other first ladies

Meet China’s Campy, Trendy, Opera-Singing First Lady

China’s “glamorous, fashionable” new first lady Peng Liyuan is on her first official trip abroad with husband President Xi Jinping, visiting Russia and several African nations. There have been comparisons to Michelle Obama; Peng is “modern, outgoing, intrigued by fashion.” She’s also a diplomat with a focus on public health and AIDS, and a musical-theatrical propaganda singer famous for her performances in state-sponsored shows. The New York Times explains that Peng’s music career began when she joined the People’s Liberation Army at age 18:

She soon emerged as a talented singer with a voice suited to folk tales and operatic scores that heralded the bravery of China’s soldiers. For several decades, she starred in the nation’s annual New Year’s television extravaganza, where she wore boldly hued gowns with well-fitted bodices and flouncy skirts.

In 2004, Ms. Peng took the role of Mulan, the heroine of a Chinese folk tale depicted in “Mulan Psalm,” an opera about a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take the place of her ailing father in the army. The virtues of peace, the hard times of war and the glory of victory, assured by Mulan, make for a stirring spectacle.

The work combines musical theater, drama and dance with elements of Western opera, according to the composer of the score, Guan Xia. Ms. Peng performed the central role with a full orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York in 2005, and at the Vienna State Opera House in 2008. “She has deep technical roots, and very good technique,” Ms. Tian said. “In the folk singer category, no one can surpass her.”

Though the public has embraced Peng, some say her fame puts China’s Communist Party in an uncomfortable position, due in part to “millenniums-old suspicion of women near the center of power in China,” dating back to Madame Mao. The last two first ladies rarely appeared in public. Peng, however, has always had a high profile. The above video shows her singing about nationalism in a 2008 televised extravaganza. Below, Peng wears an electric-blue gown with maribou trim at a 1994 show:

I asked the Cut’s resident Chinese speaker Diana Tsui to translate. “It’s just about how great China is,” she said after listening to the first one. “I’m in your heart, you’re in my heart. Sons and daughters of China.” I could watch this stuff all day long.

That last one shows Peng singing in Russian, with a mondo hairdo. (Do state-sponsored Chinese folk singers wear wiglets?) Peng’s first travel outfit consisted of a dark trench coat and made-to-order purse from a Chengdu designer. The ensemble apparently threw the Chinese fashion press into a tizzy; her clothing and accessories are enjoying a “Kate Middleton effect,” with instant replication and booming sales online. 

Peng is also famous for her down-to-earth sense of romance, the Telegraph reports:

At first, she said she was unimpressed with Mr Xi because he looked “rustic and old”. The pair are separated in age by a decade. However, she later concluded he was “really intelligent.”

“When he comes home, I’ve never thought of it as though there’s some leader in the house,” she said in an interview with a Chinese magazine in 2007. “In my eyes, he’s just my husband.”

A picture taken the year after they met showed them posing in front of a temple on Dongshan island in Fujian and Mrs Peng has said Mr Xi likes swimming and mountain climbing and sometimes stays up at night to watch sport on television.

Peng and Xi have one daughter, whom the New York Times reports is “registered under a pseudonym as an undergraduate at Harvard.” Basically the premise of Katie Holmes’s flop First Daughter, but conspiratorial and communist.

China’s Campy, Trendy, Opera-Singing First Lady