As the Chinese premier Xi Jinping gave a speech to both Houses of the British Parliament yesterday afternoon, his charming wife cut a sharp contrast with the ranks of dark-suited Englishmen sitting on the front bench, nodding respectfully as they listened to his well-rehearsed words on the benefits of Anglo-Chinese co-operation.
Dressed in an elegant embroidered jacket suit with a lavish silk bow at the neck—later in the day she would change into a svelte blue gown by Chinese designer Ma Ke for a glittering White Tie banquet at Buckingham Palace—Peng Liyuan looked every inch the modern political leader’s wife.
The image makers in Beijing must have been delighted at the ensuing press coverage focusing on the “the peony fairy” as Liyuan, a pop star whose fame at home far exceeds that of her husband, is colloquially known.
Liyuan’s remodeling as a Western-friendly glamour-puss and fashion plate is a remarkable achievement, given that she first sprang to fame after serenading the Chinese troops on the successful completion of their patriotic duty in crushing the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square a quarter of a century ago.
In a 1989 photo of Peng singing to the troops after their bloody crackdown, Liyuan cuts quite a different figure to the cultured and elegant woman put on show to the world as part of the Chinese state visit to the UK yesterday.
With her coarse, windswept hair tied back in a ponytail, and wearing an ill-fitting military jacket, Peng, 27, holds a microphone as she sings a tune—reportedly it was entitled ‘The Most Beloved People’—to a sea of helmeted troops in the Beijing square where hundreds, possibly thousands, of demonstrators had recently been slaughtered.
Little surprise, given the stylish image now being constructed for Peng, that Chinese censors have been working overtime in recent years to scrub the picture from the Web. It is now impossible, for example, to access the image on the Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo.
Indeed, the control of the media in China is so effective that many young Chinese have only the haziest awareness of the details of the massacre.
At the time of the protests, her new husband Xi was party chief of an eastern city, and Peng was already rising up through the ranks of the Communist Party.
Her ascent had been swift. At age 18 Liyuan joined the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (she is now a major-general) as a regular soldier before specializing as an entertainer, performing patriotic songs for the troops.
She began appearing regularly on TV, and by the mid-’90s was a household name.
When her husband became leader two years ago, her public profile presented Chinese leaders with something of a crisis. But in Chinese, fittingly, the word for crisis is made up of two symbols, one meaning “danger” and one meaning “opportunity”. The Chinese leadership have clearly decided to embrace the opportunities a modern Chinese First Lady offers.
Liyuan’s pronounced public presence is a bracing change in a country where political wives are rarely permitted a public profile—and after the fate that befell Mao Tse Tung’s wife, Jiang Qing (she committed suicide after being given a life sentence for her part in the Cultural Revolution), few could blame them for preferring to stick to the shadows.
However, the authorities have apparently decided that Liyuan will become a talisman for the new image China wishes to project to the world: open, engaging, and modelled self-consciously on Western ideas.
The prominence of Liyuan on this official state visit is a sign of just how fast things are changing in China.
Ten years younger than her husband, at 52, Liyuan is extremely popular at home. Her elegant beauty emphasizes the older man’s virility, and her fame still exceeds her husband’s in China, where she is a constant subject of conversation as well as magazine and TV coverage.
She was born in a tiny village in Shandong Province in 1962 to an intellectual father and actress mother. Her father ran a local cultural centre and taught illiterate villagers how to read, but unhappily his work caught the attentions of the authorities. He was stripped of his job and sentenced to “reform through labour”, and set to work cleaning communal toilets.
Liyuan’s mother, an actress, also lost her job as the family were effectively blacklisted.
Her most famous singles include ‘People from Our Village,’ ‘Zhumulangma,’ and ‘In the Field of Hope.’
A crucial part of Peng’s international PR value is her reputation for being a clothes horse. She has played up to this, wearing three different outfits on the first day of the tour. As well as the embroidered jacket she wore to the Houses of Parliament, she sported a simple white dress suit with embroidered pockets when meeting the Queen in the morning and a midnight blue gown to the Buckingham Palace banquet.
Her clothes have produced an inevitable outpouring of style commentary in the U.K. papers.
The shallow narrative of, “Wow! A fashionable Chinese person!” appears enough to keep the U.K. press happy. As a result, the West is focusing on carefully constructed images from yesterday instead of the more illuminating and candid ones from the scene of one of the worst massacres in China’s history just 25 years ago.
The loyal Winston Smiths of China (Smith worked as a clerk in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s book 1984, where his job was to rewrite and dispose of historical documents that clashed with the latest party line) must be delighted with their handiwork.