BEIJING—As embarked on his first trip overseas as China's president, back home much of the attention was on the new first lady, Peng Liyuan, with Chinese social media buzzing about the fashionable navy blue outfit she wore stepping off the plane in Russia and welcoming the international debut of her new role as a clear departure from her predecessors' low profile.
Comments on the fashion sense of Ms. Peng, a famous folk singer, evoked the fuss over Michelle Obama in 2008 and built on expectations by many political analysts and diplomats that Ms. Peng will bolster and soften her husband's public image by becoming the first wife of a Communist Chinese leader to play a role similar to that of a U.S. first lady.
As China prepares for a transition in leadership, many are wondering if Xi Jinping's wife will steal the spotlight. Here's a look at a few of her popular folk song performances.
"Now is the end of our quest for a graceful first lady," wrote the deputy editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Commercial Daily newspaper in a widely circulated message on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo micoblogging service. "China's first lady is no longer an old lady," said another Weibo message from lawyer Zhang Haimiao. "I wish China's future could be refreshed just like this first lady's appearance."
Ms. Peng was widely compared on social media sites to Soong Ching Ling, a famed beauty who was the wife of China's first republican President Sun Yat-sen. Shortly after Ms. Peng's arrival in Moscow—which was shown on Chinese state television—a coat similar to the one she was wearing was on sale for 499 yuan ($80) on Taobao, an online marketplace run by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Similarly, entire brands—including the decidely down-to-earth J. Crew—have gotten lifts from Mrs. Obama's fashion patronage.
The enthusiasm for Ms. Peng comes at a time when government officials have been at pains to answer the call for simplicity and frugality by the new leadership, a campaign led by Mr. Xi. But the brand of her coat or whether her handbag appeared expensive was less a subject of discussion than the welcome whiff of glamor she appeared to bring to her new role.
Another Weibo user called Gu Weihao called Ms. Peng "the most gorgeous first lady since the new China was founded."
Ms. Peng's self-assured appearance alongside her husband on his first overseas trip since taking over as Communist Party chief in November and as state president this month is the latest signal that he is trying to establish a confident and personable leadership style that contrasts with that of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, according to many analysts and diplomats.
Ms. Peng is expected to accompany Mr. Xi on the rest of his tour, which includes Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of Congo, according to Chinese media reports.
In the last three decades, leaders' spouses have kept a deliberately low profile in China—a convention that some analysts link to the reputation of Chairman Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing, who was arrested after his death as the ringleader of the "Gang of Four" and convicted for her role in instigating the chaos of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.
Mr. Hu's wife, Liu Yongqing, rarely appeared in public and didn't accompany him on his state visit to the U.S. in 2011. Wang Yeping, the wife of Mr. Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, also kept a low profile. Both Ms. Liu and Ms. Wang favored somber outfits and conservative haircuts, and never spoke about their personal lives in public.
Ms. Peng, by contrast, was more famous than her husband until he took power and has appeared regularly in front of audiences of hundreds of millions during China's annual Lunar New Year television pageants, often sporting elaborate hairdos and billowing ball dresses, or colorful ethnic minority dress.
She has toned down her image in recent public appearances, sometimes wearing a military uniform because of her position as a major-general in a military song-and-dance troupe. She has also stepped up her involvement in charities and social work in the last few years.
In 2011, she became a Goodwill ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS for the World Health Organization—a job that requires her to help lobby governments around the world to take action to prevent and cure the two diseases.
After a devastating earthquake in the western province of Sichuan in 2008, she staged special performances in affected areas and set a new precedent by announcing publicly that their daughter, Xi Mingze, who was 16 at the time, had volunteered to help relief efforts.
Prior to her husband's appointment in 2007 to the Politburo Standing Committee—China's top decision-making body—she also talked publicly about their relationship in interviews with Chinese state media outlets.
In one interview, she described how she was introduced to Mr. Xi through a mutual friend when he was working as the deputy mayor of the eastern port of Xiamen in 1986. Mr. Xi had been married once before, to the daughter of a Chinese ambassador to Britain, but that only lasted three years, and they had no children.
Ms. Peng said she was unimpressed with him at first, because he looked "rustic and old," according to an article in the Zhanjiang Evening News in 2007. She said she later concluded that he was "unsophisticated but really intelligent" after he charmed her by asking about singing techniques.