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    Zen of One: A Canadian’s Lone Pursuit of Ancient Chinese Aesthetic

    Brandon Collins-Green has eked out a simple life since moving to eastern China, where he has created 4,200 original paintings inspired by “Dream of the Red Chamber” and other classic works.

    Brandon Collins-Green, who goes by the Chinese name Lin Buran, lives alone in a basic, 9-square-meter room in downtown Nanchang, in the eastern Jiangxi province. He pays 350 yuan ($50) a month in rent, eats just one meal a day, uses a simple secondhand phone, and travels mostly on foot or by slow train.

    The 40-year-old Canadian describes his situation as pinkunhu, literally “an impoverished household,” a term commonly used for a Chinese family living in financial hardship.

    He never locks his front door. “The only thing worth any money in my home are my paintings,” he says. “Even if they were stolen, I’d be very happy, because that theft would represent a kind of appreciation for them.”

    After studying for a bachelor’s degree in accounting for three years — only to discover “that the entire subject of economics is a lie” — Collins-Green moved to Nanchang in 2018 to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees in ancient Chinese literature at Jiangxi Normal University’s School of Chinese Language and Literature. Since then, he’s created more than 4,200 artworks to express his feelings on the 18th-century classic “Dream of the Red Chamber” as well as ancient Chinese poetry. He can often be found painting through the night.

    In March, lifestyle video channel Yit met with him at his home to discuss his art, lifestyle, and love for ancient Chinese literature. These are his words:

    My hometown is in a mountain forest in Ontario, Canada. There are only a few households nearby. I moved to Nanchang in 2018 to start my master’s degree and research into ancient Chinese literature.

    For my undergraduate degree, I studied accounting at the business school of the University of Toronto. The tuition fee was very high, and I hoped to find a good job after graduation. After studying for three years, I discovered that the entire subject of economics is a lie, so I didn’t finish my bachelor’s degree and instead went abroad for academic exchange and travel, including to Singapore, Taipei, and Jiamusi in the northeastern Heilongjiang province. I finally settled in Nanchang.

    I now live in a 9-square-meter room above a record store, which costs 350 yuan a month. The price has not changed in seven years. The cement walls are too thin, so the room is hotter than the outside in summers, and turning on the air conditioner is no use. In winter, the room is colder than outside. I recently bought a secondhand water heater and finally got hot water. Although the house is dilapidated, it has a certain aesthetic. I don’t think it’s ugly.

    I don’t live a very healthy lifestyle. I get up at noon every day, sometimes as late as 2 or 3 p.m., then go downstairs to eat my only meal of the day, usually dumplings or steamed buns with chili sauce, a typical dish in Jiangxi. Then I walk to my friend’s shop to buy coffee. Evenings are the most active time of the day for me, when I read books or paint standing up. When inspiration strikes, I paint until 3 or 4 a.m.

    I’ve never studied art, nor do I consider myself a painter. I don’t have many painting materials — just a bottle of black ink, a brush, and I only buy 10 sheets of yellow fine writing paper at a time, which are cut into appropriate sizes without any wastage. Whatever is available is used as the background paper for mounting the painting, such as paper from certificates, cigarette boxes, and flyers. Completed paintings are stacked next to my bed.

    When I go out, I never lock the door. The only thing worth any money in my home are my paintings. Even if they were stolen, I’d be very happy because the theft would represent a kind of appreciation for them.

    I really like the ancient Chinese literati, especially Nalan Xingde, Cao Xueqin, Li Shangyin, and Li Qingzhao. Their writing is very beautiful. I do not read much modern literature because the language used is too standardized.

    In 2008, when I was studying Chinese in Taipei, I read “Dream of the Red Chamber” and discovered for the first time that a novel could be so all-encompassing. The book has many different storylines offering different perspectives, but they all come together in harmony. To read and fully understand “Dream of the Red Chamber,” I decided to master Chinese.

    So far, I have read “Dream of the Red Chamber” three times. When I first read it, I could not understand most of the poems, so I listened to the Taiwan art historian Chiang Hsun’s lectures on the novel at night and read the original text during the day. I would then discover new things each time I read in a never-ending process.

    My doctoral dissertation was also about “Dream of the Red Chamber.” During my studies, I translated most of the poems, songs, riddles, and dialogue into English, wrote more than a million words in essays, and produced over 2,000 paintings.

    Modern technology has made aesthetics around the world very similar. For example, in around 2000, there were many strange cell phones, but now they have all been made the same. Cars used to have a lot of variety, but now they all look the same to me. The paintings I see online are all basically copies of other works.

    The first time I saw (the Ming dynasty artist) Bada Shanren’s authentic works at his memorial hall, I felt they were very different. His works have a strong sense of time and texture. When I returned home that night, I suddenly really wanted to paint, so I used a fountain pen to create my first painting. Since then, I have created more than 4,200 paintings.

