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April 25, 2010

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Escaping to find China's old culture

A new cultural retreat established in Yunnan Province offers a respite from the incessant pace of life in China. It's been set up by old China hand Brian Linden to help people rediscover the country's incredible old culture, Nancy Zhang reports.

Deep in the mountainous landscapes of Yunnan Province, where traces of traditional rural China still abound, one American family has become an unlikely addition to a small village named Xizhou.

Situated 20 kilometers north of Dali, the Bai ethnic village is now home to the Linden Center - a sprawling, historic building resurrected in late 2008 as a modern intellectual and cultural retreat.

Modeled on the Aspen Institute, the center has attracted waves of curious foreign visitors and even more curious Chinese media crews.

The project is the brainchild of Brian Linden, East Asian art dealer and old China hand. But he is adamant that he doesn't intend to change this quiet, little-disturbed part of the earth.

In fact the Linden Center is supposed to reverse the trend of aggressive tourism development across China - a trend that has degraded sites like Lijiang, also in Yunnan.

"It's a platform for people to interact who are passionate about Chinese culture," said Linden.

"The experience here is totally different from what the guests expect. Many are foreigners jaded with the expat experience.

"I've been travelling to China since the 1980s and, in many ways, I was over the China experience too. But being in this incredible old culture has allowed me to rediscover China."

Over half of the center is allocated to common space where guests interact, have courses in calligraphy, art or meditate. There are also small, culturally sensitive excursions to surrounding villages to meet the Bai locals, and experience their culture.

Linden is particularly pleased by the increasing number of Chinese visitors to the center who seem undeterred by the lack of TVs in each room. But they tend toward the very high end, educated demographic - rooms cost US$100 a night.

The vast majority of Chinese travel still involves bus loads of tourists shunted in and out of designated scenic spots so the Linden Center's sophisticated travel concept is still a long way off from mass acceptance.

However the passion of this foreigner for preserving and promoting Chinese culture has attracted a deluge of awards and media attention and it was almost impossible to pin him down.

CCTV was at the center filming a second documentary on the project, and for weeks we corresponded by email as Linden travelled the country receiving awards, meeting local officials and media.

There are two aspects to the story that capture the imagination.

Firstly it involves the center building - a nationally listed, Class A relic of a traditional Bai courtyard house. It took 18 months to get permission from local governments to renovate it. Armed only with their idealism and "perfect timing," the Lindens faced down the endless rows of government bureaus, explaining their visions of a new kind of tourism.

After getting access to the building, there was the daunting task of renovation.

For example, the building's original wood and stone walls could not be tampered with, so the Lindens built an Olympic-sized, pressurized swimming pool beneath the compound and ran piping underground.

Secondly, the Lindens have staked their family fortunes on the venture, boldly selling their house in America to invest in the renovations.

This has turned out to be a sum much larger than they expected due to copious red tape.

The family has also moved to live, permanently, in a remote Chinese village. Their children, two teenage boys, are now being home schooled and sent to America five months a year for more contact with peers of their own age.

But Brian Linden is driven by adventure. He first came to China in the early 1980s, studying in Nanjing and working as a cameraman and translator for CBS. He returned in the 1990s to travel extensively across the country.

"I love to be challenged intellectually, to experience hardship. I don't want to be in a place like Shanghai, where I can walk across to the Shanghai center and buy Western comforts," Linden says of his travels in China.

He is also proud of his humble beginnings, putting himself through school and college by painting houses. "My parents never travelled. I've been to 80 countries," he said.

But China is special because it was where he got his first big break - a scholarship to study at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center.

"China has saved me, so I want to return the favor, introduce parts not so evident anymore to Westerners."

Linden was 40 when he decided to risk everything to set up the center. At the time, he was working comfortably in international education investment, and running an art and antiques gallery with his wife Jeanee. For the gallery business, he travelled to remotest China looking for special items.

Many of his clients were rich retired professionals who wanted to come with him. The center grew in part from an idea to have a base from which to run these antique hunting expeditions.

Today art and antique buying trips into surrounding villages are still a large part of the center's appeal. When we finally caught up for the interview, Linden was leading a group of guests on an antique hunt in Dali.

With the sound of bartering and broken laughter in the background, he picked up a 1930s' chair for just 200 yuan (US$29.29).

According to Linden, Yunnan is still one of the few places in China where you can find real antiques.

Next step for the center is a museum to store local antique pieces. Also as sustainable tourism gets more attention, officials of neighboring villages and towns have approached the Lindens to do similar renovations.

"The local governments really admired our passion, that's how we got the building. It would not have been open to just any business," said Linden.

"Respect can be translated to equity."


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