9   +   3   =  

The First Ladies of China, a lookbook. The nation’s ruling prima inter pares Peng Liyuan (媛 in Chinese) is undoubtedly the country’s most influential First Lady to date. Now… Give us our robe, put on our crown; we have immortal longings for more info in us!

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The head that wears a crown lies heavily; the head that wears many hats, lies… “frivolously”? We beg to differ.

The First Lady. Though an unofficial title, this one woman powerhouse has the capacity to drive the consumer economy of a country. The First Ladies originally were dressed to the nines in clothing originally intended only to add luster to their husbands’ names, including their political and diplomatic creed. Nevertheless, these women soon started to generate a social following of their own.

As far as Temper is concerned, the very first First Lady of China stepped onto the stage in 1915 during the Republic of China (1912-1949) era. Others, when speaking of China’s leading spouses, will perhaps keep tally from the Mao Zedong days aka the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 onwards. Nevertheless, the question thus beckons… What’s up with the Middle Kingdom’s in-crowd?

Take a look at the First Ladies Of China — aka the FLOC crowd.

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Peng And The Predecessors

Peng Liyuan (b. 1962)aka the “The Peony Fairy” (牡丹娘| mŭdān niángniáng) is definitely the No.1 influential Chinese First Lady in history, assisted by the skyrocketed development of e-commerce and digitized lifestyle across the Middle Kingdom.

When Peng made her debut as the latest FLOC member whilst accompanying her husband Xi Jinping on his first overseas biz trip to Russia in March 2013, so much attention was given to Peng to the extent that Chinese media outlets no longer released any additional news or tidbits about their national Prima Donna.

When the media described Peng, they immediately demonstrated a tendency of emphasizing how her talk of the talk and walk of the walk stood out from those showcased by the first ladies who came before her.

How did Peng’s most stand-out predecessors, the FLOC crowd of yore, fare in the world of politically correct fame and fashion? Temper takes a bow and glances over the styles of the top three most impressive First Ladies of China.

From the immortal to the controversial. And back.

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Founding Father of the Republic of China (1912-1949) Sun Yat-sen and No.1 lady Soong Ching-ling, one of the three historically influential Soong Sisters. Image source and date unknown

No. 1: Soong Ching-ling, Western And Modern

The Immortal One. Soong Ching-ling (1893-1981; and yes, we are indeed throwing in a little Wade Giles with this one), also known as Mrs. Sun Yat-sen (中山| Zhōng Shān), was a thoroughly modern woman of her time, born to a Christian family (her father a Shanghai-based missionary printing Chinese Bibles) and educated in the United States for a period of eight years.

The early 20th Century in China was the era in exemplum supporting the empowerment and emancipation of women. Many affluent Chinese families would send their children off to study abroad and educate themselves on so-called “Western concepts” such as “modernization.”
 Like her husband, the founding father of the Republic of China, Soong was known to be a patriotic and active political figure. Mr. Peter Sun, her great-grandnephew, once stated milady truly was “a very modern, thought-full lady, very Westernized, very well-mannered and very neat.” Representing the Chinese modern women of the time, the people loved this political It Girl’s style and her audacious attitude – a rather uncommon approach to life for a Chinese woman in the early 20th Century.

Expressing the two main keywords — Western and modern — Soong’s wardrobe was brimming with Occidental-styled tailored jackets and coats. It was also the reflection of the then young elite carving out a path of their own in China’s republican society. At the time, many affluent Chinese families would send their children off to study abroad and educate themselves on so-called “Western concepts” such as “modernization.” The early 20th Century in China was the era in exemplum supporting the empowerment and emancipation of women; as scholar Zhou Jinghao puts it in her 2003 essay for the Journal Of International Women’s Studies:

The establishment of the Republic of China (1912-1949) was a significant step toward women’s liberation. After the republican government settled in Nanjing in 1927, the Chinese government made some efforts in improving women’s status. The government introduced some legislation, offering Chinese women more legal rights in education, marriage, education, and property. In the 1930s, the new government established legislation to grant women property and marriage rights. […}

