Public Appearance

by Geremie R Barmé
China's President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan in formal wear during their visit to Belgium Photo:

China’s President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan in formal wear during their visit to Belgium

In March 2014, President Xi Jinping and China’s First Lady, Peng Liyuan 彭丽媛, embarked on a series of state visits, including to Belgium. Peng, who previously enjoyed a successful career as a singer, is known for her personal style and engaging manner. She was particularly prominent during the couple’s European tour for her wardrobe.

‘First Lady Diplomacy’ and the dress of leaders’ wives have a chequered history in the People’s Republic. Wang Guangmei 王光美, wife of president Liu Shaoqi
刘少奇, attracted considerable attention when she wore a white cheong-sam/qipao and a pearl necklace during a state visit to Indonesia in April 1963. A few years later, she was subjected to cruel parody by Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution and suffered public humiliation by being dressed in a mock cheong-sam and made to wear a necklace made out of ping-pong balls during a mass denunciation rally.

Jiang Qing 江青, Mao Zedong’s wife and paragon of the Cultural Revolution, was known for her austere style of dress. She even had a hand in designing a ‘national costume’ 国服 for women in 1974 to parallel the ‘Mao suit’ (known in Chinese as the Sun Yat-sen or ‘Zhongshan suit’ 中山装).

The wives of party-state leaders have enjoyed a renewed public profile since Deng Xiaoping 邓小平, then among other things Chairman of the Central Military Commission, visited the US in 1979 with his wife, Zhuo Lin 卓琳. It was Jiang Zemin 江泽民, however, China’s president and party leader from 1989 to 2002, who formalised First Lady Diplomacy, even though his wife, and that of his successor Hu Jintao 胡锦涛, left little impression on international audiences.

Peng Liyuan is the first leader’s spouse since Jiang Qing to make a fashion statement and, in the March 2014 trip to Belgium, she appeared in a heavily embroidered traditional-style ensemble. For his part, Xi Jinping wore a reimagined Zhongshan suit, the four pockets of the Mao jacket being replaced by two pockets and a concealed pocket on the chest with a Western-style pocket square. The Chinese media extolled the First Couple for sporting ‘Diplomatic Lovers’ Wear’ 外交情侣装.