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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

Meet Peng Liyuan: folk singer, fashion icon and wife to China's President Xi Jinping

Profile: President Xi Jinping's wife, a uniquely Chinese source of soft power

Peng Liyuan will accompany her husband President Xi Jinping on a state visit to the UAE between July 19 and 21. Getty Images
Peng Liyuan will accompany her husband President Xi Jinping on a state visit to the UAE between July 19 and 21. Getty Images

Endearingly referred to as "The Peony Fairy", President Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan, enjoys an adoring global fan base. During state visits she has been heralded by the media as China’s first lady. Often comparisons are made between Mrs Peng and Jackie Kennedy, Princess Diana, and more recently Kate Middleton.

Yet Mr Xi’s wife is distinctly Chinese. Mrs Peng was born in Shandong province and joined the People’s Liberation Army when she was 18. Her talent for folk singing quickly took her away from soldiering duties and on to the stage, singing to raise morale in the army, where she has remained since. Mrs Peng gained nationwide attention when she performed On the Plains of Hope on CCTV’s New Year Gala in 1982.

US President Donald Trump and first lady Melania visit the Forbidden City with China's President Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan in Beijing, China. Reuters
US President Donald Trump and first lady Melania visit the Forbidden City with China's President Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan in Beijing, China. Reuters

Mr Xi and Mrs Peng were introduced by friends in the 1980s. Mr Xi reportedly charmed Mrs Peng by inquiring about singing techniques, while the president-to-be said he knew the folk singer would be his wife within 40 minutes of meeting her. They were married in 1987, and their daughter Xi Mingze was born in 1992.

In addition to her global folk-singing career, Mrs Peng holds the rank of major general in the People’s Liberation Army. In recent years Mrs Peng has taken on more diplomatic duties. In 2011 she was made a World Health Organisation goodwill ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDs, a role that involves lobbying governments. Last month, Mrs Peng met the director general of Unesco to discuss promoting international female education.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju walking with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan during their meeting in China. EPA / KCNA
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju walking with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan during their meeting in China. EPA / KCNA

Mrs Peng has also taken on a greater role as the other half to Mr Xi, and a source of soft power for the nation, her fashion is of particular focus on state visits. In trips to Mexico, Russia, and Belgium, Mrs Peng received attention for her signature high-cut dresses and suits. Elegant in long knee-length dresses, with clear lines and distinctive Chinese flourishes Mrs Peng appears confident on the world stage. Often with a turned-up collar, a scarf, or a clutch bag to accessorise, Mrs Peng represents the modern Chinese woman. She is elegant, an individual in her own right, and expressive in her fashion.

Mr Xi's wife's appeal extends far beyond national borders, boosting China's image around the world. Mrs Peng is "a key player in China’s soft power," said the president of the Institute of international relations of China Foreign Affairs University, a point echoed by glowing headlines that follow her around the world. "China's first lady Peng Liyuan steals the show in Latin America," wrote Britain's Daily Telegraph, after a trip to Trinidad and Tobago.

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Mrs Peng’s following for her fashion sense is almost as strong as for her music. Clothes she wears on the international stage are likely to be sold out within hours. In a trip to Moscow, Mrs Peng appeared in a coat from Chinese designer Exception, causing the manufacturer's website to crash from the subsequent traffic. In 2014, Mrs Peng appeared with ZTE’s new phone, prompting a jump of sales on JD.com, and sending the Chinese tech company’s share price up 4 per cent.

On Mr Xi and Mrs Peng’s visit to the UAE they will be received with the highest honour the Emirates have to offer, but in the comfort of their own home, they are husband and wife first and foremost.

"When he comes home, I’ve never thought of it as though there’s some leader in the house. In my eyes, he’s just my husband,” Mrs Peng said in a magazine interview. “When I get home, he doesn’t think of me as some famous star. In his eyes, I’m simply his wife.”

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