Chinese first lady escapes pomp of British visit to charm students and eye robots

Peng Liyuan, the wife of China's President Xi Jinping, waves as she leaves The Royal College of Music in London, Britain October 22, 2015.
Peng Liyuan, the wife of China's President Xi Jinping, waves as she leaves The Royal College of Music in London, Britain October 22, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan slipped away from the pomp, politics and deal-making of President Xi Jinping's state visit to meet teenagers studying the Mandarin language - and some of Britain's pop culture icons.

Xi's wife, 52, a huge star in China with independent fame as a folk singer, spent the first few days of the visit, the first by a Chinese leader in 10 years, touring a succession of schools, events and universities in London.

At a creative industry event on Wednesday, alongside Britain's Prince William and his wife Kate, Peng and Xi met some of the robot overlords - known as Daleks - from BBC television's long-running sci-fi television series "Dr Who." They chatted with Hong Kong kung fu film star Jackie Chan and viewed an exhibit about fictional secret agent James Bond.

During a visit to a school in north London she listened to poetry and songs in Mandarin, widely considered one of the most difficult languages for English speakers. "Your Chinese is better than my English," she told the students at Fortismere school, according to translated words.

She also watched a Mandarin class during which students learnt Mao Zedong's saying that "girls hold up half the sky".

Asked by students whether girls and boys were equally represented in China's education system, Peng said too many"good girls" missed out on a place despite working harder than the boys.

"It was an absolutely amazing experience, quite surreal at times," the school's headteacher Helen Anthony said of Peng's visit. "She was delightful, warm, and she very much put the students at ease."

"SYMBOL OF GLAMOUR"

Coming from humble beginnings, Peng has credited education for her emergence as one of China's most famous figures. She was named a UN special envoy for female education last year.

When Peng married Xi in 1987, when he was vice mayor of the southeastern port city of Xiamen, she was far better known than he was, having spent years singing about China's rise.

But when Xi became vice-president in 2007 she was ordered to take a back seat as he was being groomed for state power.

However as China has tried to soften its image abroad she has re-emerged into the limelight.

She has broken the mould of Chinese first wives who have kept an intentionally low-profile since the 1970s with her advocacy for education and her status as a fashion icon.

The China Daily newspaper last year compared Peng with US first lady Michelle Obama calling them both symbols of glamour who "stand uneclipsed by their more powerful husbands."

Peng's fashion sense has not gone unnoticed in Britain. Scientists at Imperial College London university presented her with a perfectly fitted cape on Wednesday after experts studied 700 photos of her to create the garment.

The British press has also lauded her dress sense. The Telegraph newspaper called the blue silk coat-dress she wore to meet Queen Elizabeth on Tuesday "the height of restrained elegance".