Meanwhile, many women’s organizations campaigned for women’s liberation in public squares and called for changes in the social status of Chinese women, educational opportunities, and the elimination of concubines, prostitution, and feudal marriage in all forms. However, the new government had no intention of fundamentally changing the patriarchal system. In addition, all institutional reforms were hardly put into practice in most rural areas. Therefore, women’s liberation in the Republic Era actually achieved limited success and in some regions, none at all.

the first ladies of china

Soong Ching-ling pictured by an anonymous artist. Image: Alamy Stock Photos

Having stated both the good and the bad, an increasing number of girls during this time started to express themselves as true independent individuals and get a higher education in order to more efficiently pursue that goal. The complete or partially Western clothing style, worn with the traditional Chinese qipao (or cheongsam, depending on your angle) dress if blended, was in mode with the fashion-conscious, highly educated girls. Soong was one of them.

Soong’s modern fashion style also shows the advent of dress code reform waltzing in together with the new Republic of China. The “active” practice of head-shaving with men and the “passive” one of foot-binding with women gradually bid their adieus to the limelight. Wearing the hats of both mother of China and patriotic force-field, Soong wore a mixture of Western coats, hats and dresses combined with the Mao Suit which was the main costume of the people at that time. Her sister and the Republic’s second First Lady Soong Mei-ling, aka Mrs. Chiang Kai-shek aka the man who succeeded Sun Yat-sen, also flaunted a signature style incorporating both East and West, tradition and modernity.

Chinese Communist Party foreign apologist Israel Epstein (1915-2005; a naturalized Chinese journalist and author) once stated on behalf of Mao Zedong, “Soong Ching-ling bears a rare internationalist and bicultural thinking combined with patriotism; she personifies modern China.” Immortalized, her style was.

Historical movie magazine cover featuring Jiang Qing.

Historical movie magazine cover showing actress “Lán Píng,” stage name of Jiang Qing (1914-1991), also known as “Madame Mao.”

No.2: Jiang Qing, Mao Suits With A Feminine Touch

The Controversial One among the First Ladies, Jiang was the first FLOC of the People’s Republic of China. Spouse to Mao Zedong, she was an active political figure during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) as well as the leader of a little alliance called the “Gang of Four.” Madame Mao was admittedly more of a Cruella De Vil than a Devil who wears Prada, but a mark she did leave…

In the early PRC days, people wore either the Mao Suit or a military uniform – keeping in hemline with the social conditions of the times. Jiang too opted for the same neutral and simple fashion during her early reign, but soon decided to aggrandize her wardrobe and lean towards a more feminine bravura.
Originally banned from participating in any type of political activities, it wasn’t before too long that Jiang managed to make her way through and up the ranks; all the way up to becoming China’s First Lady. She gradually started to make appearances at a number of meetings hosting an international guest list and desperately tried to attract people’s unremitting attention with her exaggerated speech. And style. Jiang wanted to become a heroine and in her crusade for fame she nonchalantly published her own biography and tried to take an interest in fashion styling.

Back in the early days of the People’s Republic of China, people wore either the Mao Suit (中山装| zhōngshānzhuāng; named after, yep, Sun Yat-sen) or a military uniform – keeping in hemline with the social conditions of the times. Jiang too opted for the same neutral and simple fashion during her early reign, but soon decided to aggrandize her wardrobe and lean towards a more feminine bravura.

Mao-Zedong-and-Jiang-Qing

Mao Zedong and Jiang Qing — unisex style. Image source and date unknown

A powerful woman, no doubt there, she came up with a wholly newly styled Mao Suit, including a frilled skirt, and tried to turn it into the official traditional Chinese costume. Like many a reality “star,” “influencer” “effort” at “designing” anno 2021, Jiang’s attempt failed miserably. Due to full-on political reasons, mind you: The Politburo discarded her idea because it would consume lots of fabric for its drape.

On a personal level, however, Jiang kept wearing her own feminine interpretation of the Mao Suit. Her obsession to be “feminine and fabulous in China” combined with her ladylike outfits in later years did help break the taboo of Chinese women choosing to wear skirts and dresses in a society clad in androgynous, homogenous cloth.

