China October 2009

Village Dreamers

In Yunnan province, two Americans struggle to save an ancient town from kitsch.

In a lushly beautiful corner of China, an experiment is under way to determine how lush and beautiful the country can remain—or become—as its economy continues to grow. The test is occurring in Yunnan province, the hilly and subtropical area just north of Burma, Laos, and Vietnam, and it has brought together an improbable combination of American and Chinese personalities, institutions, and historical connections.

The main American player is Brian Linden, 47 years old, who came to China in 1984 and has been here most of the time since. Linden is well over six feet tall, with expressive, theatrical features that once were familiar to hundreds of millions of people. Soon after his arrival, he was spotted by a movie director while jogging down a Beijing street and cast as the lead in a Chinese movie. The film, He Came From Across the Pacific, was based on the tragic story of John Zeidman, an American exchange student who caught viral encephalitis in China and died in 1982. In one emotional scene, Linden, who has learned that he is dying, leans over and kisses his female Chinese friend—chastely, on the forehead. Or so I was told by Linden this spring, as he melodramatically reenacted the scene with his wife, Jeanee.

SLIDESHOW: James Fallows shares his photos of the Lindens and their Yunnan village

In the early 1980s, Linden worked in China as a cameraman and translator for CBS. After graduate study at Stanford, he returned in the 1990s and traveled constantly across China, spending at least 200 nights aboard Chinese trains. While studying at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, he met and eventually married Jeanee Quan, whose grandparents were from southern China but who had grown up in San Francisco, speaking English but not Chinese. In fairness and because it’s relevant to the Lindens’ bearing as public figures in China, I should point out that she too is tall by China’s standards, and pretty by anyone’s.

Linden’s parents had run an antique shop in Chicago, and through the 1990s Brian and Jeanee built an Asian-arts-and-antiques business. They spent much of each year traveling to Asian villages to buy paintings, furniture, and objets, which they then sold in the summertime at a gallery in the upscale resort community of Door County, Wisconsin. All the while, Linden says, they were looking for something more—a place where they could build a cultural center that would preserve and honor Chinese arts and handicrafts and, they hoped, provide a haven for creative artists from around the world.

Throughout my time in China, I was attracted to dreamers—to people, Chinese and foreign, with big plans for what they’d like to achieve in the country. This is no doubt what drew me to the Lindens when I met them in Beijing last year and what led our families to become friends. After they had spent years considering locations, including three years in which they home-schooled their two young sons in hotel rooms, they found what they were looking for. (The two boys, now ages 13 and 10, are still being home-schooled.) They sold their house in America and put the proceeds into a derelict four-courtyard compound in the Yunnan village of Xizhou.

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his site is at More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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