China did not really have the equivalent of a first lady until a few days ago, when Peng Liyuan made her debut on the international stage during Xi Jinping's first overseas trip as president. With her colourful background and eye-catching outfits, the 50-year-old became an instant sensation at home and abroad. Discussions of her fashion sense and her role as first lady spread throughout the internet. Clothes in the styles she wore have been quickly snapped up. Her emergence as the first presentable Chinese first lady since 1949 could not be more timely as the nation strives to improve its world image.
The frenzy over the president's wife would have been unthinkable decades ago. Unlike first ladies of the Western world, who often steal the media limelight, wives of Chinese leaders are usually uninspiring figures who stay behind the scenes. Recent comparisons of Peng with America's Michelle Obama and Britain's Kate Middleton may seem premature. But the Peng fever is hardly surprising. She was a household name well before her husband's rise to power. She has been one of the best-known Chinese singers for years and became a good-will ambassador for the fight against Aids and tuberculosis for the World Health Organisation in 2011. Talented and fashion-conscious, she stands out from her dour-looking predecessors. She might even have outshone her husband, which may explain why coverage of her by the state media was relatively low-key compared with that on social media.
The art of being a first lady in a rising world power takes time to master. The lack of a role model in a regime where state leaders are known more for authority than personality makes for a steep learning curve. If the local and overseas response so far is any indication, Peng has made a good start. Domestically, hopes are high. Her rise as a new icon is likely to have a positive impact on a society in which the status of women is still generally inferior. Internationally, she is an instrument of soft power that China can show to the world.