No alarm clocks. Yu Shui Jun wakes up most days in his mountain forest home. If not sunshine, then rain beckons him from bed. After getting up, he goes to feed the chickens and water the flowers. Then he’ll stroll over to the coop and pick up some freshly laid eggs. On the way back to his kitchen, he picks a few handfuls of greens and a couple of peppers. Soon, breakfast is served.
It sounds like the life of a retiree, but Yu Shui was born in the 1990s and is a recent graduate of the China Academy of Fine Arts. And before you think of him as some mountain hermit, consider that Yu Shui is a successful painter, designer, and gourmet expert who popularizes his lifestyle online, calling it the “Plant and Tree Life.”
Born Li Yu, this rising star chose to alter his public name. Yu means “jade” in Chinese, and it also means “a meeting.” Shui means “to preserve with non-violence,” and it also means “water.” He says, “I think Yu Shui, ‘to meet water,’ is very gentle, and it fits well with what I want to do.”
Yu Shui rents a four-story building with a courtyard. He did the renovations himself and is the only resident. It’s his seventh home in eight years and doubles as his studio. The rent for a year is less than one month downtown.
Yu Shui says, “When I first moved into the current studio, it was still rough. The walls and floor were exposed cement, and there were no doors or windows.” When he took on the project, Yu Shui only had 8,000 yuan in his bank account. That didn’t leave much after rent was paid.
But Yu Shui always follows his heart. He believes that renting this location is the genesis of his life’s most important masterpiece. Yu Shui wants to turn the house into a work of art embodying “Plants and Trees.” His parents would probably suggest that he buy the property before settling in to complete his life’s greatest task, but it’s better to be lucky than sensible.
Yu Shui’s furniture was either moved in from his hometown or bought secondhand. His taste for fusion emerges again with the new and the old, the rustic and the fashionable.
A dead tree on the roadside was cut down and dragged home, becoming a part of a dry landscape installation near a window. A few tatami mats and a low table transform the space into a quiet tea room. It’s a lot of trouble to install doors and repair the partition, so Yu Shui divides the space with drapes and bamboo curtains. The added partition is transparent, but also unified with the overall tone and style.
Yu Shui describes the style of the house as “natural.” Of course, the house is abundant with plants, but the discerning eye can see a pattern. Each floor includes three kinds of plants among its varieties: bamboo, jujube and reed. The branches of a jujube tree are loose, the bamboo is hollow inside, and the reed is strong.
In only one month’s time, Yu Shui transformed an unfinished house into his best art school grad project. The first floor is an exhibition hall, the second floor a living room and open kitchen, the third is his studio, and the fourth floor has the master and guest bedrooms. This house has become ground zero for the “Plants and Trees” lifestyle that Yu Shui has become famous for living.
Most people work five days and rest for two, but Yu Shui is living the dream by flipping those numbers. Five days for doing whatever, and two days for making money. On his days off, Sunday to Thursday, Yu Shui paints plants—and then cooks them.
His kitchen has a rose theme. The counter sits in front of a large window with a view to a green yard. As for ingredients, Yu Shui’s favorite plants are a must. He often goes to the local market for seasonal vegetables. Because they’re fresh, the veggies don’t need much seasoning, just oil and salt. The most eye-catching characteristic of Yu Shi’s cooking is his use of herbs and spices. Perhaps a pinch of mint or a handful of rosemary or pea sprouts, all of which can be harvested from his yard moments before cooking.
Solitude builds character, but so can company. Not one to shirk character-building, Yu Shui’s living room is large enough to accommodate 20 people, and is often full of friends. His large meals are legendary. His private kitchen welcomes guests, but as for when to cook, what to prepare, and who to invite, it all depends on destiny and mood. There’s no menu or prices, but appreciative guests will leave money for their host after dinner.
Some of the dishes one might taste at a Yu Shui party are: rose-sauce yam, pork-tongue in cherry-blossom honey-sauce, perilla and lemongrass on boiled snails, campanula-tempeh-scallion bream (fish), rosemary-fried waxy potatoes, and Yu Shui’s favourite, his grandmother’s snowflake balls. Guests often sip homemade fruit wine made with mulberries in spring and bayberry in the summer. The dishes taste different every time, and the wine is even more unpredictable. But as his guests will attest, just as no two leaves are exactly the same, why should cuisine be any different?
“I want to integrate my knowledge of plants into my life. Food, clothing, housing and transportation are all part of my artistic ambition. An artist or designer must find his or her own symbol, and plants and trees are my symbol.” Every Friday and Saturday are working days for Yu Shui. He brings his plants and artwork to market, where he also offers private tutoring and training.
Although the “Plant and Tree Life” doesn’t pay a lot of cash, it’s enough to support his life. “My mom cares more than anyone about my bank account, but money doesn’t come and go with you at birth and death. It’s not the true meaning of life. Life should be simple, real, and happy.”
Yu Shui knows the life his heart desires and understands how to enjoy the process. “Let nature take its course.”