Is China having a first lady moment? It would certainly seem so. Peng Liyuan, the wife of China’s new President, has emerged swiftly and seemingly decisively, into an overtly more prominent first-lady role than many had seen for some time in China. To be fair, she has the track record to be a front-and-centre Spouse No 1 — she has long been a soprano singer of highly patriotic tunes with a voice that can hit the high notes and shatter glass. Her regular appearances on the long-running, and mostly just plain long, state TV traditional spring festival variety show mean she is universally known in China, whether formally clad in her trim People’s Liberation Army olive uniform with plenty of blingy braid attached, or in one of her many elaborate ball gowns belting out a song or three.
However, with Xi’s political elevation, so too Peng’s profile has been lifted. She has all the credentials — she is photogenic, dresses extremely well and has a record of championing good causes (she was an ambassador for tobacco control in 2009 and in 2012 was appointed as the ambassador for the fight against tuberculosis and HIV/Aids for the WHO, an initiative aided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). When she recently stepped of the plane with Xi on an overseas trip, the photographers ate up her stylish black peabody coat, her spot-on high-bouffant hairdo and a handbag of sumptuous leather that did not have any obvious branding (very important in these days of corruption crackdown and Chinese politicians being snapped with expensive Swiss watches and luxury European designer accessories that should be beyond the reach of fairly low-paid public officials).
All of this of course is no accident. Part of the Xi ‘China Dream Team’ is the promotion of a first lady, something (if the Chinese blogosphere is to be believed) many Chinese have been waiting for after years of being fascinated with foreign first ladies from Michelle Obama to Carla Bruni to Cherie Blair. Going back of course, there is still a fascination among some with Jackie O., while, back in 1972, Pat Nixon intrigued the Chinese by wearing a rather scandalous red coat (her advisers told her the Chinese associated red with prostitutes) and accompanying her husband on tours of communes and schools. Obviously Peng knows how to draw attention too, arriving with her husband in Tanzania on his recent swing through Africa in a well-tailored peach dress suit and with another luxurious leather, but again unbranded, handbag.
Still, as much as China watchers have argued that Peng is the start of a new trend of prominent first ladies in China, the fact is that the tradition of prominent and controversial first ladies in Chinese politics is long and storied, dating all the way back to the birth of the Chinese Republic in 1911. And speculation about who is and who is not a senior leader’s consort has always been rife, at least unofficially. Indeed China’s imperial system had a rigid and well-defined ranking system of empress, consorts and concubines. There is some long history here: The Rites of Zhou, one of three ancient ritual texts listed among the classics of Confucianism and published sometime in the second century, stated that an emperor was entitled to one empress, three madames, nine imperial concubines, 27 shifus (female masters) and 81 imperial wives.
Admittedly, since the 1980s, Chinese first ladies have been largely seen but not heard. Deng Xiaoping’s wife, Zhuo Lin, often travelled with the paramount leader, but was invariably well in the background; Jiang Zemin’s wife, Wang Yeping, was seen even less, largely due to her frail health; Hu Jintao’s wife, Liu Yongqing, was rarely photographed and said next to nothing publicly. Of course China loves gossip as much as anywhere. Rumours of Jiang’s close relationship with a well-known and popular singer indicated that Chinese leaders could have a taste for showgirls as much as any Kennedy. It is not that senior leaders did not have smart wives — the wife of Mao’s number two, Zhou En-lai, Deng Yingchao, was a political force in her own right and as urbane and sophisticated as her husband. She shared her husband’s travails — hiding out in the Astor Hotel in Shanghai during the 1927 White Terror — and later chaired the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a rubber-stamp unelected parliament that ratifies Communist Party policy, from 1983 to 1988.
However, the guiding trend after the Maoist years was for the wives to stay in the background. Hua Guofeng, Mao’s designated successor, was married to Han Zhijun, who was less prominent but was known as the mother of four children and an avid gardener apparently. The wife of Zhao Ziyang, the reformist and popular general secretary of the Communist Party who was ousted in 1989 for supporting the students at Tiananmen Square, loyally accompanied him into internal exile until his death. She was apparently an excellent chess player, passing much of the time checkmating her husband, according to Zhao’s leaked secret journals, which were eventually published in 2009 after his death.
