BEIJING — Chinese TV celebrity and superstar folk singer Peng Liyuan is Posh Spice, Maria Callas and Vera Lynn rolled into one, a household name who tours China performing for the troops.
Surprisingly, for the conservative country, she also is married to Shanghai party chief Xi Jinping, whom President Hu Jintao anointed as his possible successor at the helm of the world’s most populous country, during the 17th Communist Party congress last week.
That makes 45-year-old Peng China’s first lady-in-waiting — and far more well-known than husband Xi.
Folk singer in China does not mean Joan Baez or even Joni Mitchell. It means someone who sings patriotic songs that reflect the dominant Han Chinese culture, with frequent friendly nods to China’s minority ethnic groups in Tibet, Sichuan or Yunnan province. Her songs, with nationalistic titles like “We Are the Yellow River, We Are Mount Taishan,” “On the Land of Hope,” “Elder Fellow Villagers” or “Daughter of the Party,” paint a picture of a harmonious Chinese society very much in tune with the social ideal stressed by President Hu.
Peng, who holds the rank of general in the People’s Liberation Army, often wears olive drab fatigues as she belts out nationalist anthems, or sports Tibetan costume as she gives its songs a patriotic Chinese flavor.
She combines her folk singer credentials with a powerful presence in Chinese and Western opera. Peng has starred in innumerable perfs, and played the warrior Mulan in the opera of the same name with the Brandenburg Symphony Orchestra.
On TV, she is a mainstay of the world’s most-watched TV program — the Chinese New Year special on CCTV, on which she has appeared a record 19 times — and recently performed at a ceremony to announce the one-year countdown to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Despite her singing career, her communist credentials are second to none. Husband Xi is one of China’s communist “princelings,” the son of a guerrilla fighter and senior revolutionary leader who fell foul of Mao Tse-tung during the Cultural Revolution and spent 16 years in jail but was later reinstated to authority.
Peng herself sits on a prestigious consultative body to China’s annual parliament, the National People’s Congress, and reps China internationally as an AIDS ambassador.
In recent years Peng has reinvented herself slightly by introducing Western elements and beats into her songs to appeal to China’s youth.
But she remains very much a Party girl, eschewing pop songs like Xie Jun’s “That One Night,” about a drunken one-night stand, which irked Chinese songwriters.
She recently won her peers’ approval after 40 songwriters signed a petition denouncing such sexy pop songs as unhealthy and rallied around her wholesome fare.
“Music workers should firmly observe the socialist honors and disgraces,” ran a transcript on the People’s Daily website, urging pop stars to resist unseemly content and vulgarity in favor of outstanding online warbling that they believe the broader youth want to hear.