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A duty to share

Updated: 2024-01-24 06:12 ( China Daily )
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Center: Brian Linden (left top) in Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, with his wife, Jeanee, and two sons in 2006. Counterclockwise from top left: Linden at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing in 1985. Linden (left bottom) took a selfie with the Bai people at a local wedding in Dali, Yunnan, in 2022. Linden with local kids in Yan'an, Shaanxi, in 1987. Linden (front) in a rice field in Xizhou, Yunnan, with the Bai people and foreign guests of Xilinyuan. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Through his educational cultural heritage centers dotted across the nation, longtime China hand Brian Linden is dedicating his life to sharing authentic China with visitors at home and abroad.

During the past four decades, I've traveled to 100 countries. Wherever I went, I attempted to share stories of China with people from around the world. But too often, their excitement focused on my being from Chicago, and the typical reaction would be: "Chicago, wow! Michael Jordan! Chicago Bulls!"

Then I would respond by asking them what they knew about China — had they heard of Mencius, Wang Yangming, Lu Xun, and Liang Sicheng? But they would ignore that and say: "Scottie Pippen! Dennis Rodman!"-both were players with the Chicago Bulls back then.

I quickly learned that many of my international friends and colleagues knew more about the Bulls than about China, which, to me, is an incredible country.

China has been my home off and on since 1984. I benefited from China's largesse when I received a scholarship to study in Beijing in the autumn of that year. I was one of the students with the most modest financial background and was given the scholarship because of this fact.

When I first got here, Chinese people embraced me like family, showing me great patience while I, as a foreigner with no Chinese language background, struggled to express myself. No matter how basic and incorrect my language skills were, there was always encouragement.

Chinese people always expressed curiosity about my international background, asking questions about cultural differences between China and the US and showing respect for traditions not their own. There was never a feeling of intolerance and chauvinism on their part while discussing the outside world.

They were also proud to share with me their rich history. For example, every visit to places like the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and the Great Wall would include numerous strangers approaching me to help me more deeply understand the historical importance of what I was observing. They seriously wanted me to appreciate China's history and traditions. Their passion encouraged me to learn more about this country. That journey has never stopped, even to this day.

The world's lack of understanding of China is not anyone's fault. News about China is available in these places but only represents a small part of its real story. Stories about the West, too, are available in China, and they, too, represent a small part of the realities of those countries. This is why I think people-to-people diplomacy is important.

While the concept of "diplomacy "is often viewed as the sole purview of governments-discreet interactions at official levels by which many people separate the world into friends and adversaries-I believe people-to-people diplomacy must complement official talks and build the foundation of trust between nations.

This realization set my family and me off on a mission to create a platform for cultural exchange, an effort to add nuance and depth to the world's limited understanding of this country. In 2004, we sold our home in the US, gave up our jobs, and brought our two sons, ages 5 and 8 at the time, to China.

After 20 months spent in over 15 provinces and homeschooling our two boys in rural guesthouses, we settled on an old courtyard in the small village of Xizhou, Dali Bai autonomous prefecture in Southwest China's Yunnan province.

When we arrived in Xizhou in 2007, the village took us under its wing. Many locals invited us to their homes for dinner. After only a few months, we were gaining weight! Our boys also became friends with local children and we started an English corner held every weekend.

We decided to repurpose our courtyard complex into the Linden Center, or Xilinyuan in Chinese-a name that combines the Xi of Xizhou and Lin of Linden-which is more than a hotel, but also a hospitality and education retreat, a base for storytelling with the outside world.

Every day, we host an average of 100-200 visitors during the off-season and 500 during the summer and holidays, and 40 percent of our guests come from abroad. Our guests-both foreign and domestic — regularly participate in local weddings, housewarming parties, and, if appropriate, funerals. They also learn about China and Yunnan through our two free tours: a morning market tour of Xizhou, where guests are taken into our neighbors' homes, learning their crafts, such as rice noodle making, tie-dye, and woodblock printing, and an afternoon tour of the Yang Pinxiang complex, which focuses on the architectural traditions of the Bai ethnic group.

We have also reserved nearly half of our buildings for public use. Local children and adults can use our libraries and fitness center, and 90 percent of staff are local hires. We have developed our own lecture series, artist-in-residence programs, and education courses, which are all open to the local residents.

About 10 years ago, the Xizhou people started to call me "cunzhang", meaning the head of the village. This reflected their appreciation for our efforts to highlight their traditions. I am still called by this title every day in the village.

Now Xilinyuan has branches in multiple locations in China, including Shaxi and Shangrila, both in Yunnan, and Suzhou in East China's Jiangsu province.

My mission is to help the world better appreciate and respect the Chinese people and culture through rural development and heritage preservation projects, using these experiences to share the true stories of economic change and cultural continuity that make this country so dynamic and inclusive.

About 2,500 years ago, Confucius expressed what is now the DNA of China's interaction with the world: "What a joy to have friends coming from afar!"

Those wise words form the foundation of China's soft power and hold true for every visitor to this country. We, who experience this hospitality every day, must share these stories with everyone that we interact with, both within and outside of China.

Written by Brian Linden, 61, born and raised in Chicago, US. He arrived in Beijing in 1984 and has spent over 25 of the last 40 years in China. In 2004, he and his wife, Jeanee, turned a historical site in Yunnan into a hotel and education center. The Lindens now have 10 bases around the country.

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