Before Mao, of course, there was Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling, Madame Chiang, one of the 20th-century’s greatest first ladies, American-educated and from a wealthy and privileged family. She appeared on the cover of Time magazine no less than three times (Jackie Kennedy made the cover 17 times, but no other foreign first lady has done as well and few women either, with the notable exceptions of Princess Diana and the Virgin Mary).
Madame Chiang clearly had the ability to captivate — both Roosevelt and Churchill fell for her charms at the wartime Cairo Conference of 1943 where, according to the historian and Chiang biographer, Jonathan Fenby, she vamped them both across the table. She was the very public face of China during the Sino-Japanese War, interpreted for her husband in meetings with foreign correspondents, and was undoubtedly one of the world’s most stylish and fashionable women. Even after exile in Taiwan, followed by a life in obscurity in New York, until she was 106, Madame Chiang was tabloid fodder, a highly public face of her husband’s, and then step-son’s, administrations, achieving almost regal status and, like all queens, having about as many detractors as admirers.
Soong Ching-ling (Madame Chiang’s older sister) remains a highly visible figure in China as the wife of Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary, first president and founding father of the Republic of China. That marriage was controversial to start with — she basically, and scandalously, ran away from her family home to be with the much older Sun in Japan, where he was plotting the Chinese republican revolution. Sun passed away in 1925, but Madame Sun kept a high-profile and is still revered today for having broken with her family’s nationalist allegiances and supporting the Communists, causing a rift between herself and her sister.
So with a prominent and stylish first lady by his side, is Xi about to inaugurate Beijing’s version of Camelot? Probably not. Princes and showgirls do not always end well in China — consider the best-known first lady to date: Jiang Qing, Madame Mao. An ex-starlet in the Shanghai film studios, Jiang and her relationship with Mao raised some eyebrows back in the Yan’an cave days, when the stalwarts of the early Communist Party were ensconced in opposition. (They were, by and large, male and somewhat prudish and rather frowned on Mao’s liaison with a woman from the glitzy entertainment world of Shanghai, regularly denouncing her as decadent and bourgeois.) Her later incarnation in the Cultural Revolution and with the ultra-leftist Gang of Four, who were eventually purged and charged with treasonous crimes, was enough to put the leaders that inherited Mao’s throne off prominent first ladies for a good long time.
Camelot or no, the western media is going to continue to watch Peng Liyuan closely — and her sartorial choices in particular. In 1900, the Pittsburgh Press noted the arrival of Li Hongzhang in America, the best-known Chinese statesman internationally in the last years of the Qing Dynasty and leader of China’s Self-Strengthening Movement. The Press reported that Mrs Li “is one of the most envied of Chinese women ... accounted a leader of fashions ... with an abundant quantity of glossy black which she takes great pleasure in dressing ...” Peng can expect similar treatment.
Back home, Peng and her accessories are already becoming something of an obsession for the netizens of China — the phrase “Peng Liyuan hand bag” had been searched on the popular portal Taobao more than eight million times by last Monday night, but the top results were deleted by a nervous Net Nanny — indeed, any Google search for “Peng Liyuan” is blocked as of this writing.
One thing Peng should not expect: A shoutout from her husband. China’s political leaders rarely, if ever, engage in the pro-forma western clichs of publicly thanking their spouses or family (or God) for their success. In the Beijing lexicon, the party stands in for mother, lover and omnipotent power.
“The Chinese people” sometimes get a nod of thanks, but mentioning home life would be unthinkable for a Chinese politician. And Peng should not expect to be allowed to say much, either, despite her celebrity: The days when Madames Sun and Chiang would sit next to their husbands and engage the foreign press corps in banter are not about to restart, not least because Chinese leaders do not really do interviews with the foreign press these days. But Peng may turn out to be different: She is confident and media-savvy, as witnessed by her close proximity to her husband at photo-ops and clearly thought-out and well-prepared outfits. She has yet to speak publicly — perhaps she never will — but her prominent visual image in and of itself indicates that Peng will be more like Madames Sun and Chiang than her immediate predecessors.
This may well be the first Chinese administration since 1949 that successfully harnesses and exploits the soft power potential of a first lady. Welcome on stage, Mrs Xi.
Paul French is the author of a number of books on China’s history, development and society, including most recently Midnight in Peking, the re-creation of the previously unsolved murder of a young English woman in Beijing in 1937.