Friday Song: Li Jian’s deep, sensitive folk-pop, ‘On the Shores of Lake Baikal’

2 weeks ago
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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

在我的怀里 在你的眼里
Zài wǒ de huái lǐ zài nǐ de yǎn lǐ

In my arms, in your eyes

那里春风沉醉 那里绿草如茵
Nà lǐ chūn fēng chén zuì nà lǐ lǜ cǎo rú yīn

There’s the intoxicating spring breeze, there’s the green grass

月光把爱恋 洒满了湖面
Yuè guāng bǎ ài liàn sǎ mǎn le hú miàn

Moonlight spills our love over the surface of the lake

两个人的篝火 照亮整个夜晚
Liǎng gè rén de gōu huǒ zhào liàng zhěng gè yè wǎn

And our campfire illuminates the whole night

多少年以后 如云般游走
Duō shào nián yǐ hòu rú yún bān yóu zǒu

So many years later, we’ve roamed as the clouds do

那变换的脚步 让我们难牵手
Nà biàn huàn de jiǎo bù ràng wǒ mén nán qiān shǒu

Such wandering made it difficult for us to hold hands

这一生一世 有多少你我
Zhè yī shēng yīshì yǒu duō shǎo nǐ wǒ

In this lifetime, how much of you and I

被吞没在月光如水的夜里
Bèi tūn mò zài yuè guāng rú shuǐ de yè lǐ

Was drowned in the water-like moonlit night?

多想某一天 往日又重现
Duō xiǎng mǒu yī tiān wǎng rì yòu chóng xiàn

How I long for the return of those days

我们流连忘返 在贝加尔湖畔
Wǒ mén liú lián wàng fǎn zài bèi jiā’ěr hú pàn

When we lingered on the shores of Lake Baikal

多少年以后 往事随云走
Duō shào nián yǐ hòu wǎng shì suí yún zǒu

So many years later, the past scatters as the clouds do

那纷飞的冰雪容不下那温柔
Nà fēn fēi de bīng xuě róng bù xià nà wēn róu

And the fluttering snow leaves no room for tenderness

这一生一世 这时间太少
Zhè yī shēng yī shì zhè shí jiān tài shǎo

In this lifetime, there was too little time

不够证明融化冰雪的深情
Bù gòu zhèng míng róng huà bīng xuě de shēn qíng

For us to prove the kind of deep love that melts snow

就在某一天 你忽然出现
Jiù zài mǒu yī tiān nǐ hū rán chū xiàn

One day, you might suddenly appear

你清澈又神秘 在贝加尔湖畔
Nǐ qīng chè yòu shén mì zài bèi jiā’ěr hú pàn

You are clear and mysterious, at Lake Baikal

你清澈又神秘 像贝加尔湖畔
Nǐ qīng chè yòu shén mì xiàng bèi jiā’ěr hú pàn

You are clear and mysterious, like Lake Baikal


Friday Song is SupChina’s weekly sign-off. Let us know what you thought of the week that was in the comments below, or email [email protected]

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