Peng Liyuan, celebrity folk singer and wife of President Xi Jinping, has a chic, elegant and decidedly local look. Since March 22, when she appeared at a Moscow airport arm in arm with her smiling husband on his first international trip as China's new head of state, talk of her has spread across newspapers and blogs. Especially as compared with her all-but-invisible predecessors, Peng is a vision of modern Chinese times, and modern Chinese people seem to be embracing her.
"Peng Liyuan's debut trip is remarkable. For a very long time, (Chinese Communist) Party leaders, and especially their wives, left dowdy impressions," tweeted a retired academic in Shandong province via the Sina Weibo microblogging service. "No matter if they were dignified ladies from a high-level background or quiet ladies from humble circumstances, they were never so brilliant or dazzling on the international stage."
By the standards of international diplomacy and state visits, the appearance of a well-coiffed first lady beside President Xi is nothing special. Wives of heads of state have long made a veritable cottage industry out of dressing well for the cameras, ostensibly focused on their husbands.
But contemporary Chinese leaders and their wives have rarely taken part in these displays, in part due to the burden of Maoist history. Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong's wife during his rise and rule, played a key role in the crime that was the Cultural Revolution. The wives of Mao's successors, perhaps mindful of the public role and ruin that Jiang — and China — suffered, were rarely seen and almost never heard.
It's impossible to say whether Chinese preferred their first ladies to remain hidden. What's more clear is that starting in 2008, during the heat of the U.S. presidential campaign, the good looks, considerable charm and formidable oratorical skills of future President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, inspired a kind of envy among young, online Chinese, weary of the charm-free image of Hu Jintao, his wife and their leadership peers. Why didn't China have a charismatic, dynamic first couple to reflect the charismatic dynamism of the world's second largest economy?
Enter Peng Liyuan.
When Peng married Xi in 1987 (his second marriage) she was already a celebrity of considerable stature, having earned a reputation as a pitch-perfect performer on Chinese national television. Recording opportunities and other appearances soon followed, as did promotions within the civilian branch of the People's Liberation Army. Today, she serves as a major general and has a role as Goodwill Ambassador for Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS at the World Health Organization. This is a formidable resume for a first lady, leading many to wonder: Would this woman be left in the shadows, too?
But when she stepped off the plane in Moscow, she and her husband made it clear that she would at least look like a different kind of first lady, if not act like one. Indeed, just being there with her husband as he went about important business was a shift away from the hide-the-wife approach of the past.
Neither the Chinese press nor the public seemed to know what to do with such progress. So they did the natural thing: They focused on her clothes. Her coat and bag were made in China, though the designer of both has yet to be verified. The anonymity of her bag, in particular, works in her favor. Luxury handbags, especially those made by well-known brands like Louis Vuitton or Christian Dior, are viewed in China as symbols of not only status but corruption and excess.
Of course, Peng's choice of bag and coat was probably more than a fashion statement, and state-owned and -run newspapers, news sites and microblogs have been quick to echo and amplify its supposed political meaning.
On March 25 Qian Suwei, a prolific commentator, offered one such explanation in the Beijing Morning Post: "Why does Peng Liyuan's bag receive so much attention? First, it's because it's a domestically produced product. It is obvious that many Chinese worship foreign products and even in turn discriminate against our national brands. ... Second, it is not a luxury brand. In modern China, luxury consumption has become fashionable to some people and 'showing off wealth' becomes a trend. Peng's portfolio is nothing less than a dose of sobriety to people who pursue luxury."
Chinese microbloggers have been similarly enthusiastic. Most appear to be more strictly focused on Peng's coat and bag, admiring her good looks and refined demeanor, with an uncomfortable number referring to her as the very un-modern "mother of the country."
Meanwhile, growing numbers of female online voices highlight what they perceive as the underlying sexism in the praise heaped on Peng's clothes and her role as arm candy for the president. A magazine editor in Fuzhou sent this telling tweet to Sina Weibo on March 25: "I don't like for her to be called 'Ms Xi' or 'first lady.' She is Peng Liyuan, and she became Peng Liyuan by her own talents and endeavors, not by marrying someone in power. No matter who she marries, she will always be Peng Liyuan, and her charisma will never be less."
Xi Jinping surely knows this set of facts better than anyone, and yet — at the risk of being overshadowed — he has taken a remarkable first step toward establishing China's first couple as a public partnership. Peng Liyuan may not yet have the public stature of a Michelle Obama, but the distance her charisma and Chinese-made coat create between her present and the muffled past of her predecessors is wide and growing.
Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg's World View blog.