From foreigner to native: Brian Linden’s Chinese Dream

Brian Linden, founder of the Xilinyuan Guesthouse in Xizhou of Dali, Yunnan Province, is an alumnus of Class 1987 from Johns Hopkins University - Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies.

He first came to China 39 years ago and has since developed a bond with this nation. In the year 2022, he published his memoir, Redefining Diplomacy: One Village at a Time. In it, he eloquently described how China has transformed his life over the past three decades.

Why China? This question has been asked both by myself and by those around me. However, to a young man who wanted to change his life, a better question should be: Why not China? When I nervously submitted my application to study in China, I thought this country would by no means be interested in a night school student and carpet cleaner who needed financial aid. However, I was accepted, and they told me: “Your application moved everyone in the embassy. We’d like to give you an opportunity, a new start.”

——Chapter 1 “Seed”, One Village at a Time

Linden’s connection with China began in the 1980s when he arrived in Beijing to study at the age of 22. He was immediately immersed in an unfamiliar land. By chance, he was invited to star in a Chinese film, an opportunity he embraced at once. Later, he went on to become a reporter for an American media outlet in China and eventually decided to pursue graduate studies in the country.

In 1987, he came to the JHU-NJU Center for Chinese and American Studies, where he systematically studied courses in Chinese politics, economics, law and culture. It was around that time that he met his wife, a girl from San Francisco with Chinese ancestry who was also studying at NJU.

The Lindens in Xizhou

Regarding the concept of home, Su Dongpo, a literary figure in the Northern Song Dynasty, once made the most apt description in a poem: "Wherever my heart feels at peace is my hometown."

In the most legendary cultural region in the world, I lifted the veil of cultural inspiration and interpretation. Ever since my arriving here, my soul has never left this place, where my heart feels at peace. I can foresee that my soul will stray along the narrow paths of Xizhou forever. My home is here, and so is my soul.

——Brian Linden

In 2004, Linden decided to give up his job, sell his house and return to China with his family to “find a place to create a new way of life.” He said, “I have been to more than 100 countries, but, in my heart, my home is in China.”

By now, Linden has settled in Xizhou for 18 years, founded Xilingyuan Guesthouse and has become an ambassador for the town. “Our values are clear, and what I want is to make each hotel integrate into the local village and be beneficial to the villagers,” Linden said. “Many people believe that we are building Xilinyuan as a guesthouse, but that’s not all about it. We are also building it as an attempt to boost the development of the village.”

Linden is a social entrepreneur who has played an important role in promoting mutual understanding between American, Chinese, and global cultures. He has made 50% Xilinyuan’s space open to the public, creating a place for more people to communicate with the villagers, creating a room for the interaction of cultures. His guesthouse offers free English classes on a weekly basis for villagers and residents. Professional experts from different fields who have stayed in Xilinyuan are often invited back to give lectures or share experiences with the locals. “It’s not just that we get something from this village, and not just that we give something to the village, guests who come to Xilinyuan will also give something to us.”

First session of the English club in Xizhou, 2009

Xizhou today has a quiet flow of history and a vibrant flow of tourists, and villagers benefit a lot from tourism. Xizhou has always been a very wealthy small village with hundreds of old buildings from Ming and Qing dynasties, which is the pride of the people here and a resource of the village.

“I strongly agree with Liang Sicheng in that we should restore a broken old object to an old one. By old resources, I’m not just referring to the buildings, but also the culture and values around them, which are very meaningful." Linden admits that he is a foreigner who fell in love with Chinese culture and would very much love to be its promoter.

“The story of Xilingyuan is, in fact, the story of me. I would not have been the person I am today without the whole lot of things China has offered me. Some people are living with the American dream, but my story is the‘Chinese dream’!” In 2017, Linden was awarded by the Yunnan Provincial People’s Government the Caiyun Award for Foreign Experts, an honor in recognition of their efforts.

In September 2021, Xilingyuan was awarded the Community and Culture Award and the China Social Impact Awards by the British Chamber of Commerce in China and the United Nations.

Translator: Xie Jiahang

Editors: Chen Xing, He Yao