Rachel Wang

What the Clamor Over Peng Liyuan, China’s ‘National Mother,’ Really Means

New Chinese leader Xi Jinping and wife Peng Liyuan descend after landing in Russia on March 22. (欧黛创意/Flickr)

Whatever serious political signals that Xi Jinping’s first trip abroad as China’s new leader may have sent, Chinese Web users have recently focused on someone else: their new First Lady. Everything about Peng Liyuan seems to have fascinated users of Chinese social media, from Ms. Peng’s designed-in-China clothes and handbags to her mannerisms to her career.

Starting March 22, when the first couple first arrived in Russia, Sina Weibo, a major Chinese micro-blogging platform, has been flooded with pictures of Peng in different poses and clothes. The photo-sharing account of Phoenix News @凤凰网围观, a normally staid organization, intensively covered Peng’s different dresses and commented with excited exclamations. (Per Chinese custom, the married Peng retains her surname.) A post from a fashion columnist commenting on “First-Lady Style” has attracted more than 7,000 reposts in four days. Commentators have collected positive comments from Western media with an unmistakable tone of pride. As user @爱漂的游子 wrote: “As Chinese First Lady, she also has a responsibility to promote the beauty of China and lift China’s international image; there is nothing wrong with being high-profile.”

Why is Peng so popular? Liu Shengjun, (@刘胜军改革) a columnist for the Chinese edition of the Financial Times, gave his answer:

1. The confidence of the nation calls for such a public image [and] Peng perfectly satisfies this psychological need; 2. Curiosity at Peng’s transition from a singing star to the First Lady; 3. Media hype caused by her clothes and image design; 4. The honeymoon effect of Xi’s new government; 5. Peng’s generous, dignified and glamorous image represents the image of a big country.

Liu’s reference to a “psychological need” is particularly revealing. Besides Peng’s undeniable personal charm, the new “Pengsanity” sweeping China could also be interpreted as signaling the needs of China’s general public.

Hopes for the new leaders

As user @lihnsdbj commented: “This is my first time paying so much attention to a Chinese leader abroad. As to the reasons, maybe it’s because of the charm of the first lady, or because I have hopes for the new government, or something else, I can’t tell…” In fact, ever since Xi’s first appearance as China’s new leader in November 2012 started with an implicit apology—Xi said, “I have kept you waiting” after showing up late for his inaugural press conference—his willingness to show a bit of a human side has infused both mainstream and social media in China with a sense that the new leaders will bring change and reform.

But despite encouraging words—in a March 5 address to a Shanghai delegation, Xi said reforms were “already in the deep end”—serious action has so far been lacking. Nontheless, Xi’s “honeymoon period” has continued, and his wife’s contrast to her predecessor’s low-profile style strikes some as a signal that China is changing for the better. User @云淡风轻-风和日丽 brought these ideas together: “Wish Xi and [new Premier] Li’s generation can improve civil life. Just as glamorous and happy as the First Lady! ” @ Trainer许占山 wrote, “[Peng Liyuan] reminds me of Shirley Temple. In the context of American society then, she quickly rose to fame. It seems that there are deeper reasons to be analyzed; maybe time will give us the answers.”

A blogger named Zhen Hepeng had this take:

Peng’s wonderful performance as China’s First Lady lets many hopeless people get back a little pleasure and pride…Of course, China’s foreign policy is changing gradually and [its system is] turning toward democracy, because in the current political atmosphere, the Chinese government has been experimenting nonstop as it looks for a breakthrough. When President Xi travels with his wife, this can also be seen as an experiment and a change.

What are Chinese really looking for?

While Western mainstream media has shown less interest in Peng’s rise to folksinging fame, her career arc is widely known within China and forms an integral part of her current image.

As Wang Lifen (@王利芬), the founder of umiwi.com, a forum for entrepreneurs, posted:

The current First Lady is actually a classic inspirational story. Born in a poor family, she used her voice as a ticket out of her hometown; she used her persistence to earn a master’s degree from the Chinese Conservatory of Music; she used her increasing popularity and wisdom to date … officials; basically, she used talent, education and marriage, the three best ways of moving up in society. None of these was planned but just came naturally, and that’s why so many people admire her.

