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[Newsmaker] China’s ‘songbird’ flies to new heights

Nov. 18, 2012 - 20:47 By Korea Herald
Peng Liyuan
Since China’s Hu Jintao handed over power Thursday to his vice president Xi Jinping, the world may be hearing a new song in the communist country’s austere halls of power ― not from Xi, but from his wife.

Peng Liyuan, endearingly nicknamed the “Peony Fairy,” rose to prominence as the sweet soprano at the forefront of the People’s Liberation Army with nationalistic folk songs like “People from our Village” and “On the Plains of Hope.” After enlisting as a regular soldier at age 18, her morale-boosting talent propelled her to eventually lead the army’s musical troupe, becoming Major General. She garnered nationwide recognition for her annual appearances on the widely watched CCTV New Year’s Gala since the early 1980s, long before she met her future husband. Peng is a household name in China, though her actual fans are said to be the older generations nostalgic for traditions of decades past.

Also called the “outstanding songbird of the century,” the 49-year-old folk singer is the first high-profile top-level political spouse since Chairman Mao Zedong’s late wife Jiang Qing.

As she sits at the side of the 1.3-billion-strong country’s most powerful man, the world looks to Peng in the hope that she will become a role model for females in China’s heavily male-dominated one-party bureaucracy. International media even liken her to France’s former first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

But ever since it was hinted in 2007 that Xi might be tapped to take the helm in the once-in-a-decade election, Peng has assumed a role outside of his limelight, careful not to outshine him. She has toned down her public image, only coming out to perform her classics for major events. She has hung up her colorful gowns for pantsuits and military uniforms, avoids talking about him publicly, and is rarely seen at his side in public. It is even unclear whether she will take on the traditional role of first lady accompanying Xi on overseas trips.

The world waits to see whether the communist party will use its songbird to boost its gray image, or clip her wings.

By Elaine Ramirez (