Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan Peng Liyuan is the wife of Xi Jinping, the leader of China since 2012. She is a celebrated folk singer and for many years she was better known than him. Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times: Peng Liyuan, China’s first lady, is glamorous, fashionable and one of her nation’s best-known singers, a startling contrast to her dour-looking predecessors. As she accompanies her husband on his trips abroad she appears ready to carve out a new role for herself. At a time when China’s Foreign Ministry is struggling to improve China’s international image, Ms. Peng, who has dazzled audiences at home and abroad with her bravura soprano voice, comes as a welcome gift. “Because of her performer’s background and presence, I think she will definitely add points for her husband,” said Tian Yimiao, an associate professor at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. “It could make her into a diplomatic idol.” Although Mr. Xi may not like the comparison, some see her as a figure akin to Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who helped humanize the Soviet leader as the Soviet Union fell apart. Mr. Xi has singled out Mr. Gorbachev as a man who let down the cause of Communism. Others see her as roughly equivalent to Michelle Obama: modern, outgoing, intrigued by fashion. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, March 24, 2013]
Hazel Knowles wrote in the Daily Mail: “Peng Liyuan is a national icon in her homeland thanks to a career singing fiercely patriotic anthems celebrating the successes of the ruling Communist Party. With her glossy hair perfectly swept up in a stylish chignon and a meticulously-tailored wardrobe, it is easy to see why China's First Lady has been compared to Jackie Kennedy and Carla Bruni. Political commentators see mainly positives in Peng Liyuan's emergence on the world stage, arguing she presents a more human face of China to a world increasingly nervous of the nation's growing military and economic might.[Source: Hazel Knowles, Daily Mail, October 17 2015]
Like her husband, Peng is steeped in Communist tradition. Christopher Bodeen of Associated Press reported: “While Xi's father was a leading revolutionary and former vice-premier, making his son a member of the "red aristocracy," Peng comes from relatively humble origins and joined the People's Liberation Army when she was 18. While sometimes described as a folk singer, Peng holds the rank of PLA major general and is best known for her stirring renditions of patriotic odes, often while wearing full dress uniform. Although her rank is largely honorary, her military status could lead to awkward questions, said University of Nottingham's Tsang. "Sooner or later, someone is going to ask whether that's completely normal, even if she doesn't have any real military or political ambitions," Tsang said. [Source: Christopher Bodeen, AP, March 24, 2013 ]
According to the New York Times: Peng "gained national fame performing ballads to the Communist Party such as "My Mother Country" and "People from Our Village." Peng has appeared many times on the Spring Festival television special, the most widely viewed television show on earth. She holds the rank of major general in the People’s Liberation Army due to her many years in military entertainment troupe.” In 1989, after the crackdown on student demonstrators, Peng was among the military singers who were sent to Tiananmen Square to serenade the troops. According to The New Yorker: "Images of that scene, along with information about Peng’s private life and her commercial dealings, have been largely expunged from the Web." Gillian Wong of Associated Press wrote: “The country has no recent precedent for the role of first lady and faces a tricky balance at home. The leadership wants Peng to show the human side of the new No. 1 leader, Xi Jinping, while not exposing too many perks of the elite. And it must balance popular support for the first couple with an acute wariness of personality cults that could skew the consensus rule among the Chinese Communist Party's top leaders. [Source: Gillian Wong, Associated Press, March 28, 2013]
Peng Liyuan’s Home Village and Early Life
Peng Liyuan was born on November 20, 1962 in Yuncheng County, Shandong province. During an official visit to the U.S. with her husband in September 2015, she made a speech at the United Nations and referred to her home village as 'a small village in China' and described how her father set up a night school for illiterate villagers. “She said: 'With his (my father's) help, many people learned to write their own names. With his help many people learned to read newspapers for the first time. With his help, many women were able to teach their children how to read. As his daughter I know what education means to the people, especially those without it.' [Source: Hazel Knowles, Daily Mail, October 17 2015]
Hazel Knowles wrote in the Daily Mail: “The village of Peng lies in a far-flung corner of Shandong Province, a rural landscape bordering the Yellow Sea. Rutted dirt tracks wind through fields where farmers and their families still sow and plough by hand, and lead to a collection of brick and concrete buildings which house the village's few hundred residents. Local farmers scrape a living out of corn and wheat crops and the best prospect most young people can hope for is a job in a textile factory in the nearby towns. [Source: Hazel Knowles, Daily Mail, October 17 2015]
“The former family home stands near the crossroads in the village centre. Today, it is a simple, austere looking structure with tall wooden doors. But locals described how it had been extensively rebuilt over the years and previously had a dirt floor and mud walls. Now, it stands bolted and empty, with farmers busily using its front yard to strip and pile thousands of ears of corn harvested from the surrounding fields. Villagers said the house is now only ever used by Peng's half-brother.
Retired farmer Peng Longyou, 68, a distant relative and one of many people who have the family name Peng, said: 'We're so proud of her – the whole country is very proud. “'We don't see her very often these days but we hear about her all the time and she sends money back to the village. She's paid for a primary school and she had a road built in the village. I can't believe how well she's done for herself. I remember her as a skinny, slight girl, but she was always polite and well behaved.' He added: 'She is very busy these days of course and she only comes back once every few years. But when she does come back, she's very friendly and kind.'
“The farmer – wearing a blue Mao-era jacket and cap – showed us the tarmac road through the centre of the village that Peng Liyuan funded and the village school she paid for with her savings. The deputy head of the Number One Middle School simply said: 'We have been instructed not to accept any interviews and not to talk about Peng Liyuan.'
