China's First Lady Peng Liyuan Brings Rare Glamour to U.S. Summit With Obama

PHOTO: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan pose for photographers after receiving the key to the city in Mexico City, June 5, 2013.
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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 Qing, 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 version of Twitter. 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.

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