Unlike previous first ladies, Peng Liyuan is a well-known name in China. Here is a look at her humble beginnings, her rise as a musical superstar and her current administrative position.

Born in 1962, in Yuncheng County in the Shandong province, Peng Liyuan joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1980, first as a soldier and then working primarily as vocalist for troops during the Sino-Vietnamese border conflicts.

Mrs. Peng comes from a poor family in contrast to her well-connected husband, whose father was a vice-premier of China.

At 14, Peng Liyuan made an early entry into the Shandong University of the Arts specializing in Chinese Folk songs.

Source: News.cn
President Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan in 1987  (Xinhua)

Culture has always been an important part of Mrs Peng’s upbringing. Her father was  a schoolmaster in charge of the county Culture bureau. He earned 40 yuan a month. Her mother was a member of a small touring opera company, according to BBC.

She is currently the PLA Art Academy dean, vice chairman of Chinese Opera Research Institute, member of the ACWF Executive Committee, a visiting professor for the Chinese Academy of Music at Peking University to name a few, according to an entry in Baidu ( China’s version of Wikipedia).

Image: AFP

It was the The New Year’s Gala on CCTV in 1983 that made her a national celebrity. It was just three years later, in 1986 when the soprano star would meet future President Xi through a mutual friend. At that  time, President Xi was the was the deputy mayor of Xiamen City in southern Fujian province and she was already a well known singing superstar. Peng and President Xi have one daughter, 23 year old Xi Mingze who graduated from Harvard in the United States in 2014.

President Xi Jinping with his father, his wife, Peng Liyuan and daughter. Source: news.cn
President Xi Jinping with his father, his wife, Peng Liyuan and daughter. (Xinhua)

Unlike China’s previous first ladies, who have remained mostly behind the scenes, she is a high-profile political spouse at the top level. In 2015, Forbes listed Peng Liyuan as the 68th most powerful woman in the world.

Image: AP
Image: AP

Popularly referred to as the Peony fairy (referring to the Peony flowers of her hometown), Peng Liyuan has performed all over the world as a Chinese Folk Singer. After President Xi, took office in 2013, she cut down her singing engagements till 2014, when she narrated “a short film about discrimination towards people with HIV for the World Health Organization and also sang the film’s theme song. Since 2011, Peng has served as a World Health Organization (WHO) ambassador for Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

Peng Liyuan hugs a child patient during her visit to Federico Gomez Children's Hospital, in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo: Xinhua
Peng Liyuan hugs a child patient during her visit to Federico Gomez Children’s Hospital, in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo: Xinhua

She was designated as UNESCO‘s Special Envoy for the Advancement of Girls’ and Women’s Education in recognition “of her commitment to empowering girls and women through quality education, her outstanding contribution to fighting inequalities in education, her devoted service to human development and creativity, and her dedication to the ideals and aims of the Organization.” on March 27, 2014.

On her birthday in November last year, Massey University in New Zealand conferred her an Honorary Doctorate in recognition of her international contributions to performing arts and health and education.

You can listen to Ms. Liyuan perform here:

Sources: UN Health, Massey University, Forbes, BBC.co.uk, South Morning China Post, The Telegraph and CCTV News.