Michelle Obama and Peng Liyuan, first ladies of substance

Alice Wu says Michelle Obama and Peng Liyuan both showed, during their meeting, that they are more than just the wives of powerful men

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 4:09am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 4:09am

When two women with supreme star power at home and abroad - who also happen to be first ladies - meet, there's bound to be a lot of star-gazing. The Huffington Post called it the "fashion showdown". Fashion is, of course, important, and neither Michelle Obama nor Peng Liyuan would claim otherwise. Both were largely praised for their fashion choices during Obama's recent trip to China. But, for all the focus on what Obama wore, have we paid enough attention to what she actually did in just a week? Perhaps not, and that's unfortunate.

If we stop viewing this monumental visit as if flicking through a glossy fashion magazine, we would notice that Obama pulled off, in US professor Tom Plate's words, "a diplomatic coup". As well as not making any fashion faux pas, Obama managed to avoid any political or diplomatic missteps.

On top of offering the world photo-ops, she built on the common ground found in the importance of education and communicated American values of personal freedoms by sharing with people from the world's most populous nation her personal stories of struggles and triumph. She didn't lecture, but yet, she didn't sell her country short. She was a gracious guest and her hosts returned that graciousness with the rare response of not slamming her.

Peng performed nothing short of a miracle herself. Just as Obama conveyed her nation's message in a perfectly nuanced way, so did Peng. While Obama adorned herself in an all-American wardrobe, Peng conveyed the epitome of Chinese values and traditions in four characters, in her own brush strokes.

The aphorism that encapsulates the 25 virtues found in the I Ching that Peng wrote during her and her guest's calligraphy class was more than a gimmicky photo-op. The way she channelled the I Ching virtues in calligraphy may not be the sort of flair the Western world is used to, but she did exactly the same as her counterpart. Her message - a lot more subtle perhaps - was not lost. Those virtues - including compliment, respect, humility, generosity and appreciation - that she wrote with brush and ink were exactly the virtues Obama took very thoughtful care in displaying.

Obama redefined the role of US first lady in being the first one to visit China independently. Peng, perhaps even more significantly, redefined the role of the Chinese first lady. No longer unseen and unheard, Peng was a successful official host, a historical first. There's significance in the quiet way these two women delivered their messages and there's significance in the way they are redefining their roles as the wives of the world's most powerful men.

These two ladies need to be recognised, not for their fashion sense, but for their political and common sense. Both pushed the boundaries, but took care not to offend others. These ladies offer more than high fashion. Letting their actions do the talking, together with their mastery of subtlety and nuance, may be just the sort of "high diplomacy" the rest of the world needs.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA