In this second of a three-part series, the National First Ladies Library will offer the first narrative about the experiences of the fourteen First Ladies who have preceded Michelle Obama in visiting China, unfolding chronologically to also provide a sense of developing US-Chinese relations over a century and a half and how what was once an entirely mysterious culture of what was so long referred to by westerners as the “Orient” has evolved into a 21st century society.
As First Lady Michelle Obama prepares to make her first trip to China, she is first visiting the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, a Chinese-immersion, International Baccalaureate, elementary school in Washington, DC. After hearing a report from sixth-grade students about their own trip to China last year, she will make informal remarks encouraging students all across the United States to follow the progress of her visit there, and then listen to the school’s pre-kindergarten students as they make conversation with her in the Chinese language they have thus far learned.
The Washington Yu Ying School was named to remember one by the same name which was created for girls in Beijing 103 years ago by Tzen-Kuei Wang, an aide to the Dowager Empress, the first in that country to reform teaching from a tutorial system to the classroom method. Such a shift towards a more western model, however, was not always welcomed by China’s changing leadership.
In the nearly eighty-year period covered by the first article in this series, as First Ladies from Julia Grant to Edith Wilson went to China, and then Eleanor Roosevelt was prevented from visiting, that nation underwent enormous political and cultural change, shifting from an ancient dynastic rule to one of hard-rule communism, wrought by the 1949 revolution. In 1966, the leader of that revolution, Mao Zedong was then serving as the Communist Party Chairman and imposed harsh edicts intended to purge Chinese society of not merely western capitalist influence but also traditional customs of his own nation. It was known as the Cultural Revolution.
Throughout the two decades which followed, events during the trips to China by three incumbent America First Ladies and two former First Ladies reflected the growing change in Chinese society and its increasingly open relationship with the U.S. And while there was never any change in the way the name of its capital was pronounced in Chinese, in English “Peking” was increasingly spelled as “Beijing,” perhaps as a distinction between the old and new China.
In 1972, just six years after the Cultural Revolution, not just the people of China and the United States but the entire world were stunned as a new era suddenly seemed to be dawning when it was learned that Chairman Mao was welcoming the first visit to his nation by an American President and his wife, Richard and Pat Nixon.
Pat Nixon, 1972, 1976
Perhaps no American First Lady is better remembered for her visit to China than is Pat Nixon.
She is the first among the seven most recent First Ladies who have done so, and the first to make the journey as an incumbent President’s spouse and the first to visit it at any point in their lives when it was a communist nation, following its 1949 revolution.
Beyond these facts, however, this First Lady’s visible activities in the People’s Republic of China during the February 21 to February 28, 1972 presidential trip there, were vital to the media and the public realization of the unprecedented visit’s monumental significance.
Too, for a presidential spouse who never encouraged publicity for herself during an Administration embattled by a war and political scandals, Pat Nixon’s seven days in China proved to be a turning point for her personally, a moment when the world focused its attention and then acclaimed her.
Long before the historic trip to this communist land by a famously anti-communist was publicly divulged, Mrs. Nixon kept fully apprised of the secret negotiating which occurred before it was finalized. In the last planning stages, Chinese leader Chou En-lai suggested to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “Bring Mrs. Nixon.”
In preparation, Pat Nixon read State Department dossiers on the communist party leadership and studied its hierarchal power structure, so she could remain always aware of who asked her what and tailor what she said in response to them. She learned several key phrases in spoken Chinese.
She also familiarized herself with the ubiquitous “little red book” of China, a collection of remarks entitled Quotations of Chairman Mao Zedong, requisite reading for every Chinese citizen intended to rigorously inculcate them on communist principals.
With her preparation, Pat Nixon was better able to understand the thinking of those she encountered and who were her constant guides and companions around China. Whenever Maoist rhetoric was spewed at her, the American First Lady smilingly quipped to simultaneously acknowledge but end the lecturing: “Oh yes, I am acquainted with his philosophy.” She cautiously avoided efforts to debate her on the greater virtues of socialism versus democracy without praising her own nation or denigrating theirs.
All she would concede was that Chinese communism seemed to offer “a well-rounded education.” The only hint of her view on communism was a subtle remark that she preferred the historical buildings instead of the monolithic ones constructed since the Cultural Revolution.