“Despite her investment, Peng is noticeably under-developed compared to other villages in the area. 'There are people who want to invest in the village but they are not allowed to,' one shopkeeper said. That reluctance suggests Communist Party officials are keen to ensure no undue influence is gained by those attempting to curry favour with relatives of the president's wife. Xi Jinping is seen by many as the most authoritarian Chinese leader since Mao, and one of his trademark policies since taking office in 2013 has been a crackdown on China's endemic corruption.
In her home village, the biggest prize is a brighter future for its young people. Lu Sulan, the recently retired head at the nearby Liyuan Primary School, said: 'Most parents in this village want their children to go to college, but it rarely happens. “'I hope Peng Liyuan can be an inspiration for them. I hope children here see that even if they come from a poor village, they can do whatever they want with their lives and be anybody they want to be.'
Peng Liyuan’s Family During the Cultural Revolution
Hazel Knowles wrote in the Daily Mail: Peng Liyuan’s “educated family were cruelly targeted during the dark days of the 1960s Cultural Revolution – humiliated, stripped of their jobs and forced into degrading occupations instead. Her intellectual father was among those persecuted and stripped of his local government work. As a respected man who taught villagers how to read, he and his wife were obvious targets during the terrifying crackdown on the country's bourgeoisie, which began when Peng Liyuan was just a toddler. Her father was made to scrub the filthy village toilets.[Source: Hazel Knowles, Daily Mail, October 17 2015]
“Her father Peng Longkun was curator of a local cultural centre. Her mother, an actress, was made to give up her theatre work as the troupe was disbanded. While Peng Longkun was subjected to what Communist Party officials called 'reform through labour', Peng and her mother visited him, washing his dirty clothes and giving him money and food stamps. It's been previously reported how her mother and father would hold hands under the wall of the toilets her father had been ordered to clean while Peng acted as a lookout, hiding under a tree and making bird calls to warn them if anyone was close by.
“In an interview with state television in 2004, Peng said the reason her father was labelled a 'counter-revolutionary' was because some of their relatives served in the Taiwan army during China's bitter years of civil war. Her uncle lived in Taiwan, regarded as a renegade province by China.
Peng Liyuan After the Cultural Revolution
Peng joined the People's Liberation Army in 1980, when she was 18 years old, and began as an ordinary soldier. Because of her vocal talent, Peng later performed during frontline tours to boost troop morale during the Sino-Vietnamese border conflicts. Peng first performed nationally and came to fame during the earliest rendition of the CCTV New Year's Gala in 1982, when she performed On the Plains of Hope. [Source: Wikipedia]
Hazel Knowles wrote in the Daily Mail: “When the chaos of the Cultural Revolution subsided, the family's fortunes revived and she was sent to school in the nearby county town of Yuncheng. She was fast-tracked to Shandong Art School at 14 and at 18 joined the People's Liberation Army (PLA). There, she was appointed a 'warrior of arts and culture' and began her singing career, dressing in the uniform of the PLA to perform patriotic anthems to sell-out crowds across China. [Source: Hazel Knowles, Daily Mail, October 17 2015]
“In 1983, aged 21, she appeared in state broadcaster China Central Television's first New Year gala and appeared in almost every annual show for the next quarter century. It was the most watched TV show on earth with an audience of hundreds of millions – and it made her a superstar. Controversially, she sang to PLA troops immediately after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and in 2007 performed a dance routine showing Tibetan women thanking the Chinese army for 'liberating' them in the 1959 uprising in Tibet.
Peng Liyuan:’s Blind Date with Xi Jinping
Peng is nine years younger than Xi Jinping. She met him after he divorced from his first wife and was deputy mayor of Xiamen in Fujian Province in southeast China. Hazel Knowles wrote in the Daily Mail: “ He was the son of a leading Communist revolutionary and Mao ally, Xi Zhongxun. In an interview, she recalled how her parents, perhaps unsurprisingly given the family history, did not approve of her dating a privileged 'princeling'. She herself has admitted: 'He looked old and fusty and I didn't like him at first.' But the story of their romance, now part of popular mythology on the Chinese internet, suggests he eventually won her over by declaring: 'My father was the son of a peasant and as common as an old shoe.' [Source: Hazel Knowles, Daily Mail, October 17 2015]
Peng met Xi on a blind date.Christina Larson wrote in Business Week, “In 1986, the 24-year-old Peng went on the date at a friend’s urging. Xi Jinping, was then a skinny 32-year-old. How their private romance unfolded, we’ll never know. But China’s state-run Xinhua newswire has published an “official version” of their love story, which is also a first. According to this account, Xi became infatuated quickly. “After only 40 minutes together, I feel you are my wife,” he reportedly told her. Peng’s parents worried about whether an ambitious politician could be a devoted husband, but Xi pleaded with his bride-to-be: “My father is also the son of a peasant. All my siblings have found ordinary spouses. I will explain this to your parents. They will accept me.” The year after they met, the couple was married in a modest ceremony. [Source: Christina Larson, Business Week, June 4, 2013]
Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, Xi'“sfriend introduced him to Peng Liyuan, who, was already one of China’s most famous opera and folk singers... Peng thought that he looked “uncultured and much older than his age,” but he asked her questions about singing technique, which she took as a sign of intelligence. "What kind of songs do you sing “I'm sorry, I don't watch much television," he said to Peng, according to an interview she gave the Chinese press. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, April 6, 2015 ^^^]
William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “In a 2006 interview “which has since been scrubbed from many Web sites, Peng described their first date in 1986 and how she deliberately wore ugly army trousers to see if Xi would be attracted to her personality rather than her looks. Instead of asking her about popular songs or her earnings as a music star, she said, he veered toward the philosophical: “How many different techniques are there for singing?” “I was moved at that time. “Isn’t he the one I want in my heart? He has a simple heart but is thoughtful,” she said in the interview, noting that Xi also later told her, “I recognized that you were the one to be my wife less than 40 minutes after we met.” [Source: William Wan, Washington Post November 10, 2012 ~]
Peng Liyuan on Her Marriage to Xi Jinping
Xi with Peng, their daughter and his parents In 2007, shortly before his promotion to the Politburo, Peng praised Xi's humble nature and devotion to duty, revealing that on their second date he warned her he would not have much time for family life. His workaholic habits didn't change and when their daughter, an only child, was born in 1992, he missed her birth because of a typhoon in Fujian province, where he was posted. [Source: Los Angeles Times, The Guardian]
In an interview with a state-run magazine in 2007, Peng said of her husband, “He’s the best “and described him as frugal, hardworking and down-to-earth. “When he comes,” she said. “I’ve never thought of it as though there’s some leader in the house. In my eyes, he’s just my husband, When I get home, he doesn’t think of me as some famous star. In his eyes, I’m simply his wife.” [Source: Reuters, October 2010]
Peng also said, “If I didn’t have a happy marriage, which would potentially wreak havoc on my heart I would not have been able to maintain such a shiny public image.” She has said she has traveled across the country to bring Xi a quilt to keep him warm . “How does he manage to care for himself “Once I am with him, I cook him a delicious meal to provide some respite.”