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Nevertheless, due to all the political stigmata Madame Mao carried with her, the people’s perception of a “First Lady” obviously had become a highly negative one, causing the First Ladies to succeed her to keep a low profile, i.e. remain behind the scenes and dress in simply “jeans and Tee.” Moreover, tacit rules stated that the wives of China’s future heads of State could, would and should not accompany their husbands on visits to socialist countries, according to former FLOC Wang Guangmei aka Mrs. Liu Shaoqi (Chairman of the PRC from 1959-1968).

Controversy, even in fashion, can generate both limitations and implications.

Photo credits: AFP

Peng wearing a black silk dress with a cheongsam collar and butterfly buttons, matched with a thin brown leather belt and a floral brooch. Image: AFP.

No.3 and No.1 among the First Ladies: Peng Liyuan, Glocalizing China Chic

The Universal One. China’s current First Lady (2012-?), Peng aka Mrs. Xi Jinping is sometimes called “The Peony Fairy” because her hometown in Shandong Province is known for its sights of peony-filled fields. A celebrated singer and a regular on China’s biggest annual TV event aka CCTV’s Chinese New Year’s Gala, Peng was already a national celebrity before becoming the No. 1 woman in the country.

The Peony Fairy is not just a walking and talking fashion stylebook for Chinese women, she is also a female role model for young girls and the leading by example leverage for Chinese Soft Power.
She boldly steps out in public and channels the image of a confident woman through both her speeches as well as her style. Rumor has it this one does all the styling for both her and husband Xi that on every single formal occasion. Peng has moved from a starting-off inclination towards traditional Chinese costumes to a love for the mix and match of traditional Chinese design with a contemporary twist; in creating the looks, she often turns to young Chinese designers.

One South China Morning Post article read:

For many Chinese, Peng’s sense of glamour and natural elegance is even more significant in a historical context — as she is the first Communist Party first lady to embrace a polished, modern style that doesn’t look amiss on the international stage. Every time Xi’s wife makes a public appearance, Chinese netizens take to social media in droves to comment on her appearance — mostly handing out elaborate praise and stating what a relief it is to finally have a globally “presentable” first lady.

Peng has thus far been hailed by Vanity Fair as one of its best dressed women in the world, listed by Porter Magazine among its 100 Incredible Women highlighting Chinese designers and consistently honored by Forbes as one of the Most Powerful Women in the World.

Peng is also a UNESCO special envoy for the advancement of girls and women’s education. “By receiving education, knowledge and skills, women can have the power to lift themselves out of poverty,” she stated during her Shanghai Cooperation Organization address in July 2021. We just felt this endeavor on the First Lady’s part is worth noting.

A quick review of her achievements thus far is in order.

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From local to global and back, Peng Liyuan in Ma Ke design. Image: The Washington Post

Once the most famous soprano in all of China, the borderline fanatical interest in the woman that is Peng initially caused major waves, whirlpools even, across the nation’s fashion industry. Numerous replicas of her outfits pop up on major online shopping platform Taobao as well as on “secondary fora” almost immediately after she’s worn them in public. Her online popularity eventually got to the point where the term “Peng Liyuan” was blocked for search.

First example, in April 2013 the keywords “Peng Liyuan Fashion” were entered in Baidu, China’s biggest search engine, more than 1 million times; second example, the Taobao Search Index for Chinese local fashion brands skyrocketed by 1035.6 per cent upon coining the term “Peng Liyuan Style.” Shares of local Chinese designer brands soared, especially those of the brand where Mrs. Xi was (and still is) a regular customer: Exception. This particular brand actually had to shut down its website due to traffic overload.

Thanks to “Mama Peng,” the rather reclusive Chinese designer Ma Ke became an instant superstar on the Middle Kingdom’s fashion scene. All in all, not only is Mama Peng a walking and talking fashion stylebook for her 1960s and early 70s-born contemporaries, this No.1 among the First Ladies is also a female role model for young girls and the leading by example leverage for China’s Soft Power. Shall we just say… If you’re good to Momma, Momma’s good to you! On a global level.

 

One reign is like a tempest and although trending items and viral GIFs are fleeting, style is such stuff as dreams are made of, and these women’s little personal touches are rounded with a beauty sleep.

Forever prosperous, the first ladies’ styles shall remain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FEATURED IMAGE: Photo by Marcel Eberle on Unsplash
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Elsbeth van Paridon
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