From the moment the doors to Air Force One swung open upon landing in Beijing, and Pat Nixon stepped out wearing a winter coat in an eye-popping red color that was the same shade as the Chinese flag, there was no missing her presence anywhere on the trip; in that color, she stood out not only from President Nixon and other US state department officials, but also the thousands of everyday Chinese citizens and officials who uniformly wore drab navy unisex clothes.
In making her numerous appearances for all but one day of her week in China, Pat Nixon also made a point of wearing the same red cloth coat. Not only could she not be ignored, but it seemed to emphasize an important subliminal message: here was the wife of the wealthy, capitalist world leader in appearing in the same clothes on numerous consecutive days and, furthermore, in the emblem color of China, a tacit nod of respect.
For eight years, from 1953 to 1961, Pat Nixon had traveled the world in her role as vice president’s spouse, pioneering what is now the fairly routine pattern of American Presidents’ spouses on foreign trips: she maintained a separate public schedule from her husband, not resting in palaces and cruising on royal yachts but visiting hospitals, schools, markets and other venues where average citizens lived and worked, focusing spontaneously on a few individuals in each place. She called it her “personal diplomacy.”
Since President Nixon spent the majority of his time in China behind closed door in meetings, the large international media contingent that was covering the visit ended up following Pat Nixon: she talked with workers at a glass factory, watched physicians perform acupuncture at a free clinic, listened to grade-school children recite their lessons in a schoolroom, and even sampled the delicacy of goldfish in a restaurant kitchen.
Through the media, however, the general public which watched the television coverage of Mrs. Nixon learned as much about her as a person as it did on the communist Chinese as people. Countering the misperceptions of her as a woman who rose from privilege, she delighted peasants at the Evergreen People’s Commune when, as she pet a pig behind the ear, told of how she had labored as a working-class child and teenager on her father’s farm in southern California and managed to find time to raise a prize-winning pig.
Among her scheduled activities in China, First Lady Michelle Obama will visit the Chinese panda bears in Chengdu, but American interest in the rare species was prompted by Mrs. Nixon’s intense curiosity when she first set eyes on some during her tour of Peking Zoo.
Later at dinner, she animatedly went on about the pandas to Chou En-lai.
Some sources claim it was either her enthusiasm for the unique Chinese pandas or her pointing to a pack of his cigarettes which had a picture of a panda on it which led him to make an outright gift to Mrs. Nixon of two panda bears, which she promptly accepted and donated to the people of the United States.
A special habitat pen was created for them at the National Zoo in Washington, and Mrs. Nixon presided over the ceremony in which the panda bear habitat was officially opened to the public.
Surprisingly flirtatious, Chou En-Lai made no secret of his affection for Mrs. Nixon. Less receptive was the notorious “First Lady of China,” the formidable Jiang Jing, Mao’s wife who possessed a growing degree of power during the Cultural Revolution.
Controlling all aspects of national culture so that it aligned with Maoist doctrine, from art to music to theater, she and Mrs. Nixon met only once, when the American President and his wife attended a ballet called The Red Detachment of Women, which she had written, cast, produced and directed.
What Pat Nixon could not know at the time was that this humorless doctrinal communist leader was secretly an avid fan of Gone with the Wind.
As the newspaper Chicago Today put it:
“…the President talked business and politics with Chinese leaders while his wife did the important work. Mrs. Nixon’s presence in Peking and her unfailingly warm, gracious conduct are accomplishing something that official discussions, important as they are, cannot do. She is establishing direct and friendly contact with the Chinese people on a normal human level; the level where children and families and food and service and health are the most important things.”
Another newspaper said that despite President Nixon’s resulting pact with China to not dominate any Asian Pacific nation, the American people had remained “much misunderstood and denounced by enemy countries as being war-minded imperialists,” but that Pat Nixon had singularly helped dispel that notion in China.
Although Richard Nixon would make numerous return trips to China, as a former President, Pat Nixon only accompanied him back there once, in February 1976.
During that visit, Mao was ailing badly and appointed “the First Lady of China” to this time take the central political role over other leaders to serve as escort.
Pat Nixon would again employ her “personal diplomacy” in a visit to the Soviet Union shortly after the China trip, joining President Nixon. On her own, she would also visit three African nations and two South American countries.
Apart from her having the first Chinese panda bears brought to the United States, the role which Pat Nixon played during her husband’s historic visit to China lives on in perpetuity through the repeated performances of the modern opera, Nixon in China written by John Adams, with music by Philip Glass.