Before Xi became president, Xi and Peng were never seen next to each other in public. The closet they had been seen to each was at a celebration of 60 years of Communist Party rule in October 2009 at Tiananmen Square when he sat at the dais and she appeared in a pink gown in the square and sang: “On the sunny road. In the air the banners soar. Scientific development and harmony guide China to brighter shores.”
Peng Liyuan as President Xi Jinping’s Wife
According to The Guardian: “Since her husband’s rise to the top, Peng Liyuan has for the most part stopped performing and has kept a low profile, observing the convention that the wives of Chinese leaders stay in the background in keeping with the predominantly male composition of the leadership.
Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “As it became clear that Xi would be a top leader, Peng gave up the diva gowns and elaborate hairdos in favor of pants suits and the occasional military uniform. Fans still mobbed her, while he stood patiently to the side, but for the most part she stopped performing and turned her attention to activism around H.I.V., tobacco control, and women’s education. For years, Xi and Peng spent most of their time apart. But, in the flurry of attention around Big Uncle Xi, the state-run media has promoted a pop song entitled “Xi Dada Loves Peng Mama,” which includes the line “Men should learn from Xi and women should learn from Peng.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, April 6, 2015]
Peng Liyuan, promotes rural education and campaigns against tuberculosis for the World Health Organization. Her sharp sense of style won her a place on Vanity Fair’s international best dressed list in 2013 (Michelle Obama didn’t make the list). When Michelle Obama visited China for the first she met with Peng. Among other things the two women share an interest in fashion and education.
William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “A chef in Zhejiang province—whose restaurant Peng often frequented while Xi was that region’s party chief—recalled how long Peng waited on her first visit, arriving without a reservation. She had dressed down, making her harder to recognize. ‘she didn’t know reservations were required, so there were no tables free,” he said. “One word to the waiters that she was the wife of a party secretary and she would have had a table, but she never mentioned it,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because talking about top leaders’ families in China is discouraged. “Later, she also came with her parents and her daughter, but never together with her husband.”[Source: William Wan, Washington Post November 10, 2012 ~]
Peng Liyuan’s Career
Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times: “Ms. Peng became a household name in China well before her husband. She joined the People’s Liberation Army as a civilian when she was 18. She soon emerged as a talented singer with a voice suited to folk tales and operatic scores that heralded the bravery of China’s soldiers. For several decades, she starred in the nation’s annual New Year’s television extravaganza, where she wore boldly hued gowns with well-fitted bodices and flouncy skirts. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, March 24, 2013]
“In 2004, Ms. Peng took the role of Mulan, the heroine of a Chinese folk tale depicted in “Mulan Psalm,” an opera about a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take the place of her ailing father in the army. The virtues of peace, the hard times of war and the glory of victory, assured by Mulan, make for a stirring spectacle. The work combines musical theater, drama and dance with elements of Western opera, according to the composer of the score, Guan Xia. Ms. Peng performed the central role with a full orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York in 2005, and at the Vienna State Opera House in 2008. “She has deep technical roots, and very good technique,” Ms. Tian said. “In the folk singer category, no one can surpass her.” When Mr. Xi became vice president in 2007, Ms. Peng began cutting back her performances, in step with the traditional secondary role played by the wives of Chinese leaders. Still, the Chinese news media have reported that she remains the leader of the Chinese Song and Dance Ensemble in the General Political Department of the People’s Liberation Army.