    I paint whatever I am studying. Almost all my paintings start with writing, usually the English translations of Chinese poems, my own poems, collage poems, essays, study notes, etc. Only after finishing writing do I start to match it with an illustration. The aim is to enrich my writing. This is inspired by medieval manuscripts and traditional Chinese paintings, both of which combine handwriting and painting.

    Lin Daiyu from “Dream of the Red Chamber” is my favorite literary character. I think she has really romantic pursuits, and she compromises on nothing. For example, at the end, when she is about to die, she burns all her poetry manuscripts. Although the way she lives her life is not very realistic, it is exciting.

    I really like Li Bai’s wild verses. I translated his poem “Frontier Song” and paired it with a painting of a horse because the first verse implies a horse flying in the wind. I have also read many poems written by monks from different dynasties. Han Shan, who does not seem well known in China, is famous in Japan. His poems are straightforward and easy to understand, with few allusions. I have translated more than 300 of his poems. But his poetry has many admonitions, such as telling people not to eat meat, so gradually I’ve come to dislike his poetry.

    I’ve always followed my interests, only painting when I’ve felt like it and never forcing myself. Some people say my written Chinese is ugly, but I have never considered practicing calligraphy because I am not interested in writing characters well.

    The biggest impact that “Dream of the Red Chamber” has had on me has been on my worldview. I used to be more optimistic, thinking that life would get better and better. Now I’m a bit similar to the character of Zhen Shiyin following his epiphany: A bit disillusioned with everything in the world and more negative. Although many would consider the sales of my paintings in recent years quite successful, I feel that everything could be destroyed at any moment. Precisely because of this, however, I don’t value material possessions so much now, and my material desires are quite weak.

    My cell phone is an old, secondhand handset made in 2005 that cost me 80 yuan. I don’t use social media. People contact me usually by calling directly, via text message, or by email. I have two or three friends I regularly meet in Nanchang. If I want to chat, I will go directly to them. I don’t particularly like the feeling of being online all the time, as it disturbs me when there is too much information coming in from the outside world. I do not use mobile payments, only cash. There are convenience stores everywhere to get small change whenever I don’t have it, so it’s still convenient.

    All my clothes are military surplus because they are cheap and durable. I do not want to have unnecessary clothes — I only own three pairs of leather shoes, three pairs of long pants, two pairs of shorts, three shirts, and a coat, all of which have been mended countless times. When my glasses broke, I sent them to a friend who repairs porcelain to fix them for me.

    All my income comes from selling paintings, which is extremely unstable. Most of the paintings I stored up before have been sold. In three years, without the help of an agent and relying entirely on myself, I have sold all 4,200 original works. I think I’m the first person to have done so. Sales in the past two years have not gone that well, though. In 2023, my savings were cut by half, and I had no income at all in the first three months of this year.

    In the first four years after I started painting, I didn’t sell a single painting; I mostly gave them away. But later, I found that some recipients didn’t actually like the paintings and may have even thrown them away, so I decided to sell my works at the lowest price. Both original paintings and artwork albums are priced at 200 yuan each, which only covers the time put into them. From a financial point of view, this money is far less than what I could make being an English teacher at an international school, but being a teacher is what I least want to do.

    I’m not actually that anxious about money. I can live a day at a time. I have already thought of a backup plan for myself: When all my money is spent, I will return to Canada and work with my father, who is an electrician, recycling electrical wires. I will slowly save up money and then return to China to continue doing what I like.

    Someone once told me bluntly that anyone can paint what I paint and that people won’t appreciate my art. Half the time, I think that what I do is interesting; the other half of the time, I think all my paintings are rubbish. My room used to be covered in my paintings, from wall to ceiling, but one day I didn’t want to see them anymore, so I covered them all with paper.

    My hobbies used to be very broad, but as I have grown older, they have become narrower. Now there is not a single day when I’m not doing something related to painting. Yet there is this feeling of being a bit trapped. My painting output has also been decreasing. In the beginning, I could paint six or seven in one night. Now, on average, I only paint one or two a day, and I rarely enter into a state of immersion anymore.

    I often set up stalls at various exhibitions across the country. I really like this activity because it allows me to feel like my artworks and I are a single entity. If the paintings sell well, it’s uplifting for me, and I will be motivated to create more pieces. I have also thought about selling my paintings online or in galleries, but my paintings and I would then be separated.

    Although I do like working in isolation behind closed doors, I prefer the sense of contrast that comes with the continuous to-and-fro between the quiet places and the bustling places where I share my artworks.

    A version of this article originally appeared in Yit (Yi Tiao). It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: Vincent Chow; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: Visuals from Yit, reedited by Sixth Tone)