Betty Ford, 1972, 1975
In a manner entirely different from Pat Nixon, her immediate successor Betty Ford also helped to also instantly forge empathy between the Chinese and Americans when she visited China as an incumbent First Lady in December of 1975.
In June of 1972, six months after Pat Nixon first went to China, congressional spouse Betty Ford followed in her wake, joining her husband, who was then serving as House Minority Leader, on a junket there.
The only real challenge she encountered was having to politely consume the sea slugs that were served to her on more than occasion at dinners.
She found the Chinese people to be “much more cheerful” than Russians, who she encountered on an earlier trip to the Soviet Union. “I’m sure there was just as much surveillance,” she wrote, “but it wasn’t so obvious; you felt more at ease.” She was also startled by the control displayed among young Chinese children, and their disciplined marching to martial music.
Exploring Manchuria in the far north, Betty Ford found herself the object of curiosity, there having been no non-Chinese people to visit the region in a quarter of a century.
She also visited an all-women’s rice commune, bought Thermos bottles imprinted with the ubiquitous panda bear and, like Pat Nixon, watched a full medical operation performed with acupuncture rather than anesthesia.
While she found the red wine to be of good quality, she was perplexed by the national population’s propensity for orange soda.
During her trip to China as First Lady, where she and President Ford were also joined by their daughter Susan, Betty Ford tried to see sites she had missed on her first trip, mostly museums.
She also had the chance to meet an ailing Chairman Mao, who would die within the year. It was her visit to a ballet class at the Central May 7th College of Art in Beijing that ended up becoming the biggest news of the presidential trip.
Discovering that she had enjoyed a career in modern dance before her marriage, some of the students invited Mrs. Ford to join them in a rehearsal.
Although she found it “quite different from anything I had ever tried, particularly in the hand movements,” this American First Lady who was always game to pose or perform publicly in sometimes delicate or humorous situations her peers usually avoided, “took off my shoes and worked in my stocking feet.”
News photographs showing her in perfect professional form dancing alongside the young communist students became an international sensation.
As she recalled: “My act was hailed as having done more to cement relations between the United States and China than all the talks of diplomats. I told Jerry he could stop talking to diplomats. I’d already made the world safe for détente, but he didn’t listen.”
There was one other legacy resulting from Betty Ford’s two trips to China, albeit more personal to her. During her times there she found herself especially drawn to the embroidered silks she found in the marketplaces.
She had several gowns made for herself in a Chinese style, using the mandarin collar so often that it became something of a signature style for her.
Not only did she often wear these to formal White House functions, but one example of these in a mint green is now the gown which represents her in the Smithsonian Institution’s famous First Lady collection of clothing displayed to the public.
Lady Bird Johnson, 1981
Although she visited Hong Kong at the time her husband was serving as Vice President of the United States, it was not until June of 1981 Lady Bird Johnson was able to explore China.
Making the visit there in her capacity as a trustee of the National Geographic Society, the former First Lady specifically went to the nation in search of active archeological sites.
Little information is readily available about which specific sites she visited beyond Beijing.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, 1982
In the immediate years following President Kennedy’s assassination, his widow worked assiduously in planning his presidential library and museum, her strong opinion in support of then-relatively unknown Chinese-born I.M. Pei as the designated architect.
Two years after Pei’s inspiring JFK Presidential Library and Museum was dedicated, he returned a favor to his friend Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, by inviting her to visit China with him.
The primary event of the October 1982 trip was the opening of the new Fragrant Hill Hotel, north of Beijing, which Pei had been commissioned to design by the communist Chinese government.
Jackie Onassis experienced a China in the midst of change, archaic aspects of life there showing growing pains as element of luxury associated with capitalism were being haltingly introduced.
From Hong Kong, she and the Pei party of guests visited Canton, Kwelin, Soochow, Hangchow, Xian, Shanghai and Beijing.
They would get about on modern trains with massive picture windows dreamily overlooking ancient landscapes to a droning motor bus with a broken toilet, to limousines retooled out of old Soviet Union Zis cars.
The former First Lady found herself in some questionable accommodations that ranged from crumbling cottages to unkempt hotel suites.
The legendary politeness of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was, however, most tested when one day she was simply met at the hotel by officials who, as she later joked, “kidnapped” her.