Christina Larson wrote in Business Week, “Peng—women in China do not take their husband’s surnames—is familiar with the limelight. A popular folk singer in China, she has graced dozens of magazine covers during her three-decade career, and for two of those decades, she was a fixture on the annual CCTV New Year’s Gala—a long-running television holiday ritual as familiar and iconic as the New Years Eve Ball Drop in Times Square. “What I knew of Xi Jinping before he became China’s president was only that he was Mrs. Peng’s husband,” says one young professional woman in Beijing, expressing a common sentiment. “As China’s first lady, I hope she can represent the best side of our country.”[Source: Christina Larson, Business Week, June 4, 2013 +++]
In the mid-1980s, a baby-faced Peng burst onto the national stage as a touring vocalist with the People’s Liberation Army. “Early on, she was identified as a talented singer and given a role in the morale-boosting business,” says Andrew Scobell, an expert on China’s military at Rand Corp. “She performed in national song-and-dance tours—kind of like USO tours.” Her most famous song was “On the Fields of Hope,” which resonated with the optimistic spirit of the times. Peng’s appeal also transcended the military establishment. “We all knew she was an Army singer, because she was often wearing a uniform,” recalls the Chinese writer Xujun Eberleine. “But what I mainly remember was her voice—a soprano. It was very bright and upbeat.” +++
“Peng toned down her image in the years before her husband ascended to China’s highest office. When it was clear to the political elite a few years ago that Xi was a strong contender to succeed President Hu Jintao, Peng stopped appearing on the New Year’s Gala and accepted only a few public singing engagements. She didn’t disappear from the public view entirely, however, as past Chinese first ladies have. Peng accepted offers from China’s Ministry of Health and later from the World Health Organization in Geneva to become a “goodwill ambassador,” promoting awareness of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment and supporting antismoking health campaigns. She even hammed it up with Bill Gates in Beijing last year on World Anti-Tobacco Day; they both wore red T-shirts that read, “Say No to Second-Hand Smoke.” +++
“This is the first time a Chinese president’s wife has engaged in advocacy of any sort, and she has already reshaped the role of first lady in China. She has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and Forbes’s 100 Most Powerful Women in 2013. “Peng Liyuan is the first First Lady in the PRC’s history,” says Cheng Li, a senior fellow and expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution. “We should not underestimate what she has already accomplished, or may be able to accomplish.” As first lady, Peng is also highly unusual in that she was known to the nation long before her husband—and is now being reintroduced.” +++
Peng Liyuan Serenaded Tiananmen Troops
In March 2013, Gillian Wong of Associated Press wrote: “A photo of China's new first lady Peng Liyuan in younger days, singing to martial-law troops following the 1989 bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, flickered across Chinese cyberspace this week. It was swiftly scrubbed from China's Internet before it could generate discussion online. But the image - seen and shared by outside observers - revived a memory the leadership prefers to suppress and shows one of the challenges in presenting Peng on the world stage as the softer side of China. [Source: Gillian Wong, Associated Press, March 28, 2013 ||||]
“The image of Peng, wearing a green military uniform, her windswept hair tied back in a ponytail as she sings to helmeted and rifle-bearing troops seated in rows on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, contrasts with her appearances this week in trendy suits and coiffed hair while touring Russia and Africa with Xi, waving to her enthusiastic hosts. "I think that we have a lot of people hoping that because Xi Jinping walks around without a tie on and his wife is a singer who travels with him on trips that maybe we're dealing with a new kind of leader, but I think these images remind people that this is the same party," said Kelley Currie, a China human rights expert for the pro-democracy Project 2049 Institute in Arlington, Virginia. "It's using some new tools and new techniques, for the same purposes: to preserve its own power." ||||
“The lifespan of Peng's Tiananmen image in the finicky world of the Chinese Internet has so far been short, and she remains a beloved household name with huge domestic popularity. The photo has circulated mainly on Twitter, which is blocked in China. The few posts on popular domestic microblogs did not evade censors for long. Many young Chinese are unaware that on June 3 and 4, 1989, military troops crushed weekslong pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing with force, killing hundreds, possibly thousands, of people. Those who do know about the assault tend to be understanding of Peng's obligations as a member of a performance troupe in the all-powerful People's Liberation Army. At the time, her husband Xi was party chief of an eastern city. ||||
The image is a snapshot of the back cover of a 1989 issue of a publicly available military magazine, the PLA Pictorial, according to Sun Li, a Chinese reporter who said he had taken a photo of it on his cell phone several years ago when it was inadvertently posted on his microblog. Sun said he quickly deleted it and had no idea how it resurfaced on the Internet years later. ||||
“While most of her army career has been in singing, the militaristic overtones of many of Peng's public appearances set her apart from Michelle Obama, former French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and most of their counterparts in other countries. But for Peng, the Tiananmen photo was no one-off: She has been in the military since age 18 and has fronted TV music videos featuring dancing lines of men with combat fatigues and heavy weaponry. She also starred in a song-and-dance number in 2007 that has perky women in Tibetan garb sashaying behind her while she sings an ode to the army that invaded Tibet in 1959. "Who is going to liberate us? It's the dear PLA!" go some of the lyrics. The video has provoked severe criticism from Tibetan rights groups. ||||
“In an indication of Peng's appeal in China despite her past, a man whose 19-year-old son was killed in the Tiananmen crackdown said he bears no grudges against her. "If I had known about this back then, I would have been very disgusted by it. But now, looking at it objectively, it's all in the past," said Wang Fandi, whose son Wang Nan died from a bullet wound to his head. "She was in the establishment. If the military wanted her to perform, she had to go. What else could she do?" Wang was a teacher at the China Conservatory of Music when Peng had been sent there by the military to study singing in her 20s. Though he never taught her directly, Wang had known who she was and describes her as being modest, a talented folk singer and an outstanding student. "When I look back at history, I will look at it from other perspectives," Wang said. "Even if she had done something wrong, we shouldn't make a fuss about it. What's important is what happens in the future." ||||
Peng Liyuan’s Career as Xi Jinping’s Career Advanced
Christina Larson wrote in Business Week, “Peng graduated from Army tours to televised mega-events, while Xi operated in the background. “In a political culture like China’s, no one knows who Xi Jinping is until you’re told he’s your leader,” explains the Shanghai-based author Paul French. In 1999, when she appeared on the popular talk show Weekend Threesome, the celebrity host Dou Wentao teased, “What kind of husband can possibly tame such a glamorous and famous woman?” Her reply was both cunning and discreet. “My husband may not be as famous in the same field,” Peng said, “but I believe he is capable of outstanding achievements in other fields.” [Source: Christina Larson, Business Week, June 4, 2013 +++]
“As her husband grew in power, she moved from pop to philanthropy. In 2006, at 43, she turned her attention to public health. She has become a spokeswoman for campaigns against tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and tobacco. In China, that can be complicated. “There’s a strong stigma attached to HIV/AIDS patients and their family members,” says Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. As for tobacco control, “one of the major challenges is the very prominent role the Chinese state-owned industry plays in making major policy decisions.” When Bill Gates visited China this April, he met one-on-one with Peng. On his foundation’s website, Gates wrote that “over a cup of tea,” the pair discussed “our hopes that China will play an ever greater role in tackling health and development challenges around the world.” +++
Xi Jinping’s ascension was rolled out in state media with grainy old family photos of Xi as a doting son, husband, and father. Shortly after taking power, Xi launched a much-publicized campaign to curb the ostentatious privileges that separate politicians from ordinary people—such as unnecessary motorcades, celebratory banners, and lavish banquets. His speeches have also emphasized a new interest in the hopes and concerns of average Chinese people. Xi’s signature slogan is promoting the “Chinese dream.” More so than any politician since Mao, the new Chinese president is being packaged as a man of the people, and part of that means having a wife. “Xi actually has to be a popular figure in a way that Hu did not,” says Carla Freeman, associate director of the China Studies Program at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. “He has to appeal to the Chinese public, as well as to his colleagues.”
Peng began lowering her own profile as a singer in 2007after her husband emerged as the likely appointee to the presidency. According to the Washington Post: She quit the annual New Year’s show altogether the next year and stopped performing except for at a handful of charity and Communist Party-related events. After 2007 was rarely seen in public or with Xi. At the same time, she has taken new roles that allow her some public exposure, albeit within fairly controlled environments. She became a volunteer for the government’s work on AIDS in 2006 and its ambassador for tobacco control in 2009. Last year, she was appointed ambassador for the fight against tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS for the World Health Organization. “She doesn’t keep her distance from people,” said Zhang Ying, president of a non-governmental organization that helps AIDS orphans in Anhui province. Zhang has worked on the issue repeatedly with Peng, most recently in September, and described her as down-to-earth, chatting freely with other volunteers about her own daughter, asking questions about their families. She was also a patient woman, Zhang said, entertaining orphans with songs during the difficult filming of public-service announcements." ~
Peng Liyuan’s Image
Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: ‘she has a resume that would make U.S. political consultants drool: A renowned soprano who's performed for troops serving the motherland, opera fans at Lincoln Center and ordinary Chinese watching annual TV variety galas, she's also a World Health Organization goodwill ambassador in the fight against tuberculosis and HIV. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2012]
“She's volunteered to help earthquake victims and hobnobbed with Bill Gates at an anti-smoking event in Beijing. An "artist-soldier" in the army, she holds a civilian rank equivalent to major general, and sometimes belts out patriotic melodies in military skirt suits (some favorite tunes: "On the Plains of Hope" and "People From Our Village"). And the 49-year-old with the approachable good looks has the Tiger Mom base covered too: Her daughter is studying at Harvard. But there is suspense over one element of the transition: Will the nation get a full-fledged first lady as well in the form of Peng Liyuan?
In 2012, William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “For most of her marriage to Xi Jinping, her fame has eclipsed his. A civilian member of the Chinese army’s musicale troupe, she was admired by hundreds of millions for her annual performances on state television’s New Year’s Eve shows. And according to people who have met her, she exudes an easy grace, a confident grasp of conversational English and a seemingly sincere heart for charitable causes. “If this were the West, one would say she has the perfect requirements for being a leader’s wife: beauty, stage presence, public approval,” said one party intellectual, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing his work teaching future government officials at party schools. “But things are different in China.” [Source: William Wan, Washington Post November 10, 2012]
“The spouses of China's senior leaders have kept a low profile in the decades since Mao Tse-tung's power-hungry wife, reviled in the official press as the "White-Boned Demon," shot to infamy as a member of the Gang of Four. Madame Mao received a suspended death sentence on charges that included counter-revolution, and later committed suicide." In 1963, the glamorous Wang Guangmei, wife of President Liu Shaoqi, wore a tightfitting qipao dress to a state banquet in Indonesia. When the political tides turned against Liu four years later, radical Red Guards forced Wang to don the same dress and paraded her through the streets as a shameful example of capitalist corruption.
