Reversing a streak decades long of low-profile presidential wives, Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan accompanied her husband, new President Xi Jinping, to Russia on his first foreign tour, marking a return of the role to the political spotlight.
Peng is no stranger to public life. A talented singer and a member of the People's Liberation Army, she became popular among ordinary Chinese people for her performances since the early 1980s at state television New Year's galas.
Her performances, such as this Shanbei folk song featured below that was included in the soundtrack of a 1980s film called Life (人生), are readily available on YouTube:
But her attendance during the trip on March 22, 2013, which caught the attention of Chinese media more than her husband's foreign policy, was the first time a first lady had taken an active political role since Mao Zedong‘s notorious wife Jiang Qing championed the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s. Since that painful chapter in Chinese history, presidential wives have stayed out of the spotlight.
Financial Times’ Chinese editor Zhang Lifen pointed out [zh] on popular Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo that Peng has brought the role of first lady back to the political scene:
China has returned to the era of the “First Lady”. Peng Liyuan accompanied Xi Jingping to his visit to Moscow. During the Republic of China (1928-1948), Chiang Kai Shek had Soong May-ling. During the People's Republic era, Chairman Liu Shaoqi has Wang Guangmei. (Mao Zedong did not like foreign visits, he only visited USSR once and wife Jiang Qing did not have the chance [to accompany him]).
Some comments on Zhang's post compared Mao's wife Jiang, who was also a performer, and Peng:
徐诚直：江青在文革之前是有一个转变的， 她毕竟曾有20多年没有实际参与过高层政治， 转变到另一个极端的原因我猜部分可能和嫉妒王光美有关， 因为当时王光美作为第一夫人出尽了风头而江青只能呆在家里。彭丽媛是建国后至今最完美的第一夫人， 又赶上中国的地位提升。 不过要赶超宋美龄难度实在太大了。
Xu Chengxi: Jiang Qing had some drastic changes during the Cultural Revolution. She had not involved in any high level politics for 20 years [after marrying Mao]. One reason why she turned extreme was probably out of jealousy of Wang Guangmei [who was the wife of Liu Shaoqi, who succeeded Mao as president], Wang had occupied the stage as first lady and Jiang Qing could only stay home. So far Peng is the most perfect first lady since the establishment of People's Republic of China. But she can never compete with Soong Meiling.
Mai Moyong: With her [Peng's] cultural performance background, we have to be careful about her intervention into the control over cultural propaganda.
It appears that the country's propaganda department believes it is time for China to step out from the shadow of the Cultural Revolution and be proud of the first lady. Hu Xijin, the chief editor of the communist party's mouthpiece Global Times, lamented [zh] on Weibo that media outlets had given more of its coverage to Peng:
When the head of China stepped out from the plane with first lady in Moscow, Chinese people gave all their attention to both of them, but they probably could not tell who they know better. This is a scene that Chinese people have been expecting and feel happy about. But media can only mention that very briefly.
But not everyone on Weibo echoed the sentiment:
Shun He: Not concerned, I did not elect him.
Egg hurt: All of Weibo is full of this today. What's so special about this? What's the relation with ordinary people? How come people are so excited to kiss ass? Keep on kissing, slaves.
Su Shengen: Wonder how former first ladies feel about this.
Random account: I wonder how Xi's first wife feel… [Xi divorced his first wife Ke Lingling who is a Chinese diplomat's daughter. ]
Yuan Bo: Only evil western capitalist countries will use the term “first lady.” We should use the term “honest revolutionary partner.”
Qing Ling02: She is definitely our first lady. She has been popular for more than 20 years. Who know about Xi back in 2007? Xi is the first leader whose wife is more popular than himself.
Le Yan: Since He Zizheng [Mao Zedong's third wife] and Jiang Qing, our first lady finally shines again.
Despite debate over the renewed political significance of the first lady, most Chinese people seem to care about Peng not as a political figure, but as a fashion icon. Online traders have already used a photo of Peng to sell winter coats according to her style. The following screen shot of an online shopping item in Taobao [the most popular online shopping platform] has been circulated widely in Chinese social media platform: