Glamour, Soft Power and International Image: China’s New First Lady, Peng Liyuan

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By Huai Bao

When Peng Liyuan stepped out of the Air China airplane in Moscow beside her husband, Xi Jinping, the new President of China, in March 2013, she became the most talked about woman among Chinese netizens in Mainland China and overseas. Her hairstyle, light make-up, earrings, scarf, overcoat, and handbag all raised a media whirlwind in China.

Peng, one of her country’s most famous soprano singers, has apparently distinguished herself from previous First Ladies of the PRC. But in one unwritten rule she has been following her predecessors—while shining brighter next to her husband in the public eye, she has retreated from her musical career since he became a member of the Politburo Standing Committee.

Peng was born in Yuncheng county, Shandong province, in November 1962. Her father was the curator of the county’s cultural center, and her mother a principal actress of a local yuju (Henan opera) troupe. She developed an interest in singing at the age of four or five, under her mother’s influence. She joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1980, serving as an entertainer. She rose to fame with her appearance on China Central Television’s Chinese New Year’s Gala for 1983. Shortly after that she was accepted into the Chinese Conservatory of Music, studying Chinese folk music. She graduated in 1990, and earned the first Master of Fine Art in Chinese national vocal music ever granted in the PRC. She married Xi Jinping in Xiamen, Fujian province, in 1987, when Xi served as the deputy mayor of Xiamen.

Although she is married to someone from a distinguished political background, her public reputation drew heavily on her vocal talent, charisma, apparent humility, and low profile in public, and active philanthrophy. Since 2011, she has been a World Health Organization Goodwill Ambassador for Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

Although Newsweek has recently suggested that female politicians are more common in the PRC than in the U.S., the patriarchal Chinese Communist Party leaders have never liked politically ambitious wives. Madam Mao, the “flag bearer” of the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, has been compared to ambitious and brutal empresses, Wu of the Tang dynasty and Cixi of the Qing dynasty. But in the eyes of many Chinese netizens, Peng somehow represents the beauty and virtues of idealized Chinese womanhood and symbolizes the rising superpower. Furthermore, there is considerable anticipation that she will help transform negative impressions of China abroad. In fact, Chinese netizens frequently appear to embrace the idea of a glamorous and kind-hearted first lady standing beside the new president as she effectively advertises a new national image.

Such reception places Peng alongside other global first ladies, such as Michelle Obama (the United States), Lyudmila Aleksandrovna Putina (Russia), Samantha Cameron (United Kingdom), and Laureen Harper (Canada), as a potential tool of a country’s soft power and an embellishment of a husband’s political persona. That conventional role, however, does not only point to a modern imaginary of power that commonly employs women as critical accessories that act to humanize men and the nations they lead.  In the case of the PRC, emphasis on Peng’s glamour and femininity also reflects many observers’ satisfaction that the days of gender erasure associated with the Cultural Revolution may now be in the past.

 

Resources:

Fan, J. (2013, April 2). A New Kind of First Lady in China. Retrieved from

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2013/04/a-new-kind-of-first-lady-for-china.html

彭丽媛 Wikipedia.

http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/彭丽媛

The Women Who Want to Run the World. In Newsweek. 27 August 2010. Retrieved from

http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2010/08/27/chinese-women-are-more-ambitious-than-americans.html

Huai Bao
Huai Bao, a.k.a. H. B. Dhawa, received his Ph.D. at Simon Fraser University. Thanks to the SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, he is currently conducting postdoctoral research with the host institution being University of Toronto. He has taught at the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, and the University of Waterloo, and has published two books and numerous peer-reviewed scholarly articles in North America, Europe, and Asia. His personal website is www.hbdhawa.com