Many observers predicted that Peng would be a cosmopolitan, Western-style first lady embodying a more open, modern China. Crafting a public role for Peng' has required "Communist Party image makers to delicately navigate millenniums-old suspicion of women near the center of power in China, the party's own squeamishness about making officials' private lives public, and a gossipy media culture increasingly critical of elites' lifestyles and behavior. "In China, there's still this strain of thought, particularly in the countryside, that there are two possible roles for a female: the woman is either servile” or an empress type," said Ross Terrill, who wrote biographies of Mao and his wife, Jiang Qing. "There's still a feeling that women can lead men astray, especially in affairs of the state." The woman-as-evil-schemer archetype got some recent reinforcement when one of Xi's rivals for the top party job, Bo Xilai, was ousted from the Politburo amid a scandal involving his wife, a prominent lawyer named Gu Kailai, who was convicted of murdering a British businessman. ~
Peng seems to have avoided some common celebrity pitfalls, like tax scandals, that could taint her squeaky-clean image. Though she's perfectly at ease performing in flowing ball gowns, she doesn't conspicuously wear designer clothing or accessories offstage, which eagle-eyed Internet users could pounce on as signs of out-of-touch elitism or corruption. "In China's circle of the performing arts, it is a mission impossible to find someone more appropriate to represent the image of the Chinese women than Peng Liyuan," the Southern People Weekly magazine gushed in 2005. "She has a face like a full moon, shining eyes and white teeth, and she is upright and straightforward, frank and friendly.” She not only charms the political and official arena, but also enchants the masses." But there's clearly sensitivity: Peng's name is blocked on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, and searches for her on China's censored Internet turn up limited results.~
Hung Huang, a fashion editor whose mother served as English tutor to Mao Zedong, told the Washington Post, “In China, unfortunately, women and power mix like oil and water,” she said. “You see it in some of our traditional proverbs warning against the dangers of beautiful women and powerful men.” “Few people even know the name of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s wife, Liu Yongqing, and even fewer could point her out in a crowd. Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, occasionally took his wife, Wang Yeping, on trips abroad, but little is known about her beyond a smattering of details gathered by media overseas, beyond the reach of censors. ~
Peng Liyuan as China’s First Lady
After Xi became president, Gillian Wong of Associated Press wrote: “Peng, 50, kept a low profile in recent years as her husband prepared to take over as Communist Party chief. Her re-emergence has been accompanied by a blitz in domestic, state-run media hailing her beauty and charm, in a bid to harness her popularity to build support for Xi at home and abroad. Peng Liyuan: Let the world appreciate the beauty of China," declared the headline of a China News Service commentary that said the first lady's elegant manners, conversation and clothing would highlight Chinese culture. Her presence on diplomatic trips would demystify the first family for the Chinese public, the commentary said. However, the government is stepping into little-charted and possibly treacherous waters for China. [Source: Gillian Wong, Associated Press, March 28, 2013 ||||]
Christopher Bodeen of Associated Press reported: “An internationally popular first lady could help soften China's sometimes abrasive international image and mark a victory in its so-far unsuccessful struggle to win over global public opinion. At the same time, she could boost the popularity of the country's new leadership at a time when citizens are feeling increasingly alienated and are fed up with the ruling class's corruption and regal airs. In recent years, the wives of China's top officials have traditionally gone almost unseen at home and attracted little attention while accompanying their husbands on state visits. That was in part a negative reaction to Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing, who was widely despised and later imprisoned for her role as leader of the radical Gang of Four, which mercilessly persecuted political opponents during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Retired Premier Wen Jiabao's wife, Zhang Peili, became known for her role in the country's gem trade and was never seen in public with her husband. Meanwhile, Bo Xilai, one of China's most ambitious politicians, was brought down in spectacular style last year following his wife's involvement in the murder of a British businessman. [Source: Christopher Bodeen, AP, March 24, 2013 ]
“Peng's emerging high profile appears to be an extension of Xi's own confidence as he consolidates his control on power and presses a more assertive role for China in global affairs, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at Britain's University of Nottingham. Her training as a singer and stage performer offers the perfect preparation for such a role, he said. "Peng is projecting a certain poise and confidence that Xi himself is carrying and he doesn't need to worry about what other (politicians) might think of her," Tsang said.
“Nothing completely prepares any woman for the role of first lady,” Anita McBride told Business Week. She served as chief of staff for Laura Bush and now organizes conferences on the history of American first ladies at American University in Washington, D.C. In the U.S., first ladies have chosen a broad range of causes: Jackie Kennedy promoted American arts and culture; Betty Ford championed women’s equality; Michelle Obama wants Americans to “get moving.” Still, McBride sees a common theme: “American first ladies have always been bellwethers of larger historic changes happening in the country. They have been role models for women of their time.” [Source: Christina Larson, Business Week, June 4, 2013 +++]
Not so in China. “Modern Chinese leaders have always been uncomfortable appearing in public with their spouses; there’s been no ideological role for spouses to play,” says Stanford University’s Haiyan Lee, a professor of comparative literature who grew up in China. During the terms of the last three Chinese presidents, the public learned little about their leaders’ personal lives or their families. That’s in part because there’s been no need to pack family onto the proverbial campaign bus—to greet supporters and “connect” with voters—and in part because some presidential spouses and children may be liabilities, if they’ve used privileged positions to amass wealth or shortcut laws. “The life of a high-level leader in China is tremendously isolated,” says Kerry Brown, executive director of the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre. “It’s hasn’t been necessary for them to appear personable to the general public.” +++
Security and Handling of Peng Liyuan
William Wan wrote in the Washington Post Few articles have been written about her relationship with Xi, and the ones that have survived censors often detail them in sickly sweet Communist caricature: hardworking husband torn between duty to country and to family; his supportive, caring wife eager to be with him but knowing her country needs him more. One such interview—the most in-depth so far on the topic—was posted online in 2006 by a small, local state-run media group, without the permission of central authorities, according to a media official within the party, speaking anonymously to detail internal decisions. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post November 10, 2012 ~]
Hazel Knowles wrote in the Daily Mail: “On a recent visit to the village of Peng, reporters investigating Peng Liyuan's past for this newspaper were confronted by a Communist Party official and ushered away from her childhood home, while other locals refused to discuss their famous former resident. All had instructions to report the presence of outsiders and journalists. A Communist Party official, alerted to our presence, approached on a bicycle. 'Of course, we are very proud of her and we would love to show you around,' he said, courteously. 'But we had orders from higher officials to keep a low profile and not let any outsiders visit uninvited.' [Source: Hazel Knowles, Daily Mail, October 17 2015]
Another clue to the official sensitivity over the First Lady came when, according to the Wall Street Journal, her visits to a school in the US and an art programme arranged for her were scrapped. Chinese officials were concerned the visits would draw attention away from Xi Jinping's official business, according to the newspaper which said the government wanted to dampen public fascination with her. The official jitters about her public image overshadowing that of her husband has prompted censors in China to block internet searches for her name on occasions and even searches for clothes designed after her much-observed outfits, the newspaper said.
