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.

Xizhou (the name means “happy town”) is a sleepy-looking place with an impressive history, on the shores of Erhai Lake, 12 miles north of the larger and better-known city of Dali. To get there, you either fly nonstop from Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong to Lijiang and then drive two or three hours, or you fly to Kunming, stay overnight, and fly to Dali the next day (the flights are morning-only, so you can’t make the trip in one day). There are normal Chinese hotels in the vicinity, but most Westerners will prefer the Linden Centre, at about $100 a night.

Through the long era of trade in tea and horses between this part of China and Tibet and Burma, Xizhou was an enclave for prosperous merchants, officials, and scholars. The people of the region are mainly from the Bai ethnic group; Bai cities have a distinct architectural style, with sharply arched roofs and richly decorated tile work and wall paintings. During World War II, the Yale-in-China campus ended up in Xizhou, for safety from the oncoming Japanese. When Flying Tigers aviators flew supplies from Burma to Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists in Chungking (now Chongqing), American radio and radar operators in Xizhou were one of their first points of contact after they made it over the Himalayan hump.

The crumbly radar complex is still there—the Lindens hope to make it a museum—and so are Yale’s old Bai-style buildings. All around those structures and the courtyard compound the Lindens have bought is an expanse of paddy land that stretches to Erhai Lake on one side and to the Himalayan foothills on the other. In arid northern and western China, to depend on the land for sustenance is to be poor. In Xizhou the soil is so rich, the rain so steady, and the climate so mild that the valley has a sense of rural abundance like that of the American Midwest. In poor farm villages of the drylands, children wear rubber flip-flops or often-repaired hand-me-down shoes. The shoes we saw on children’s feet in Xizhou looked stylish and new.

In Xizhou, the Lindens worked with party officials to secure something rarely accorded foreigners: the right to use a “Class A” historical relic and restore it—its tiling, wooden arches and fretwork, painted murals. The buildings survived the 1960s because a People’s Liberation Army detachment had encamped there, keeping out the Red Guards. The Lindens have invested their savings in the faith that the rest of the town will be restored in similar taste—as local officials assure them—making the Linden Centre and Xizhou an internationally appealing cultural destination.

This is a big assumption in today’s China, where the population is rich enough to travel domestically in huge numbers but where the aesthetic of travel is unrefined by Western standards. People travel in big groups, on big buses, behind guides with flags, to a prescribed list of “famous” sites. Across China, “ancient” villages are being redeveloped in a kitschy, gift-shop-heavy way epitomized by Lijiang, 100 miles north of Xizhou, a favorite stop of many Chinese tour groups and a disappointment to most Westerners. On my first visit to Xizhou, Brian Linden assured me that the local officials had all “learned from Lijiang” and were planning to do something “really authentic and classy.” On my second visit, I wandered into a real-estate showroom complete with models of a new housing estate to be built in “Ancient Xizhou.” I hope the Lindens have bet right.

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