On Thursday night, many in China will be following the news of President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump’s dinner with Peng Liyuan, one of the country’s most famous singers.
Oh, and that other guy — her husband, Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Xi begins a major summit with Trump on Thursday at the U.S. president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. But for many Chinese, Peng — China’s highest-profile first lady since Mao Tse-tung’s wife Jiang Qing — will be the main attraction.
Peng, 54, who frequently travels with her husband on international trips, is best known in China for her many years as a soloist at the annual spring festival gala, belting folk songs in a warbly, nasal soprano.
Her admirers call her “Mama Peng.” They compare her to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Michelle Obama, Raisa Gorbachev and Kate Middleton, adept at infusing some glamour into a traditionally staid role.
Yet Peng is unique. She’s deeply patriotic and conservative — an ideological match for her husband, who has overseen a nationwide campaign to reinforce traditional values. She’s also a major general in the People’s Liberation Army. In one widely-shared video clip, Peng, dressed in military garb, sings “the ancestral country must be rich and powerful” as an audience of officials, all men, stiffly clap along.
Little is known about her personal life. In 2007, she appeared in military dress on China’s state broadcaster CCTV. “I think you’re a very high-profile, but also a very low-profile artist,” said the host, noting that although she performs frequently, she reveals little to the media. “It’s hard to find the opportunity to converse with Peng Liyuan face-to-face,” he said.
“No way,” she replied, laughing. “You can see me at the market, or the store. I’m always off buying groceries.”
Traditionally, China’s first ladies are not a prominent bunch. Neither President Hu Jintao’s wife, Liu Yongqing, nor Jiang Zemin’s wife, Wang Yeping, maintained any real public profile. Looking for their names on Chinese search engines brings up only basic biographical information such as birth dates and alma maters.
You can see me at the market, or the store. I’m always off buying groceries.
When Xi assumed the Communist Party’s top post in 2012, analysts expected the same for Peng. So they were surprised when Peng accompanied her husband to Russia in March, 2013, on his first state visit as president, attracting attention for her sophisticated fashion sense. Since then, she has stood by Xi’s side at several major events.
Often, imitations of her outfit — a red dress, a gray coat, a modest handbag — immediately proliferate on Taobao, China’s largest online shopping platform. (The government, discomfited by the phenomenon, has cracked down; search terms about her fashion sense have been blocked by Internet censors).
In 2013, images appeared on Chinese websites showing Peng serenading army troops shortly after the Communist party’s 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. Those, too, have been deleted.
Peng rose to national fame well before she married Xi. She attended the China Conservatory of Music, joined the People’s Liberation Army as a civilian at 18, and met her future husband in the southeastern province of Fujian in 1986, early in his political career (later, he would become the province’s governor).
Since 2011, Peng has been a World Health Organization “goodwill ambassador” for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. In March, she visited a middle school in Tianjin, a metropolis near Beijing, to promote tuberculosis prevention and treatment methods, the state-run China Daily reported.
“Peng‘s love and caring reflect the Chinese government’s vision,” said one user of Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, after her visit. “Her actions can warm up so many patients’ hearts.”
Wrote another: “Beautiful Mama Peng, charming Chinese charisma.”
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Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.