On March 19, First Lady Michelle Obama became the fifteenth American First Lady who journeyed to China, six of whom went as incumbent First Ladies. She will be there until March 26.
In telling the stories of her fourteen predecessors who have done so since 1879, the evolution of China itself from dynastic rule to national republic to communism state to socialist/open-market hybrid is revealed.
The very first to enter China was the curious, witty and fussy Julia Grant in 1879, as high Victorian as they came, She was then in the midst of a grand and regal tour of the world with her hailed husband, the former President and former Union Army commander Ulysses S. Grant. Their tour took two years.’
The Grants were in China while it was still ruled by ancient dynastic primogeniture and genealogy strictly dictated one’s entire life, the highest ranks providing status and power, wealth, palaces, and servants for everything. It was this elite class that Julia Grant mixed with in China.
Having no point of reference for a democratically-elected leader, let alone one no longer holding elective power, the Chinese treated Julia Grant as an American Dowager Empress.
When she was honored at a regal luncheon by the Viceroy’s wife, the former First Lady was conveyed to a palace through the streets of Shanghai while sitting in a carved chair on a raised platform, shielded from the curious eyes of the Chinese peasantry by yellow silk curtains drawn around her, and carried shoulder-length by four strong men servants.
Which was fine with Mrs. Grant who was rather stout.
Not yet a First Lady, Nellie Taft decided to “run up” to China in the fall of 1901, from her home base in the Philippines, blithely exploring a land where she didn’t speak the language, entirely on her own.
Nellie Taft saw this same dynastic China as Julia Grant but in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion. She didn’t rank high enough to mix with the princes. She didn’t mind; her eyes were wild with wonder as she scrambled for, as she put it, “loot,” porcelain vases, embroidered silks and Russian sables at dirt cheap prices.
The day after her 1899 wedding, Lou Hoover moved with her engineer groom to Tientsin, China where he was on work assignment with the Chinese government.
She was living there just as the Boxer Rebellion broke out, with bloody violent attacks on non-Chinese like herself. She learned to work a gun and carried it. She wasn’t harmed.
Edith Roosevelt and Edith Wilson both went as tourists to China, the former twice in 1924 and 1932 and the latter in 1929.
By then, the nationalist republic movement had replaced the old dynastic rule, led by the “Father of the Chinese Republic” Sun Yat-sen. Edith Roosevelt was even entertained at the home of his son.
Edith Wilson ate too much exotic dishes and got sick to her stomach.
The one First Lady who might seemed to have surely gone to China never did. Eleanor Roosevelt was a former First Lady in 1953 when she attempted to obtain a visa to visit this culture so long perceived by Westerners as mysterious.
By then the Communist revolution led by Chairman Mao had turned this vast land into a frighteningly monolithic socialist state in 1949. The State Department forbid American citizens from traveling to China, even a former First Lady known as the “First Lady of the World.”
It was not until 1972, six years after Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” purging all forms of western influence on the Chinese people, that American President Richard Nixon came to China. Following the advice of leader Chou En-Lai, he brought First Lady Pat Nixon along with him.
If Jackie Kennedy’s pink suit worn in Dallas when her husband was assassinated has come to symbolize all of the events surrounding that tragedy, Pat Nixon’s bright “Chinese Red” cloth coat now symbolizes the opening of a new era in U.S.-China relations.
It was that striking visual which the world watched on live television reports, showing the first sustained glimpses of life in a land which had been closed to westerners for a quarter of a century.
With her husband closed away in meetings all day, Pat Nixon’s warm interactions with the everyday Chinese citizen in schools, factories, restaurants, farms and hospitals signaled a new understanding of the Chinese people that indelibly marked the mind of history.
When she shocked Communist officials by kicking off her high heels and spontaneously joining in a Chinese ballet school rehearsal she had come to watch on her trip to China in 1975, Betty Ford furthered this new openness by proving to the Chinese that capitalists knew how to fall in line and follow the lead.
Nancy Reagan and Laura Bush also went to China as incumbent First Ladies on official presidential visits with their husbands.
Like Lou Hoover, Barbara Bush actually lived in China.
Based in Beijing where her husband had been named Chief of the Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China, she was later shocked at how advanced the society seemed to have become by the time she visited as First Lady in 1989.
Barbara Bush grew alarmed, however, when a dissident invited to a dinner the Bushes hosted was blocked from attending by the Chinese government and how menacingly Chinese security agents physically bullied the American reporters covering her activities and even dislocated the jaw of the White House photographer.
No U.S. First Lady visiting China created more of stir than did Hillary Clinton during her 1995 trip to Beijing, to address the fourth United Nations conference on women.
In her famous “women’s rights are human rights” speech, she not only chastised the Chinese for their sterilization of women and encouragement of abortions to uphold their “one child” policy among citizens but also their government censorship of all media which questioned the party line.
On her second trip there as First Lady in 1998, she showed her support for a women’s legal clinic and the growing desire there for freedom of religion.
In her five trips to China as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton continued to call out the communist leadership on issues ranging from disputed territorial claims in the China Sea to its “new colonialism” in African nations.
Three modern First Ladies made their first trips to China after they left the White House.
In 1981, Lady Bird Johnson went exploring the coastal regions, looking over archeological sites in her role as a National Geographic Society trustee.
From what can be determined of her itinerary, it was largely in the Beijing area.
During the one dozen trips to China she has made with her husband beginning in 1981, Rosalynn Carter has taken private notes of conversations between her husband and Chinese leaders, helped build homes with Habitat for Humanity, raised compassionate awareness about Chinese citizens with mental health challenges, helped monitor the new experiment of democratic voting in villages, toured regional museums and participated in ceremonies honoring the work of past Americans in the country.
Despite the fact that she had left the White House almost twenty years before, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis could not escape her iconic status even in China.
It may speak volumes to the power of celebrity that she was so recognizable, even though all of her famous activities during her tenure as First Lady from 1961 to 1963 had occurred during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and never reported in any news outlets there.
Yet when she made her 1982 trip to China as part of an entourage of friends of native-born architect I.M.Pei , she was instantly recognized even during a lazy Li River cruise by Chinese citizens, whispering excitedly, “Jhackee! Jhackee!”
When they learned that the world’s most famous woman was coming to their country, communist Chinese government propagandists went into a high alert frenzy, determined to separate her from her party of friends so she could be shown “special places” never seen by other non-Chinese.
The only way to get her to do this was, as she put it, to “kidnap” her.
To read the rest of how the Chinese kidnapped Jackie Onassis and greater details about the unique and untold stories of U.S. First Ladies in China with far more many photographs in the author’s three-part series on the National First Ladies Library Blog, as follows:
American First Ladies in China, A Fascinating, Untold Saga, Part I
(covers Julia Grant, Nellie Taft, Edith Roosevelt, Lou Hoover and Edith Wilson)
American First Ladies in China: A Fascinating, Untold Saga, Part 2
(covers Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Nancy Reagan)
American First Ladies in China: A Fascinating, Untold Sage, Part 3
(covers Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton as First Lady, Rosalynn Carter, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State)