China’s Better Halves

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With the arrival of the glamorous Peng Liyuan, pictured above, China may be having a first lady moment, writes Paul French in Foreign Policy. Peng's past life as a famous singer, her stylish outfits -- Chinese designed! -- and her grace and presence while mingling among the powerful have intrigued everyone from the Financial Times to Chinese netizens, who appear fascinated by their new leader's better half. So is the Middle Kingdom entering a new era?

Not so fast, writes French. Sure, modern China since the 1980s hasn't exactly been a golden age for exciting political spouses -- Hu Jintao's wife said little; Jiang Zemin's said less. But with Peng Liyuan, French argues, China is actually returning to an earlier era, when women like Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao's wife Jiang Qing were far more than bit players, leaving their mark on the world of politics.

Here, we've collected images of some of the famed and not-so-famed first ladies of modern China.

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President Hu Jintao's wife, Liu Yongqing (left), rarely made public appearances, and when she did, generally said next to nothing. Here, she and Hu pose with Barack and Michelle Obama as they arrive for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in 2011.

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Hu and Liu greet Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni in Shanghai, April 2010.

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Jiang Zemin's wife, Wang Yeping, seen here with George W. and Laura Bush, was seen in public even less than Hu Jintao's wife, largely due to frail health.

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Deng Xiaoping's wife Zhuo Lin (left) often traveled with her husband, but remained in the background. Here, the two visit Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter in Washington in January 1979.

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Mao's fourth wife Jiang Qing, often referred to as Madame Mao, was perhaps China's best-known first lady to date and enough to put Chinese leaders off of prominent wives for decades, writes French. A former Shanghai actress, Jiang and Mao met while revolutionaries in Yan'an; she would later become notorious for her role in the Cultural Revolution as a member of the Gang of Four. Here, Jiang Qing is pictured during a winter in Yan'an in 1940-41.

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Jiang Qing (right) with French President Georges Pompidou and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai during Pompidou's state visit to China in 1973.

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Zhou Enlai's wife, Deng Yingchao (center), was also "a political force in her own right," writes French, helping chair China's rubber-stamp parliament. She is pictured here in 1946 with her husband and other top members of the Chinese Communist Party. 

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Soong Mei-ling, or Madame Chiang, was one of the 20th cntury's great first ladies, writes French. American-educated, Soong helped translate for her husband during meetings, flirted with figures like Roosevelt and Churchill, and made the cover of Time magazine three times. Here, the generalissimo's wife is pictured with U.S. President Harry Truman in 1945.

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Soong's elder sister, the stylish Soong Ching-ling, also had a high-profile marriage to Sun Yat-sen, revolutionary and founder of the Republic of China. Soong was an early champion for women's liberation in China, and is still a revered figure in China today for having broken with her sister and supporting the communists over the nationalists during China's civil war.

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It's still not yet clear just how prominent Peng Liyuan will be, French writes. "The days when Madames Sun and Chiang would sit next to their husbands and engage the foreign press corps in banter are not about to restart," he says. But Peng's media savvy and confidence seem to indicate -- at least for now -- that this will be the first Chinese administration in decades to have a true first lady. 

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