The village official smiles apologetically as he shepherds me gently away from the family home of China’s most famous woman, diplomatically suggesting we visit another time.
“Of course, we are very proud of her and would love to show you around,” he tells me courteously a few minutes later in the village Communist Party office. “But we’ve had instructions from county officials to keep a low profile and not to let people come here uninvited.”
I am in Peng village – the childhood home of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan, – and my presence is making the local officials uncomfortable. To conduct interviews here, I must apply to county-level officials, who, I am given the impression, will refer my request to a much higher authority.
This is my second visit in two years to the village. On the first, shortly after her husband came to power, people spoke openly and proudly about the village’s famous daughter.
This autumn things are not so straightforward. Peng’s star is shining more brightly than ever after hugely successful official visits to the United States and Britain; a foreign reporter delving into the past of China’s first lady is not so welcome.
A nationally famous folk singer before she met her husband, when he was a rising political star in the 1980s, photogenic Peng has become the most high- profile Chinese first lady of modern times. She has been compared to Jackie Kennedy and Carla Bruni, and won a host of admirers in September when she addressed the United Nations in flawless English as a special envoy for education for girls and women.
Even by the standards of modern China, her rags-to-riches story of rising from a dirt-poor rural village, where her father was targeted during the Cultural Revolution, to wife of the president is an incredible one. In official biographies and state newspaper reports, however, details of her humble roots have been left deliberately vague, as has the geography of her home village of a few hundred residents, in an apparent attempt to keep prying eyes away.
Peng village lies in a remote corner of rural Shandong province, where farmers scrape a living out of corn and wheat crops, and the best prospect for young people is working in the nearby textile factories.
Locals travel between their homes, farmland and markets by bicycle and motorcycle rickshaw.
In the village centre stands the simple home of Peng’s family. Bolted and empty, today it is used only by Peng’s half-brother, villagers have told me. When I visit, farmers are using the front yard to strip and pile thousands of ears of freshly harvested corn.
It was in this house that Peng – one of three siblings – played as a child in the politically turbulent 1960s, during which her father was stripped of his local government job and forced to clean toilets. He had been an intellectual who taught villagers how to read; Peng’s mother was an actress with a local theatre group. They were obvious targets during the Cultural Revolution.
As a young child, it’s been reported, Peng travelled with her mother to visit her father at the re-education camp where he carried out his humiliating duties. Peng brought him food, helped wash his clothes and was a lookout for patrolling officials while her parents held hands beneath the partition of the toilet block he was forced to clean.
When the chaos of the Cultural Revolution subsided, her father was reinstated as a government official, and Peng went to school in the nearby county town of Yuncheng, where her talent for singing was nurtured. She was fast-tracked to Shandong Art School at 14 and, at 18, joined the People’s Liberation Army.
There, she was appointed a “warrior of arts and culture” and began a stellar career singing patriotic songs lauding the glories of the Communist Party and the Red Army, while dressed in uniform or regional costumes, to sellout crowds across China.
In 1983, aged 21, she appeared on the state broadcaster China Central Television’s first New Year gala, and performed at almost every annual show subsequently for the next quarter of a century. The most watched TV show on Earth, with an audience of hundreds of millions, it made her a superstar.
Controversially in the eyes of Western observers, Peng is said to have sung to Chinese troops in Beijing immediately after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and, in 2007, performed a dance routine showing Tibetan women thanking the Chinese army for “liberating” them in the 1959 uprising in Tibet.
When, in 1986, she was introduced by a friend to Xi, Peng was far more famous than her suitor. But as Xi ascended to the presidency, Peng scaled back her singing career. Today, however, when she joins him on overseas trips to visit Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, in London, or Barack Obama at the White House, in Washington, for example, Peng is increasingly attracting a greater share of the limelight.
Her cosmopolitan life is a galaxy away from Peng village, the residents of which are disproportionately the very young and the elderly – many parents having left to find work in bigger towns and cities.
Wang Rong, 79, whose daughter went to school with Peng, says, “When she was a little girl, their house wasn’t anything like it is now. It had mud walls and a dirt floor. They were very poor like everyone in the village.
“Her mother was an actress with the local theatre but she still had to work in the fields with her baby daughter strapped to her back. We were amazed and happy when Peng became so famous. It is hard for us to believe that someone from here can be so famous.”
On my first visit to the village, I met retired farmer Peng Longyou, 68, a relative and one of many people in the village who bears this family name. He was playing dominos with a group of friends in the street.
“We’re so proud of her – the whole country is very proud,” he said. “We don’t see her very often these days but we hear about her all the time and she sends money back to the village. She’s paid for a primary school and she had a road built in the village.
“I remember her as a skinny, slight girl, but she was always very polite and well behaved. We had no idea what she would become. It’s unbelievable.
“She is very busy these days, of course, and she only comes back once every few years. But when she does come back, she’s very friendly and kind and just the same. She still calls me uncle.”
