BEIJING: For the first time since Mao, China’s next leader will have a wife who is famous in her own right: Xi Jinping will ascend to power with hugely popular singer Peng Liyuan at his side.
The soprano, who holds the rank of general in the army, is renowned from Shanghai to Urumqi and starred for 25 years in CCTV state television’s Lunar New Year gala, a broadcast watched by hundreds of millions of viewers.
Her husband is widely expected to become China’s president next year and will be under the spotlight at the annual set-piece session of the country’s parliament, which opened Monday.
Since the fall of Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s last wife and the widely-loathed leading member of the Gang of Four blamed for the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese leaders’ spouses have been expected to stay in the shadows.
“After the Mao era, the wives of senior Chinese leaders stopped appearing in public,” said Zhang Yaojie, a researcher at the National Academy of Arts.
But Peng will be a deeply atypical first lady. In videos seen on the Internet, the 49-year-old seizes the limelight with her high cheekbones, thick jet-black hair, and radiant smile.
Her costumes range from military uniform to richly embroidered ethnic dress, and her repertoire includes syrupy melodies and folk songs whose lyrics have been altered to glorify the Communist Party.
Apparently in perfect harmony with her husband, a Party “princeling” with strong military links, her version of one traditional Tibetan tune describes the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as “the saving star of the Communist Party”.
Peng, who comes from an area in the eastern province of Shandong known for its peonies and was nicknamed the “Peony Fairy” by her admirers, joined the army at the age of 18.
A semi-official biography posted on Chinese web portals tells how she began as an ordinary soldier, but began performing at PLA shows to boost troop morale.
In the 1980s she was one of the first people to take a master of arts in folk music in China. Her professor has spoken of her dedication to her studies.
Peng has performed in 50 countries and won many awards, but it was the Lunar New Year gala that propelled her to stardom.
When she finally retired from the television show in 2008, some speculated that it was to avoid overshadowing her husband, who was then far less well-known than her but had just joined the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s highest-ranking body.
“As an artist, she may suffer, in the way that Carla Bruni has a bit,” said Michel Bonnin, director of the Franco-Chinese Centre at Tsinghua University, referring to the former model and singer who married French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
But Peng can help Xi “to have a less dull image than Chinese politicians usually do,” Bonnin added.
In interviews with Chinese media, Peng heaps praise on the “ideal husband” she married 25 years ago, and with whom she has a daughter, now a student at Harvard.
“He is simple and honest, but very thoughtful,” Peng told the China News Weekly, adding that he has told her: “In less than 40 minutes after I met you, I knew you would be my wife.”
But Peng’s parents were not keen to see their daughter marry such a senior figure, fearing she would not be treated well because of her humble origins.
“He treats me like a little sister. Jinping is always busy. He is concerned about thousands of households, without thinking of himself,” she said on the government site China.org.cn. “When he is at home, I cook the dishes he likes to help him relax.”
Peng has been keen to convey a homespun image, telling the People’s Daily’s Huanqiu Renwu magazine she has simple tastes, enjoying “going to the market by bicycle and bargaining with vendors”.
She became a World Health Organisation ambassador for the fight against AIDS and tuberculosis last year and Bonnin suggested she could “play a Western-style first lady role”, rather than just following her husband on official visits.
But Zhang was sceptical. “I do not think she will be very different from previous first ladies,” he said. “She will not do anything exceptional. In China, the first lady remains a mystery.”