A serious mind behind Chinese leader

Updated: 2014-06-04 07:00

By Xue Yanwen (China Daily)

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Little was known about the wife of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang before she accompanied him to Africa, but her keen intellect and elegant disposition has made her a hit with the public. Xue Yanwen from China Features reports.

Before Cheng Hong accompanied her husband on an official visit to Africa last month, the wife of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was little known among ordinary Chinese.

Prior to the trip, the public had only a few tidbits of information about her from coverage by the Xinhua News Agency. It was known that she is a professor of English at Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing and has translated several books on American literature, and that the couple has a daughter.

But when she smiled and waved to the welcoming crowds and donated books to a local university during the premier's four-nation tour, her presence created a frenzy in the media and online.

Netizens and experts hailed Cheng, together with Peng Liyuan, wife of President Xi Jinping, as heroines of China's "wife diplomacy", a move to cultivate soft power and improve the country's international image.

'Iron girl'

Like her husband and many of China's senior officials, Cheng was sent to the countryside during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). Perhaps such an experience explains why the 57-year-old enjoys positioning herself as a low-profile university professor, even when she became China's "second lady".

Cheng was a zhiqing, a term used to describe educated youth. Zhiqing are a group of people who spent the prime of their lives toiling in the countryside during former chairman Mao Zedong's re-education program in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In 1974, the same year Li began his zhiqing life in Central China's Anhui province, the then 17-year-old Cheng arrived at a village in Jiaxian county in neighboring Henan province, where the nationwide campaign kicked off in 1968.

"Cheng Hong led a group of 'iron girls' to take on all the hardest work in our commune," says Wang Guangtao, 67, from Banchang village, where Cheng was sent.

"Iron girl" was the one of the best things a female zhiqing could be called at the time, when Mao's famous observation that "women hold up half the sky" prevailed. Women who were strong-willed and could work as hard as men were regarded as beautiful.

Reaping wheat, plowing, firing bricks, even picking up dung - every morning Cheng woke up early to work. She always earned the most work points, which only a few men could manage, according to Feng Xiaodong, a fellow zhiqing of Cheng's.

"I remember on a night of thunder and rain, we were fighting a flood, carrying sandbags on our shoulders to strengthen the river dike. We kept falling down on the muddy road but always got up again," wrote Cheng in an article published in Guangming Daily on Aug 1, 1994.

"Young people today might laugh at our passion back then. But it was our genuine feeling. Who can deny that genuineness is most precious?" wrote Cheng. "On that river bank I shed my sweat and tears. There I strove and pursued, not knowing what was ahead."

Devoted scholar

After four years as an "iron girl", Cheng returned to the city. She went to Peking University for English studies, where she met her husband.

Shortly after their marriage, Cheng took a teaching post at CUEB. She has taught in the foreign languages department for more than 30 years. She was responsible for a research project on "natural literature and eco-criticism".

The professor developed her interest in American and British literature on nature and ecology when she was a visiting scholar at Brown University in the United States, an experience she wrote about in her book Tranquility Is Beyond Price, published in 2009.

"The inner landscape of an individual is nourished by natural scenery," she wrote in the preface.

Cheng is the first person to have translated four masterpieces of Western nature writing to China, including Wake-Robin, The Singing Wilderness, The Outermost House and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.

"Judging from the editors' viewpoint, professor Cheng is the kind of writer that editors would call 'the best'," says Li Xuejun, veteran editor with SDX Joint Publishing, who has been cooperating with Cheng since 1999.

SDX Joint Publishing Co in Beijing released Cheng's four translations as part of a collection of American nature writing in August 2012. The collection has been a strong seller since its publication and has become even more popular after Cheng's public debut.

When she first met Cheng, "she looked like an ordinary scholar to me", Li Xuejun says. "What impressed me most then was her manuscript." Returning to the Wilderness is the first Chinese research work to serve as a systematic introduction to American nature writing.

"I knew little about nature writing at that time. She's one of the few forward-looking researchers in this field," says Li Xuejun.

It took Cheng a decade to finish translating all four classics. But she maintained her low profile after publishing the collection and asked not to do book promotions, according to Li Xuejun.

"The rapidly changing era calls for willpower and a calm mind," Li Keqiang wrote in a letter in reply to the Sanlian Bookstore, the first bookstore to be open 24 hours in Beijing, on April 22, the day before World Book and Copyright Day.

"In my eyes, Cheng Hong has such willpower and a calm mind," Li Xuejun says. "That's why she's able to persist and continually offer the readers her new discoveries in the area."

Contact the writer at features@chinadaily.com.cn

 A serious mind behind Chinese leader

Li Keqiang and Cheng Hong arrive in Angola's capital Luanda on May 8. Li Tao / Xinhua

 A serious mind behind Chinese leader

Cheng Hong poses with Nigeria's first lady Patience Jonathan in capital city Abuja, on her visit last month. Li Xueren / Xinhua

(China Daily 06/04/2014 page22)