A man holding an umbrella for a woman would not cause a stir in a Western country, but became a sensation when China’s leader Xi Jinping held an umbrella over his wife’s head recently.
It is the latest sensation surrounding Peng Liyuan, China’s unofficial first lady. She is a star in her own right and has brought a dash of glamour to what had previously been a faceless role in China.
That star power will be on display when she and her husband arrive at the Sunnylands estate in California Friday for a summit with President Obama. While many will be watching the body language and diplo-speak of the two men, just as many will be watching Peng Liyuan.
The photo that involved the umbrella was taken on May 31 during the couple’s trip to Trinidad and Tobago. Upon arrival Xi and his wife, who is not officially called China’s first lady because the wife of a leader has never had her own title, exit the plane and begin to walk down the stairs.
As they do, Xi holds a black umbrella over his head. It is positioned just enough to also cover his wife. Mrs. Xi, smiling in a chic green dress reported to be by a Chinese designer, wraps her right arm casually around her husband’s left arm. He is wearing a tie that looks to be the same exact shade of her dress. Together they present a united front. For many that sends a clear message.
“The fact that her husband held an umbrella for her and treated her properly?” asked Hung Huang, a writer and publisher who has been called China’s answer to Oprah Winfrey and Anna Wintour. “It makes a lot of Chinese women very happy because what we are seeing is our head of state promoting that women should be respected. This is a message that is not lost on Chinese women.”
Peng Liyuan, recently named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people in the world right alongside Beyonce and Hilary Clinton, is the highest-profile wife of a Chinese leader since Jiang Zedong, the wife of Mao Zedong. It seems as if everything Peng Liyuan does these days is noted in China if not discussed at length.
When she traveled with her husband earlier this spring to Russia, her name became one of the most commonly searched terms on Weibo, China’s online search engine. Reports were copies of her winter coat and blue scarf flew off the cyber-shelves of Taobao, an Amazon.com-like Chinese company that does major business here.
But soon thereafter, her name was blocked online and the chic outfits she wore in Russia were no longer available. Whether they were sold out or not is anyone’s guess. But the incident was enough to spark rumors the government is uncomfortable with a leader’s wife outshining him. As one joke in China goes, “Who is Xi Jinping?” Answer: “Peng Liyuan’s husband.”
As for Peng Liyuan herself, she is used to fame and at least some degree of fortune. She is one of the most recognizable Chinese stars alive today: a superstar folk singer generations of Chinese grew up watching on state-run television. According to her official biography, she was plucked from poverty and sent all the way to the Conservatory of Music in Beijing. There, she received a master’s degree in traditional ethnic music. Afterwards, she became the top propaganda singer in the People’s Liberation Army.
Video of her ornately costumed in traditional dress is readily available on the internet. She is a gifted soprano, singing songs such as “My Mother Country” and “People From Our Village” that extol Communist Party morals and undying loyalty to China. On the road as much as 350 days a year at one point, Peng Liyuan even appeared on stage at Lincoln Center in New York.
As famous as she was, little is known of her courtship or life with Xi Jinping. In China, the “First Couple” doesn’t sit for People magazine. It has been reported they met in 1986 and married the next year. Living mostly separate lives, she continued to perform while he continued to climb the Communist party ladder. They have one daughter who is believed to be studying at Harvard University. When it became clear he was a contender for the top leadership post, Peng Liyuan took a significant step back from public life.
But if their current tour is any indication, there may be no stopping her. In Mexico, the last place they visited before heading to California, the state-run news agency Xinhua ran photos of her visiting the Federico Gomez Children’s Hospital in Mexico City. She is seen smiling brightly as she comforts children, an image of tenderness and care.
In more formal photographs of the couple with Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto and his wife, Angelica Rivera, Peng Liyuan stands at attention like the army general she is. She is perfectly turned out, and perfectly in line.
As beautiful as Peng Liyuan is, and as poised as she has proven to be, the Chinese government may still be undecided about how best to utilize her soft power on the world stage.
“China as a nation,” said Hung Huang, “we are very uncomfortable with women in powerful positions. In fact in China there is a saying which means essentially ‘beauty = disaster’ which is not a happy, positive association.”
Perhaps with that in mind, Peng Liyuan has not yet announced an issue or cause she will champion over the next 10 years during her husband’s tenure as China’s leader. Nor has she spoken on any political issue. In the past, she has been a Goodwill Ambassador for the World Health Organization with a focus on HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.
In California on Friday and Saturday, Mrs. Xi will not have a counterpart with whom to pass the time as her husband gets to know President Obama. The White House announced that Michelle Obama, who is a very popular figure in China, will not be at the Summit at Sunnylands due to family commitments.
While the world will go on without a photo op starring the two first ladies, there may be more calls for more Peng Liyuan.
“I think it is time to recognize Girl Power in China,” said Hung Huang.
If the government allows it, Peng Liyuan might just be the starting note.
ABC News’ Sasha Han and Kaijing Xiao contributed to this report from Beijing