China’s Next First Lady Will Step Out of Spotlight

Unlike in the U.S. and other countries where the First Lady takes on a very public role when her husband assumes power, wives of Chinese leaders are rarely seen and almost never heard. For that reason, an inordinate amount of attention has focused on China’s incoming First Lady, Peng Liyuan, wife of Xi Jinping. Peng is one of China’s most famous singers, and has long been more well-known than her husband, yet she is likely to take a more subdued role once her husband is inaugurated. From the Washington Post:

No Michelle Obama-style advocacy. Nor Jackie Kennedy-like glamour. Simply the expectation that one will fade into the black cloak of secrecy that surrounds all of China’s leaders.

And yet if anyone could break free of that muted tradition, it would be Peng, one of China’s most recognizable folk singers.

For most of her marriage to China’s current vice president, 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.”

In another profile of Peng, the Globe and Mail looks at the early days of Peng and Xi’s relationship:

In Ms. Peng’s telling, it was her husband who did the courting when they first met. In a rare newspaper interview ahead of her husband’s promotion to the Standing Committee, she told the Zhejiang Daily that when the couple went on their first date in 1986, she dressed in plain military attire to make sure that he paid attention to her personality rather than her widely admired looks.

Mr. Xi, then 32 and a recent divorcée, was already rising political star, the executive vice-mayor of the port city of Xiamen. While he couldn’t match for the national celebrity of his 24-year-old companion, he didn’t seem aware of that.

“In our first encounter, I found his dress outmoded and severely plain, while [his face] looked older than his real age,” Ms. Peng told the Zhejiang Daily in 2007. “He didn’t even realize how famous I was and that I was the original performer of one of his favourite songs.”

Despite Mr. Xi’s underwhelming first impression, the couple married a year later. The future president apparently charmed her with his knowledge of music theory. “At that time, I was very moved. Isn’t this the one I’ve been looking for?” the Zhejiang Daily quoted Ms. Peng saying. “He’s unsophisticated but he’s really intelligent.”

The South China Morning Post tells the story of their daughter’s birth, during which Xi Jinping was called away for work and was not present:

A provincial foreign affairs official said Xi’s wife, famous soprano Peng Liyuan – who holds the rank of major general in the People’s Liberation Army, was in Fuzhou as her due date approached and hoped that Xi would be present for the birth.

“But at that time, Fuzhou was hit by a strong typhoon, and Xi had to direct disaster relief work in the worst-hit area, keeping him away for three days and nights,” the official said.

Many officials in Fujian said that most people in the province were aware that Xi had ordered Peng not to accept offers of freelance work after their marriage, causing her to lose countless opportunities to make money.

“When Xi was in Xiamen, he even asked Peng to do free performances for local people,” the foreign affairs official said.

“Xi is so lucky to have such a virtuous and approachable wife, who has helped earn him a lot of publicity.”

The Washington Post has compiled a slideshow of Chinese First Ladies, past and present. See also Peng’s performances of Our Motherland:

And of The Laundry Song, a propaganda song about Tibet, the significance of which is explained by High Peaks Pure Earth:


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