Peng Liyuan as a Diplomatic Star
Peng joined Xi on his first trip abroad as president of China—to Moscow—and on a trip to Africa and a meeting of the emerging markets group, known as the BRICS, in Durban, South Africa. Christina Larson wrote in Business Week, “Xi Jinping became president of China in March, 2013 and unlike every other president since the beginning of the modern reform era, he brought his wife into the spotlight with him. On his first foreign trip as president, Xi traveled with his wife Peng Liyuan—and she arguably stole the show. Domestic and foreign press cooed over her slimly fitted black trench coat and blue scarf (in Moscow), her white silk skirt-suit with upright collar (in Dar Es Salaam), her green and gold Mandarin coat with front-clasping hooks (in Pretoria). The 50-year-old Peng, still girlishly slender with cherubic cheeks, was quickly likened to Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton. When Xi meets President Obama in California on Friday, the international media’s gaze will again be on Peng, who is accompanying her husband on his second foreign trip as China’s president. [Source: Christina Larson, Business Week, June 4, 2013]
Christopher Bodeen of Associated Press reported: “Glamorous new first lady Peng Liyuan has emerged as a Chinese diplomatic star, charming audiences and cutting a distinct profile from her all-but-invisible predecessors on her debut official trip abroad. Peng was featured prominently in Chinese media coverage of her husband President Xi Jinping in Russia on his first state visit since he assumed the presidency earlier this month. A celebrated performer on state television, Peng watched song-and-dance routines at a performing arts school on Saturday, but did not join in as some media reports had suggested she might. The couple arrived in Tanzania later Sunday, and their trip also includes stops in South Africa and Congo. [Source: Christopher Bodeen, AP, March 24, 2013 ]
“Peng's image was splashed across Chinese newspapers over the weekend, shown descending arm-in-arm with Xi as they descended from their aircraft after arriving in Moscow on Friday. Her visit to the arts school was carried by state broadcaster CCTV on its main Sunday news broadcast and reported in national newspapers. The popular Beijing News tabloid ran a full page of items on Peng's appearances, alongside a photo of her arriving at a speech Xi gave, dressed in an elegant Chinese-style silk tunic and skirt. "In her role as first lady on this visit abroad, Peng Liyuan is exhibiting China's soft power," the paper quoted Wang Fan, head the Institute of International Relations at China Foreign Affairs University, as saying. "As a singer and artist and a long-term advocate for poverty relief and other causes, Peng has an excellent public image."
“Much of the coverage focused on her personal style, with a report on the mass-market sina.com website noting with satisfaction that the black leather clutch she paired with the outfit was made to order by a Chinese firm in the southwestern city of Chengdu, a flattering contrast with prominent Chinese female politicians scorned publicly for appearing decked head to toe in foreign designer brands. "In practical terms, this is an important show of support for China's domestic industries, but in the larger sense, it should raise national self-respect and confidence," read a posting on China's popular Weibo microblogging service left by Lin Zhibo, Gansu provincial bureau chief of the Communist Party's flagship newspaper, People's Daily.
“Chen Li, a real estate agent from the central city of Changsha, said Peng was well-known for her modest ways and calm, dignified manner. "She's known to be elegant and fashionable, but she's also very low-key and doesn't seem arrogant in the way that you usually associate with the wives of top leaders," Chen said. Peng, 50, largely retired from public life after Xi was made China's leader-in-waiting in 2007, but in recent years has won new acclaim as an ambassador for the World Health Organization. Among the issues she has worked on are tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS — diseases that still carry considerable social stigma in China. She also made headlines last year by appearing alongside Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates as part of a campaign to discourage smoking, a high-profile cause in a country where about two-thirds of men smoke.”
Peng Liyuan Sparks a Fashion Frenzy in China
In March 2013, shortly after Xi Jinping formally became president, Gillian Wong of Associated Press wrote: New Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan's choice of attire has sparked a flurry of excitement over an independent homegrown label, an unusual phenomenon in a country where political figures are more frumpy than fashionable and wives usually shy away from the spotlight. Images of Peng, 50, stepping off a plane arm-in-arm with her husband President Xi Jinping in Moscow have circulated widely on the Chinese Internet, prompting praise of her style as understated and sophisticated. Eagle-eyed fashion-savvy bloggers identified the leather handbag she carried and smart, double-breasted black trench coat she wore as items designed by Guangzhou-based label Exception. The brand has been described as one of China's leading independent labels whose simple but unique designs stand out in an industry dominated by Western copycats. [Source: Gillian Wong, Associated Press, March 25, 2013 ]
"First ladies are ambassadors of the culture and the design and of the soft power of a country. I'm glad that she chose to wear Chinese and take up that role of spokesperson for Chinese design here," said Hong Huang, publisher of the fashion magazine iLook and one of the most popular microbloggers in China. Hong said it was too early to tell if Peng's high-profile public appearance signaled that she would be playing a more significant role in Chinese politics than her predecessors, who — unlike many of their Western counterparts — have been largely unseen. "It's good that finally China has a very pretty, very beautiful first lady and she can hopefully speak up for a lot more and complement whatever Xi wants to say, in a way, like all first ladies do."
“Online retailers have sought to associate their products with what news portals are terming the "Peng Liyuan style," with searches for those key words resulting in lists of handbags and trench coats, many of which did not even resemble the items she wore. Heavy online traffic to Exception's website has caused it to crash. The impact Peng, a celebrated performer on state television, is having on fashion bears some similarity to trends sparked by Britain's duchess of Cambridge, the former Kate Middleton, who helped bring Brazilian-born designer Issa to the world's attention before her marriage to Prince William. American first lady Michelle Obama has also lent cachet to designer Jason Wu by wearing a gown he custom-made to last month's inauguration.
