There’s an old joke than run’s throughout China’s newspapers: “Who is Xi JinPing?” Oh, he’s Peng LiYuan’s husband!” Xi JinPing, is, of course, China’s President, but his wife of over 25 years has been a well-known singer and entertainer in China for over 30 years, arguably their most famous singing star. There appears to be some discomfort within the Politburo over her popularity, but there is no denying that a lady of such elegance and graciousness, not to mention one who made the Vanity Fair’s International Best Dressed list (Michele Obama did not), is someone who is going to garner a lot of attention. While personal stories about her are few and far between-par for the course in Communist China-the few I’ve read definitely put her in a golden light. I believe there has been a move toward giving China’s political face a softer aspect and Peng LiYuan is a perfect representative: stylish, kind-hearted and beautiful, she is a Disney princess for us to oohh and ahhh over wherever she goes.
The tradition has been to keep wives of Party members far in the background; this is a reflection of the fear of another fiasco such as the Cultural Revolution, stirred up by Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing (AKA The White-Bone Demon). In looking through Peng LiYuan’s life, though, I have come to resent allusions to Jiang Qing in regards to this new First Lady–why? Because they are worlds apart in personality and sensibility. Jiang Qing garnered only very minor success in her acting career and carried a huge chip on her shoulder all her life, using the Cultural Revolution as an excuse to seek out, and even have killed, those people who crossed her early in her acting career in Shanghai. Peng LiYuan, on the other hand, has been a success pretty much from her teen years onward, winning numerous awards and public praise. She shows the calm and lovely face reflecting the inner peace of a woman who knows she is loved and admired for her gifts. There is no need for her to be pushy or to upstage her husband.
This public persona is very important in a world grown used to the cookie-cutter images of China’s leaders with their black suits, red ties and coal-black, brilliantined hair, or the old photos we remember of the Mao-suited Communist politicos in endless gray and khaki. China has always been known for its lovely women–the fantasy of the beautiful China Doll is an old one and pervades Western culture, from the infamous Suzie Wong to Gong Li in her many movie roles from Empress to sexy gangster’s moll. Peng LiYuan hits somewhere in the middle, catching just the right balance. No, she’s no spring chicken anymore, turning 51 on November 20th this year, but she has the elegant air, smooth ivory and gold complexion and raven-wing hair of a younger woman, and she carries herself with confidence and a decided chic.
She has a little something for everyone: she is a Mother of a well-educated, beautiful daughter who attends Harvard, a devoted and loyal Wife to a high-ranking political figure, she serves as a Fashion Trendsetter with every public appearance, she is a Humanitarian who works as a Goodwill Ambassador for the World Health Organization bringing attention and help to those who suffer from HIV/Aids and Tuberculosis, AND, she has a long career as a Singer and entertainer of national recognition- this is several female dreams and archetypes rolled into one, and it’s a powerful combination. Gone are the days of China’s First Lady occasionally appearing as a mild shadow to her important husband.
With China see-sawing between rapid growth in both industry and rabid governmental corruption in the news, it is a good thing to have this lady as a representative, putting an elegantly gilded veneer over news both good and bad. I think that is why she has come to called “Mother of the Nation” to the Chinese-China’s modern version of Lady Bountiful, Guan Yin: Peng LiYuan.