From left: Ivanka and Jared join Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan and President Xi Jinping at dinner. Nice. Photo: Reuters
From left: Ivanka and Jared join Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan and President Xi Jinping at dinner. Nice. Photo: Reuters

Much has been said about how the Chinese view US President Donald Trump, but recently thoughts have turned to the Chinese perception of his daughter Ivanka. Blond-haired, attractive, and interested in Chinese language and culture, she may be seen as the perfect foreigner. Many young Chinese women are enamored with her success and grace, looking up to her as a role model, though news sites also demonstrate general awareness of the controversies surrounding her and how her appeal might be deliberately used to placate China.

With her light hair, eyes and skin in addition to her family background and her own successful fashion line, Ivanka fulfills the ideal of 白富美, “white (pale), rich, and beautiful”, which is used in Chinese pop culture to describe the perfect woman. Her golden coloring comes across as all-American, the prototypical image of a Westerner. In a land where physical attractiveness is still seen as practically a moral virtue (my colleagues and students in China were at least as delighted to have a “pretty” female foreign teacher as by my ability to speak their language), this goes a long way to promoting her image abroad.

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Recent articles in the US have described the awe and admiration with which some young women, especially in their 20s and 30s, look up to Ivanka Trump. They quote her words of wisdom on Sina Weibo, where she is often described as simultaneously both a “lady” and a “businessperson”, and look to her daily routine and wardrobe for inspiration. They admire the way she balances career and family, seeming to have it all. Some hold her up as a paragon of traditional values, whereas others esteem her as a feminist icon.

On fashion websites, she is listed alongside movie stars for sparking trends such as a peeping bra-strap under an off-the-shoulder top. She even has a fanpage on Weibo called 神女伊万卡, “Goddess Ivanka”.

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Ivanka’s clear regard for China is a major selling point as well. All three of her children are learning Mandarin and have a Chinese nanny who helps them practice. Ivanka has posted videos of her eldest, Arabella, singing in Mandarin that went viral in China. Both Arabella and her middle brother Joseph showcased their language skills at President Trump’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, and the youngest, Theodore, was recently photographed playing with blocks with Chinese characters on them.

Ivanka has visited China, and brought her daughter to an event at the Chinese Embassy in Washington for Lunar New Year. In China, her interest in Chinese language and culture is a sign of good taste to say the least. It also shows that she has confidence in the usefulness of learning Mandarin, acknowledging that China’s influence on the world stage is only getting stronger and stronger.

Ivanka’s charm and its influence can be described as “soft power”. In both China and the US, soft power means that women associated with men in high positions, although holding no official office themselves, are seen as having a subtle but meaningful influence on world affairs. Through their appearance, behavior, and participation in cultural and diplomatic events, they affect the image of their husband or father and thereby of the country he leads. In 2013, Xi Jinping’s wife Peng Liyuan made headlines for wearing qipao, the Chinese traditional dress, at state events. Analysts gushed that her sartorial choices reflected a new national self-confidence.

Likewise, Ivanka Trump’s gestures of admiration for China set a stark contrast to her father’s comments about currency manipulation, job-stealing, etc. Some articles have gone so far as to refer to her as America’s “secret weapon” for dealing with China. They note that although she has no title other than First Daughter, she has been given an office in the White House.

Critics also question her conflicts of interest given her close involvement with her father’s administration while also maintaining her own business interests. Ivanka is seen as a force to be reckoned with when it comes to US foreign policy, though perhaps a force in favor of more sympathy and cooperation with China.

In conclusion, Chinese views of the Trump family are of course complex and varied. But Ivanka does hold a certain appeal for many Chinese, which she seems to wield deliberately. But will it be enough to offset any blunders or statements of disdain or aggression made by her father? Only time will tell.

Carly O'Connell is a young professional in the D.C. metro area who has dedicated over half her life to studying Chinese language and culture. During college, she participated in an intensive language immersion program for a semester in Beijing and upon graduation she spent a year teaching English in Changzhou, China. She's visited over 15 different Chinese cities.

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