The promise had been that she would be shown “special places” that non-Chinese visitors were never permitted to visit.
No matter how she resisted their offers, they insisted until finally one day a tank-like limousine awaited her at her hotel lobby and Chinese officials essentially ambushed and, as she put it “kidnapped” her for an entire day.
Even though she no longer had the protection of U.S. Secret Service agents as a presidential widow (due to her 1968 remarriage), Jackie Onassis was famous for spontaneously going on adventures.
Hustled into a retooled Zis limousine, she was led on an exhausting all-day tour of sites by a Communist party official bent on didactically inculcating her with visual proof of socialist superiority of citizen services. She soon noticed that the jitney bus of her friends were often arriving at these sites as she was leaving and waved forlornly from behind the window of her car at them, longing to be with them rather than alone.
Ultimately, Jackie Onassis saw no more than her friends had. Once the limo pulled into the entry drive of her hotel and its engine was off, the former First Lady bolted from the “clutches of my kidnappers” as she wrote a friend to join her friends for a cocktail at day’s end.
The trip also held great high points.
Mrs. Onassis was permitted to walk down in the lower exhibition space where Xian’s six-thousand historic life-size terra cotta warrior figures were on display.
It was the calm voyage and astounding views of her trip down the Li River which left the greatest impression on the former First Lady and the other guests of I.M. Pei.
As they proceeded deeper into the valley, there before their very eyes were the hairpin-shaped mountains familiar to them in ancient Chinese paintings and drawings. To ensure a peaceful experience, the noisy motor of their vessel was turned off and was instead pulled by a tugboat.
Until seeing these themselves, they had assumed the old pictures had exaggerated the bulbous mountains. A fellow guest recalled that, with her fantastical imagination, Jackie Onassis felt that she had indeed been transported back in time to the period the paintings had been done, the 8th century.
Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Hoving recalled, “There were other tourists on the boat, and one woman would say to another, ‘That’s Jackie!’ Even in A.D. 800 China on the Li River, they knew Jackie!”
In fact, among the very few known images of Jackie Kennedy Onassis in China was snapped inadvertently: as American Hawk Moore posed in front of the Forbidden City entrance, there was the famous former First Lady in the background, the sole figure in a white coat among a sea of curious Chinese citizens in green, black and blue.
The very elegance of Pei’s modern hotel with its one-hundred foot atrium, although commissioned by the communist leadership was resented by party workers employed in constructing the building to completion.
The hotel rooms occupied by the former First Lady and Pei’s other guests had non-functioning restrooms and in the lobby modern abstract canvases commissioned by the architect were deliberately damaged.
Despite all she had been through, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis refused to believe Hoving who insisted these were acts of sabotage. “She could never understand that people could have that kind of dedicated, blind evil.”
The world’s most famous woman at the time, recognizable by simply her face, Jackie Kennedy Onassis may still have had the last laugh.
While in China, she learned that her friend, French photographer Mark Riboud would be photographing the University of Beijing and asked to join him. He agreed.
“I introduced her as my assistant. She took notes, I took pictures. For an entire day, among students at the cafeteria and in dormitories, with professors and even the rector, she went completely unrecognized. This greatly delighted her,” he recalled.
Nancy Reagan, 1984
During her six days in China, from April 26 to May 1, 1984, Mrs. Reagan’s public appearances were made with the President.
These included a climb up the Great Wall, watching a Rainbow Bridge Township Kindergarten class performance in Shanghai, a tour of historic sites like the historic terra cotta figures in Xi’an, and meeting with Chairman Deng Xiaoping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Mrs. Reagan made an especially strong impression on Deng, so much so that before she left, he flirtatiously encouraged her to return to China, “without your husband.”
Among the state gifts which the Chinese presented to the President and First Lady of the United States was an unusually personal one.
Created in the color that was both emblematic of the People’s Republic of China and her own well-known favorite shade of “Reagan Red,” was a formal gown designed in a traditional Chinese style, made of embroidered silk.
When Chinese President Xiannian Li and his wife were honored at the White House a year later, the First Lady wore the gown their government had given her, in a nod of respect.
And President Li told her that Chairman Deng had instructed him to remind Mrs. Reagan that she must return alone to see him in Beijing, “without your husband.”
It was a flattering, if unconventional, sign of just how much closer relations between the two nations had become.