For its part, Exception appears to be gauging its next move. Chinese politics is a traditionally secretive world and the company risks sparking a backlash by associating itself too publicly with the wife of the head of state. Some of the more conservative among the Communist Party might frown upon the commercialization of the first lady's image or criticize such attention as being reflective of an excessively materialistic society. Company spokeswoman Tan Yijia, reached in the company's Guangzhou headquarters, said she could not immediately confirm that the pieces Peng wore on the trip were made by the label. The city's quality supervision bureau, however, said on its official microblog site that it has confirmed that Peng's outfit was made by Exception.
Ma Ke, Designer for Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan
William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “Jacqueline Kennedy had dressmaker Oleg Cassini. Michelle Obama has Jason Wu and a whole coterie of up-and-coming designers. China’s new first lady, Peng Liyuan? She has Ma Ke. For years, Ma has been one of China’s most successful and cutting-edge fashion designers, but also one of its most reclusive. She has served as a personal designer for Peng since 2003 — a time when Peng, a singer, was far more famous in China than her husband, Xi Jinping, who was then just a provincial party head who would later become president. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, March 20, 2014 */]
Chen Jie wrote in the China Daily: “Although known in China's fashion industry for the past two decades, Ma became a household name overnight after President Xi Jinping's wife, Peng Liyuan, wore clothes designed by Ma during Xi's first state visit to Russia in March 2013. After media reports suggested that Ma may have designed Peng's clothes, people started to look for Ma online. Websites showed that the designer had an association with Exception, a Guangzhou-based brand that she and her former husband created. A few days later, Ma publicly acknowledged that she was indeed behind the first lady's look, but also clarified that she had left Exception in 2006 and had since taken a different direction.” [Source: Chen Jie, China Daily, September 26, 2014]
Wan wrote: “In a rare interview with Western media, the reclusive designer declined to identify or talk about specific outfits she has made for Peng, calling it through an assistant “a sensitive topic,” but she confirmed that she has tailored for Peng. Ma refused to meet in person or even to send a picture of herself, but agreed to answer written questions by e-mail. In 2013 with a state-controlled newspaper, Ma played down the curiosity about her as Peng’s designer. As she put it, “If you eat a tasty egg, why would you want to see the hen?” */
Ma Ke was born in 1971. Chen Jie wrote in the China Daily: “In 1988, Ma left her hometown, Changchun in northeastern Jilin province, to study design at the Suzhou Silk Institute in eastern Jiangsu province. After graduation in 1992, Ma joined a fashion company in Guangzhou in southern China's Guangdong province. After three years, she felt it was "a disaster for a designer to work in a company that only pursued profit".
Ma’s design career began with a ready-to-wear label, EXCEPTION de MixMind, which she launched with Mao Jihong, then her husband, in 1996. At that time couple who shared a love of design and the rock band The Ramones. Mao took care of marketing and branding while Ma focused on designing. Their aesthetic combined small touches of traditional Chinese elements with modern style. Exception was one of China's first independent fashion labels. It produced simple yet attractive women's ready-to-wear clothes and secured a number of loyal high-end customers, including Peng. And they built it into one of China’s premier high-fashion brands. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, March 20, 2014 */ ] Ma and Mao later divorced. While her husband continues running the lucrative EXCEPTION brand, Ma split off in 2006 to found one of China’s few experimental haute-couture boutiques. She moved to Zhuhai, another city in Guangdong. Mao is now the chief executive of Exception. Exception has grown into a big company, driven by Mao's ambition. It has expanded to become a high-end brand with nearly 100 stores and retail counters in China. */
Ma Ke and Peng Liyuan
William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “Ma and Peng first met after a concert by Peng in the southern city of Guangzhou, where Ma is based. A reporter interviewing Peng at the time mentioned that she knew Ma. According to Ma, Peng had been wearing Ma’s clothes for years and requested an introduction.In an e-mail interview, Ma described Peng’s current style as “neat, simple, elegant but with a strong presence.” But she insisted that Peng isn’t as concerned with presenting a “first lady” style as she is with presenting an image of a modern Chinese woman who is “independent-minded, affectionate and full of strength.” [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, March 20, 2014 */]
Chen Jie wrote in the China Daily In 2001, when Peng, then a popular singer, was performing in Guangzhou, Ma was introduced to her by a TV reporter. Ma designed the dress for Peng's performance at the 2002 China Central Television Spring Festival Gala, the popular annual TV show. When Peng asked Ma to design a dress for her first state visit, she agreed without hesitation. "I believe if the first lady dresses in a simple but elegant way and presents unique Chinese traditions, people of the country would follow the style," she says. [Source: Chen Jie, China Daily, September 26, 2014]
Wan wrote: “Ma is said to have been responsible for several of Peng’s ensembles during her first state visits abroad during the past year — fashion events that set the Internet in China ablaze and established Peng as a fashion icon. Among the outfits widely attributed to Ma: a sophisticated-but-business-like black, double-breasted belted coat and handbag; and a white silk, Mandarin-collared suit, with a scarf adding a splash of turquoise. */
“The fashionable looks were cited by Vanity Fair, which added Peng to its “International Best-Dressed” list, even as the magazine gave Michelle Obama the snub. Through an assistant, Ma said that her studio provides Peng with many design options but doesn’t know which ones Peng will wear or when. As with all designers, she said, the final call always belongs to the client.” */
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Last updated September 2021