Peng Liyuan: Folk singer who became China’s first lady

Image caption,
Ms Peng is China's first high-profile first lady since the late wife of Mao Zedong

Peng Liyuan is getting into her stride as China's new first lady, more than two months after her husband Xi Jinping became the country's president.

Before her husband's accession to power, Peng Liyuan was already famous as one of the China's star singers,

For decades, she appeared on China's state-run television programmes, singing syrupy sweet folk tunes extolling the wonders of China's rise.

But as the country's first lady, she has now become a focal point for the Western media on the couple's trips abroad and may be China's secret weapon for wooing the West.

Ms Peng is China's first high-profile political spouse at the top level since Jiang Qing, the late wife of Chairman Mao Zedong.

In contrast, the women married to previous Chinese leaders, from Deng Xiaoping to outgoing leader Hu Jintao, stayed largely behind the scenes. Overseas, Ms Peng has been compared to former French first lady Carla Bruni.

'The Peony Fairy'

The hope was when Xi Jinping became president that Peng Liyuan's celebrity status would make the secretive Communist leadership appear more accessible, observers said at the time.

"The image of the Communist Party used to be very dull and the leaders behaved like robots as a part of the state machine with no personal charm at all," said Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Beijing-based think-tank the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"Peng Liyuan is expected to bring something different to the leadership."

Inside China, the simplest questions about Ms Peng's musical career elicit vague answers from those in the Chinese music industry.

"It's hard to comment on her music, given the complication of her current situation," admits He Li, director of the China Folk Song Music Board.

"We don't want to comment on her too much. If you say she's the best, others will gossip. If you say she's not good, some may object. It's hard to say anything."

Nicknamed "The Peony Fairy", Peng Liyuan joined the Chinese People's Liberation Army early in her career and made her name as an entertainer approved by the Communist Party, appearing frequently on state television to sing propaganda songs with titles like Plains of Hope and People From Our Village.

"Probably 90% of her songs are complimenting the Communist Party, and the rest celebrates our wonderful life," explains music critic Qi Youyi, with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

'Cultural warrior'

Now Ms Peng only appears on stage occasionally, for large performance gala shows on state television. Though her name remains well-recognised, her music is mostly appreciated by people over the age of 40, says He Li.

"People who like her songs are mostly born in an era when there was little variety of art forms and broadcasting channels, only radio probably," she said.

Image caption,
Peng Liyuan was already famous when she met Xi Jinping in 1986

"There was not much entertainment then. If you played it today, not as many people would like it."

Peng Liyuan did not always enjoy a rosy relationship with the Communist Party. Like Xi Jinping, her family was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.

In an interview with Chinese television in 2004, Ms Peng said her father was categorised as a "counter-revolutionary" because some of their relatives served in the Taiwanese army.

Those hardships did not prevent her early entry at the young age of 14 to the Shandong University of Arts as a vocational training student specialising in Chinese folk songs.

Peng Liyuan then joined the People's Liberation Army in 1980 to work as a so-called "arts and cultural warrior".

The soprano's performance in the debut New Year's Gala on China Central Television (CCTV) in 1983 made her a national celebrity.

Over the years, she followed the company to perform overseas in New York, Tokyo and Vienna.

Future role

When Peng Liyuan met Xi Jinping in 1986, she was already a famous singer while he was the deputy mayor of Xiamen City in southern Fujian province and a divorcee.

After just months of dating, they married in September 1987. Their daughter, Xi Mingze, was born in 1992.

Image caption,
Ms Peng may also be enjoying her time living in her official Zhongnanhai residence

Many now question what kind of role Peng Liyuan might be allowed to play in the Chinese government. She has scaled back her singing career, appearing less often on state-run television.

"She only shows up on very big-scale political performances and she won't sing new songs," He Li said.

Ms Peng might do more charity work. She already serves as a goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organisation, spreading awareness on tuberculosis and HIV/Aids. She is also an ambassador for the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control.

Of course, Ms Peng may also be enjoying her time living in Zhongnanhai, the central Beijing compound that houses China's top leaders.

In an interview with the state-run Global People magazine in 2011, she described how she enjoyed everyday pursuits, such as riding a bicycle to the market and bargaining with hawkers.

While at home, she said that she and Xi Jinping treat each other as husband and wife rather than as state leader and singing superstar.