The village school Peng funded, Liyuan Primary School, is the only mention of her name in the village. It is a concrete structure which replaced an earlier, dilapidated school building, and serves 150 pupils from the village and surrounding countryside.
Teacher Jiang Xurong, who is married to one of the first lady’s cousins, says, “Peng Liyuan came here with a lot of important officials and opened the school. It was a very exciting time for everyone in the village.”
The classrooms are basic, with wooden chairs and tables set on dusty concrete floors, but, Jiang says, “The old school was much more basic so we are very grateful for this.”
Despite its new school and road, Peng village is noticeably undeveloped compared to others in the area.
“There are people who want to invest in the village but they are not allowed to,” a shopkeeper says. “Officials say they are doing it for the wrong reasons and that they may destroy the character of the village, so they are turned away.”
One of Xi’s central policies since taking office in 2013 has been a huge crackdown on corruption. Communist Party officials are perhaps keen to ensure this legacy is not tainted by people attempting to curry favour with relatives and old friends of the president’s wife in Shandong.
There is a similar reluctance to discuss China’s first lady at her old school in Yuncheng.
“We have been instructed not to accept any interviews and not to talk about Peng Liyuan,” says the deputy head of Yuncheng Number One Middle School, when we ask if we can see the wing funded by Peng, the Liyuan Art Building.
The apologetic village official asks us to leave. He is unable to explain why there should be so much sensitivity about her home village. An order was passed down last year ordering the villagers to keep a low profile and report any visiting journalists, he explains.
It may be that the Communist Party wants to prevent Peng overshadowing her husband. It might be embarrassment at her father’s treatment during the Cultural Revolution. Or it could be a desire for image control by Xi, seen by many as the most authoritarian Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.
The BBC recently met with similar official nervousness on the eve of Xi’s state visit to Britain, when one of its reporters visited the rural cave home where the Chinese leader lived for a time as a teenager, when his own father was purged during the Cultural Revolution.
A degree of anxiety over the president’s spouse is perhaps understandable. The wives of recent Chinese presidents have been kept firmly in the background, partly because of the poisonous legacy of Mao’s power-hungry wife, Jiang Qing, a former actress who was blamed for many of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. In recent years, the high-profile lawyer wife of rising political star Bo Xilai brought about her husband’s downfall and ended up in prison for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
Peng’s fame also perhaps presents an uncomfortable parallel with another famous singer – 49-year-old Song Zuying, rumoured to be the long-term “first mistress” of 89-year-old former president Jiang Zemin.
But the love story of Xi and Peng appears far less tainted.
Nine years her senior and divorced from his first, childless three-year marriage, to the daughter of a Chinese ambassador to Britain, Xi met Peng when he was deputy mayor of Xiamen, in Fujian province.
“He looked old and fusty and I didn’t like him at first,” she recalled in an interview with a state newspaper, adding that her parents did not approve at first of her dating a privileged “princeling” – Xi is the son of leading Communist revolutionary and Mao ally Xi Zhongxun. But Xi won her over, and persuaded her parents that his background was not so different to theirs, saying: “My father was the son of a peasant and as common as an old shoe.”
In another interview, Peng described how she wore baggy, ill-fitting trousers and plain clothes on their first dates to make sure Xi was interested in her for her intellect and not her beauty.
After they were married, the couple lived apart: Xi remained in Fujian province while Peng focused on her singing career, living in Beijing but travelling all over the country for performances – she was reportedly doing 350 shows per year. But she found time to make a quilt to keep her husband warm through the winter and travelled by train from the capital with it strapped to her back.
With their current status, such a trip for Peng now would be unthinkable. But despite their shared fame, in 2007, Peng told a state-run magazine: “When my husband comes home, in my eyes, he is just my husband, not a state leader. When I come home, in his eyes, I am just his wife, and not a singing star.
“When you ask why I still look radiant after so long in the limelight, it is because of my family life. If I was unhappy in my married life and my heart was full of sorrow, I would not have this smiling face.”
Peng rarely speaks of her tough upbringing. But in September, when addressing the United Nations, she spoke about growing up in “a small village in China” where her father set up a night school for illiterate villagers. With his help, she said, many people learned to write their own names.
“Many people learned to read newspapers for the first time,” she said. “With his help, many women were able to teach their children how to read. As his daughter, I know what education means to people – especially those without it.”
As officials in China fret over her image and legacy, international commentators see mainly positives in Peng’s emergence on the world stage, arguing she presents a softer and more human face of China to a global community nervous of the nation’s growing military and economic might.
For Lu Sulan, the recently retired head teacher at the Liyuan Primary School, in Peng village, however, the biggest prize in the rising profile of Peng is a brighter future for the youngsters in her home village.
“Most parents in this village want their children to go to college, but it rarely happens,” she says. “Too often they end up working on the land or in textile factories, which is a hard life for them.
“I hope Peng Liyuan can be an inspiration for them. I hope children here see that even if they come from a poor village, they can do whatever they want with their lives and be anybody they want to be.”