Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Eleanor Roosevelt and Soong May-ling Chiang in front of the White House

           It's a cold winter in 1943, and Eleanor Roosevelt and Soong May-ling pose for a picture in front of the White House. Both of them, elegantly dressed with mink and silk, are looking directly at the camera with composed gazes. While this moment of peaceful calm is stamped in history courtesy of a colored five inch photo, the world outside is going through one of the longest and toughest turmoils in human history... 

           The beginning of the 1940s is cradled by the Roosevelt’s administration. America is gradually stumbling into the Great Depression, only to fall further into the shadow of WWII. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, the Republic of China, already at war with Japan, sees the uprising of the Communist Party of China against the governing party (Chinese Nationalist Party). This Pacific drama develops into a full blown civil war in 1946. 

            Behind the machine guns, trenches and the bloody red Communist flags of China, there is a woman. A woman who travels several times across the Pacific, lobbying support for the Nationalist’s party, delivering speeches that draw crowds of thousands onto this strange soil, and makes the cover of Time Magazine three times. This very woman comes to the White House this 1943 winter day, sitting beside Eleanor Roosevelt, and posing for this picture. And this woman is Soong May-ling Chiang, also known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the First Lady of the Republic of China.

            Soong May-ling went beyond almost every standard set for women in the early 1900's. She graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in English Literature and Philosophy in 1917. She had vision and ambition that intimidated men and shocked women. As the First Lady, she established schools and orphanages for the orphans of fallen Nationalist soldiers, later inspiring her to create the Chinese Women’s National War Relief Society. 

            While Madame Chiang’s political influence as the First Lady helped her husband to gain support from Western countries, her personal influence opened up a new world to those suffering during the war (especially women). Soong May-ling was fondly called the Belle of Shanghai, exuding elegance and charm, impressing the western media and inspiring Chinese women. Madame Chiang, however idolized, was not as accessible to the public as she would have liked. The majority of women in China had far less education than she did at the time. Madame Chiang revealed a brand new image that women had never seen before. This image was unattainable for the majority of women, and so it kept them at a longing distance.

            Six years after the picture was taken in front of the White House, despite her effort to support the Nationalist Party, our dear Belle of Shanghai was exiled to Taiwan (along with her husband and most of the party members). With her went the image of an active, elegant and ambitious First Lady of China-- an image that can no longer be found in mainland China since her exile. 

           The first Lady of People’s Republic of China (founded in 1949 by the Chinese Communist Party) was Jiang Qing, a major power figure in Communist party and a great supporter for her husband Chairman Mao. Well aware of her status and influence as the First Lady of China, Jiang Qing chose to use her influence for personal power struggle in the party and for the notorious ten-year Culture Revolution during the 1960's and 70's. When Chairman Mao died, as a result of her ambitious power-struggle and manipulation of political propaganda, she gained control of major Communist power institutions of China. All this, until Hua Guofeng, Chairman Mao’s successor, arrested her (for unjustified political authority). A few years later the first First Lady of China committed suicide.

            Jiang Qing is an ominous start for the First Ladies of People’s Republic of China. Branded by official historical documents as “anti-revolutionist”, Jiang Qing was held responsible for the Cultural Revolution and its devastating aftermath-- even though it was Chairman Mao who initiated it in the first place! A life of power-struggle and political ambition ended up in a tragic position: the scapegoat for Chairman Mao, followed by life imprisonment and eventually, suicide

            As if threatened by this eventful and dramatic life of Jiang Qing, the Communist Party decided to keep all the succeeding First Ladies of China subdued to the lowest profile possible. The frequency of their public appearance was reduced to a bare minimum, resulting in their invisible presence. While their husbands attracted all the attention from the media (state owned media, whose focus is almost entirely on the Communist Party), the First Ladies of China lived quietly, anonymously and sometimes lonely behind the tall walls surrounding their residence. Information about the current First Lady of China, Yongqing Liu (wife of Hu Jintao) was so severely censored on the internet that her life and background are almost inaccessible.

            As the presidency of the current President Hu is coming to an end, the spotlight shines on his possible successor, Jinping Xi, and his wife, Liyuan Peng. Peng’s status as the soon-to-be First Lady of China is problematic; before marrying Xi, she was a famous folk singer. Her stardom becomes troublesome as her husband is promoted closer and closer to the most powerful position in China.

             Western First Ladies frequently appear in public. First Lady Michelle Obama just did 25 sit-ups on Ellen’s show and danced with Perry the Platypus to promote the importance of physical fitness. Peng, on the other hand, is quietly disappearing from the public. Information about her past is gradually coming out on the internet, her public appearance is reducing... she is a singer that used to dominate major nation-wide TV shows and galas, but will soon be hidden behind government walls run by men.

            Maybe it’s the fear that these First Ladies are capable of taking control of the government as Qing did? Maybe it’s the anxiety that the more personal side of the “paramount leader” of the Communist Party will be revealed by his wife? Maybe it’s the concern that personal influence of these First Ladies will conflict with the collective interest of the Party? Maybe it’s because of all these aforementioned reasons, China is missing a real First Lady. 

            The extreme unbalance of power within the government not only exists among parties (including the dominant Communist Party), but also between genders. While the presidents enjoy positive publicity on every TV channel (since they are all state-owned), their wives are silenced, isolatedhidden! Perhaps some would argue that Peng chose to give up her career as a folk star in China just to facilitate her husband, but is this sacrifice really necessary? But, why should there be a conflict in the first place? Peng had the opportunity to create a brand new image for the First Lady of China: active, energetic, passionate and friendly. She already had a broad influence among the citizens from her previous career! 

          This influence could, for the first time, outreach to the community and shorten the distance between the government and the civilians. However, she has been stopped now, before she could even take her first steps in the political world. This arrested development for women is sending an ambiguous message to all the young women in China... Hmmm, are they supposed to sacrifice their personal freedom and interest for their politician husbands? If they are given the power and influence that any First Lady could have, will they know how to use it? Or, will they recoil behind the wall since none of the First Ladies in history were able to show them what they are capable of? 

And, ask yourself: could Western women help ladies such as Peng find their voice? And, how?

The Woman Behind the Cultural Perspectives Section:
Asheley Gao is an extremely creative young woman, currently attending UC Berkeley as an undergraduate, a long way away from her home country of China. She is double majoring in Political Economy and History of Art. Her interest in life and exuberance is evident, not only in her work as an artist and academic, but also a friend and co-worker.

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