Wang is probably right. Peng’s folk style appeals to many levels of Chinese society, and her humility helps her stand out from other famous singers and maintain a grass-roots appeal. As Weibo user @燕子饭否 wrote, “She used to drink tea [at a popular chain of teahouses] while she was in Fujian; people who met her … [were not made to] feel as she were a big star or the wife of the provincial governor.” Moreover, compared to her counterparts, many of whom are mired in rumors of scandal both real and imagined, Peng’s image remains notably clean. As @难舍的金鱼 wrote, Peng is popular “mainly because [she] is upright, sincere, not artificial, and without any rumors or love affairs.” As @中大pqing wrote, “Being scandal-free for decades… it seems that she has somehow been preparing for this [role as the First lady]. ”

But First Lady of China is not a policy-making position, and observers have cautioned that Peng is unlikely to bring any substantive change to the political arena. Columnist Xu Danei advocated caution when he wrote in the Chinese-language Financial Times that “the view [of Peng] as something more than a [pretty but useless] ‘flower vase’ spread through Weibo forums right after the first night’s excitement.”

One of these is not like the other

As so often happens in China, political analysis also proceeded by way of comparison. In a comment that has been shared over 20,000 times, former president of Google China Kai-Fu Lee (@李开复) subtly implied that Peng should be judged by her eventual accomplishments when he wrote: “The greatest First Lady in Americans’ hearts is not the most beautiful one – Mrs. Kennedy — but [rather] Mrs. Roosevelt…she fought for women’s equal rights and civil rights…participated in the establishment of the United Nations, served as a diplomat and led the drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The Wellesley-educated Soong May-ling impressed Americans, appearing on the cover of Time in 1931. (Wikimedia Commons)

Angel investor and huge Weibo presence Charles Xue (@薛蛮子) offered an analogy that hit closer to home. He reposted this reminder of what Peng might never be able to achieve: “Soong May-ling’s speech in America conquered the U.S., and earned [a huge amount of] compassion and support in  the war against Japanese invasion, which deserves to be recorded in the annals of history for all time.”

Soong May-ling was the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, and thus First Lady of the Republic of China. Soong was everything that those cool toward the Chinese Communists could have wanted: a Wellesley alum, a major in English literature and minor in philosophy, “with a pronounced Georgia accent which helped her connect with American audiences.”

Weibo users split on whether Peng could beat her distant predecessor Soong. As one user commented: “But she can’t be Soong May-ling, firstly the system of the state is a nation ruled by men; secondly, she lacks scholarship.” But the comparison may be inapt. Chen Zhiwu, a professor of economics at Yale University, wrote: “[The presence of] TV and new media call for spokespersons for every nation. Peng might be the Soong May-ling of her era.”

Some more warmth, please

Ultimately, one red thread seems to unify all of the divergent comments about China’s new First Lady: all are seeking a society with more warmth, caring, and love. In fact, the very term “The First Lady,” (or diyi furen) sounds somewhat inelegant in Chinese and is associated with values imported from the West. By contrast, another unofficial term for Peng used on Weibo better reflects China’s historical background: “Guo Mu,” literally, “Nation’s Mother.” Originally used in the Imperial era, Guo Mu was used to refer to the mother of the crown prince or the empress, who was always required to care for the nation and its people with maternal love.

The use of “Guo Mu” on Weibo over 160,000 times in recent days partly evinces a longing for a good moral and social model to guide China. It also carries a slice of black humor, because it implies that the Communist dictatorship is another ruling dynasty, only with a different name. Well-known Weibo provocateur @假装在纽约 implied as much when he wrote:

Personally speaking, I like her. I just feel that enough praises are enough. I just think you should be standing, rather than lying or kneeling … in worship. At least, you should soberly remember that besides her beautiful poses, she and the man behind her are taking on heavy responsibilities. It’s never too late to praise someone after they have achieved something.

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Rachel Wang

Rachel Wang is currently based in Beijing working in media. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Economics, and enjoys reading analyses regarding international affairs, Tim Harford and books about china (that's with a lower-case "c").
  • mikeygow

    The profile of Peng Liyuan is something I doubt could have happened under previous leaders, certainly Deng, Jiang and maybe Hu, due to the bitter memory of Jiang Qing, the Gang of Four and the Cultural Revolution.

    Peng Liyuan can never really become too political due to te legacy of Jiang Qing: it would spell political suicide for Xi, especially early in his career or prior to the 19th Party Congress.

    She will have to remain as nothing more than a distraction for the chattering gossips on Weibo. Any involvement in policy a la Michelle Obama will surely see the netizens drawing parallels with Mao’s wife.

    Incidentally, the media, Weibosphere and Blogosphere are alight with chatter about the high proportion of wives from Shandong on the current PSC. Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang all have wives from Shandong. 山东女婿很厉害!


    • Rachel Wang

      Hi! Thanks for reading this. Agreed with your comparison with Jiang Qing and Michelle Obama…and also marrying a girl from Shangdong is so important :)