As Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first state visit to the United States this week, he has never been far from a knot of close-lipped aides. One of his closest advisors, however, has been making headlines in her own right: Peng Liyuan, his wife of nearly 30 years, whom Forbes ranks as the 68th most powerful woman in the world.
For most Americans, the first glimpse of Ms. Peng may have come this weekend, as she delivered a speech in English – something her husband avoids – at the United Nations Education First conference on Saturday, stressing the importance of girls’ learning. Earlier in the weekend, she caught style-minded critics’ eyes alongside first lady Michelle Obama in a beaded, aquamarine gown at the White House State Dinner, after the two paid a visit to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo to christen its newest panda cub.
For most Chinese, however, Peng was a familiar face long before her husband rose to political prominence: The New York Times calls her “China’s most enduring pop-folk icon,” a “glass-cracking soprano,” and reports that her patriotic songs, faithful to the Communist Party line, made her China’s “peony fairy” well before she and Mr. Xi were introduced.
Peng enrolled in the military as a teen, where she was able to study art before getting a master’s degree at the China Conservatory of Music, according to the South China Morning Post. Her breakthrough from small-town singer to national icon came in 1983, when she performed in the first televised, state-sponsored Chinese New Year program, an annual spectacle that now draws 700 million viewers.
During this weekend's UN appearance, Peng discussed her own father’s struggle to educate himself and his community. “As his daughter, I know what education means to the people, especially those without it,” she said, linking his efforts with her success as a performer and music professor, and calling attention to the education gap between boys and girls.
Peng's speech added a human touch to Xi’s pledge of $10 million at a conference he co-hosted this week on women’s rights, on top of a $2 billion gift to developing nations.
Despite China’s generosity, Xi’s role as co-host provoked stern criticism from those who believe China is backsliding on its once-admirable record of gender rights. Although Chairman Mao proclaimed that “women hold up half the sky,” the traditional preference for sons persists today, evident in China’s skewed gender ratio: 118 boys for every 100 girls. Activists have also demanded the release of feminist protesters arrested in China last spring.
Some hope that Peng’s grace and pop appeal can help smooth out such controversies. These days, she’s more frequently sighted on an unobjectionable philanthropic mission than on stage, slowly overcoming Chinese skepticism about a public first lady that still lingers decades after the downfall of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing.
“If people see that Xi has such a beautiful wife, it would make the party seem more humane and less robotic,” Li Yinhe, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told The New York Times in 2012 – a task Peng now approaches on the global stage.