Ask anyone who knows about Li Jian 李健 and, at some point, they’ll most likely remind you that not only is he low-key — not even on WeChat — but he attended Tsinghua University, “China’s MIT,” as an electrical engineering major.
The 44-year old Harbin-born singer-songwriter started out as half of the duo “Shui Mu Nian Hua” with a fellow Tsinghua classmate, but went solo in 2002. His career took off — and he rocketed to fame — when pop idol Faye Wong (王菲 Wáng Fēi) sang his song “Legend” (传奇 Chuánqí) at the 2010 CCTV Spring Festival Gala.
With Tsinghua (and its counterpart Peking University) revered as it is in China, it should come as no surprise that Li Jian’s expressive and poetic music is often linked to the image of him as an intellectual (or, perhaps most accurately, attributed to his disposition — 气质 qìzhí).
For example, when Li became a coach in Season 3 of Sing! China (中国好声音 zhōngguó hǎo shēngyīn, China’s version of The Voice) in 2018, his mannerisms were quickly contrasted with those of the other three coaches. In a filler for the show, Taiwanese pop/hip-hop artist Harlem Yu, wearing one of his signature studded leather jackets and his hair gelled in short spikes, yells into the microphone, and is contrasted with the blazer-and-collared-shirt-clad Li Jian, who reads to pass the time. Mandopop prince Jay Chou, another coach, joked frequently about not being able to understand Li’s cultural references and idioms.
“On the Shores of Lake Baikal” (贝加尔湖畔 bèijiā’ěr húpàn) is one of Li’s most famous and popular titles, from his 2011 album Still. The song is more “Western” than most of his other works, including a French accordion, but the result is startlingly universal. With European instrumentals, Chinese lyrics, and content that’s geographically Russian in nature, the song could have ended up hodgepodge, but with Li’s simple, earthy, and uncontrived tenor, the result is haunting.
On the Shores of Lake Baikal
Zài wǒ de huái lǐ zài nǐ de yǎn lǐ
In my arms, in your eyes
Nà lǐ chūn fēng chén zuì nà lǐ lǜ cǎo rú yīn
There’s the intoxicating spring breeze, there’s the green grass
Yuè guāng bǎ ài liàn sǎ mǎn le hú miàn
Moonlight spills our love over the surface of the lake
Liǎng gè rén de gōu huǒ zhào liàng zhěng gè yè wǎn
And our campfire illuminates the whole night
Duō shào nián yǐ hòu rú yún bān yóu zǒu
So many years later, we’ve roamed as the clouds do
Nà biàn huàn de jiǎo bù ràng wǒ mén nán qiān shǒu
Such wandering made it difficult for us to hold hands
Zhè yī shēng yīshì yǒu duō shǎo nǐ wǒ
In this lifetime, how much of you and I
Bèi tūn mò zài yuè guāng rú shuǐ de yè lǐ
Was drowned in the water-like moonlit night?
Duō xiǎng mǒu yī tiān wǎng rì yòu chóng xiàn
How I long for the return of those days
Wǒ mén liú lián wàng fǎn zài bèi jiā’ěr hú pàn
When we lingered on the shores of Lake Baikal
Duō shào nián yǐ hòu wǎng shì suí yún zǒu
So many years later, the past scatters as the clouds do
Nà fēn fēi de bīng xuě róng bù xià nà wēn róu
And the fluttering snow leaves no room for tenderness
Zhè yī shēng yī shì zhè shí jiān tài shǎo
In this lifetime, there was too little time
Bù gòu zhèng míng róng huà bīng xuě de shēn qíng
For us to prove the kind of deep love that melts snow
Jiù zài mǒu yī tiān nǐ hū rán chū xiàn
One day, you might suddenly appear
Nǐ qīng chè yòu shén mì zài bèi jiā’ěr hú pàn
You are clear and mysterious, at Lake Baikal
Nǐ qīng chè yòu shén mì xiàng bèi jiā’ěr hú pàn
You are clear and mysterious, like Lake Baikal