most was the outside world's lack of understanding of China.

"I've been to over 100 countries, but most of them don't understand China, and I want to provide them with a more balanced view of this country," Linden said.

"To achieve this goal, my team and I want to create social enterprises in each site, which can ensure that local villagers receive financial benefits, and visitors can enjoy an interactive experience, instead of solely experiencing the comforts and luxury of travel," Linden added.

With this goal in mind and his passion for China at heart, Linden shared his idea with his wife, a third-generation Chinese-American, and their two sons, who were 6 and 9 then. His family was very supportive of his decision and they decided to move back to China in 2003.


The Lindens then traveled to multiple provinces in China in search of a suitable location for his culture center, and in 2007, they found a historic building in the Xizhou old town, situated between Erhai Lake and Cangshan Mountain in Dali.

The architecture boasts the rectangular layout of traditional Bai-style courtyards, with the screen wall facing the entrance decorated with conventional paintings and the other three sides used to serve as living quarters.

"I got a strong sense of belonging the first time I came to Xizhou," Linden said, adding that the local villagers are inclusive and welcoming, and they all call him 'village head Linden.'

With the support from the local government, Linden and his team renovated the historic courtyard, and began to recruit locals as hotel servers.

"I want to make sure that local people are included in our business model and the hotel can provide them economic opportunities as well as a place where they can share our passion and be proud of the efforts," Linden said.

Owing to its uniqueness and amiable services, the Linden Center in Xizhou became one of the top-rated boutique hotels in China on TripAdvisor, a leading travel platform.

Linden, a former educator, wishes to provide an opportunity for young people from around the world to comprehend the richness of this country beyond the modern high rises of Shanghai and Beijing.

In 2012, Linden and his team established the Linden Center Yangzhuoran International Education Base and partnered with schools and universities to launch micro-campus programs.

"As I envisage it in the future, Linden Center is not just my accomplishment alone, but also a treasure of the Bai people in Xizhou, China, and the entire world," Linden said.

To blend into the contour of the surrounding mountains, the Lindens' new hotel in Shaxi is built with rammed earth, a traditional building material used in local Bai-style houses in the nearby Shilong village.

Designed by returning UC Berkeley graduate student, Mou Yujiang, who is also the CEO of Linden Center, the project received the American Architecture Award in 2018.

"The Shaxi hotel serves as a cultural exchange platform through which we can promote culture and tradition," said Yang Lyu, a local resident from the Bai ethnic group who works at the new hotel. He always brings guests to Shilong Village to experience folk songs and dances, as well as the local wood carving.

Reflecting on the past decade, Linden said he sees optimism and hope whenever he talks with his neighbors because everyone is seeing more opportunities.

"When you see small villages are now connected to the rest of China by high-speed railways and new highways, how can you not be optimistic?" Linden said. 


Brian Linden makes a point to a work of local artists in Shilong Village of Shaxi Town, southwest China's Yunnan Province, Aug. 30, 2022. (Xinhua/Cao Mengyao)


Undated file photo shows Brian Linden's family in Dali, southwest China's Yunnan Province. (Xinhua)


Aerial photo taken on Aug. 27, 2022 shows a view of Xizhou old town in southwest China's Yunnan Province. (Xinhua/Cao Mengyao)


Brian Linden greets a child in Xizhou old town of southwest China's Yunnan Province, Aug. 28, 2022. (Xinhua/Cao Mengyao)


In this combo photo, Brian Linden watches a birthday blessing video shot by his team members (top), and Brian Linden's wife Jeanee and his team prepare to celebrate his birthday, in the Linden Center in Xizhou old town, southwest China's Yunnan Province, Aug. 28, 2022. (Xinhua/Cao Mengyao)


Brian Linden introduces local culture to tourists in the Linden Center in Xizhou old town, southwest China's Yunnan Province, Aug. 27, 2022. (Xinhua/Cao Mengyao)


Brian Linden poses for a photo with a tourist in Xizhou old town of southwest China's Yunnan Province, Aug. 28, 2022. (Xinhua/Cao Mengyao)


Brian Linden and his wife Jeanee talk in the Linden Center in Shaxi Town, southwest China's Yunnan Province, Aug. 31, 2022. (Xinhua/Cao Mengyao)


Combo photo shows aerial view of the Linden Center in Shilong Village of Shaxi Town (top), and bird's view of Shilong Village, in southwest China's Yunnan Province on Aug. 31, 2022. (Xinhua/Cao Mengyao)


Brian Linden looks on as his wife Jeanee indicates on the design of a rural library in Shilong Village of Shaxi Town, southwest China's Yunnan Province, Aug. 31, 2022. (Xinhua/Cao Mengyao)


Jeanee (R), wife of Brian Linden, learns Bai ethnic language from a local dancer in the Linden Center in Shaxi Town, southwest China's Yunnan Province, Aug. 31, 2022.(Xinhua/Cao Mengyao)

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