The most beautiful woman in ancient China was born in 506 B.C., when the country was fractured into rival kingdoms. According to legend, Xi Shi’s beauty was so transcendent that, when met with her countenance, fish forgot to swim, geese sank from the sky, the moon hid its face, and flowers turned away in shame. After Xi Shi came of age, her native Yue Kingdom was defeated by the neighboring Wu and was forced to become its tributary state. The King of Yue, a strongman named Goujian, who had been subjected to humiliation under Wu, plotted revenge. By his decree, ministers searched far and wide for the most captivating beauty in the land and dispatched her as a gift to the Wu Kingdom. The rest of the story goes as you might expect: Xi Shi was found and delivered to the Wu King, who became so entranced by her beauty, charm, and wit that he neglected military and political affairs. His kingdom fell into shambles, a conveniently enfeebled target for Guojian’s eventual capture.
In Chinese, Xi Shi has become a metonym for beauty. Countless Chinese poems honor her brand of feminine virtue, which more or less defines the model woman: physically resplendent, pleasingly pliant, patriotic. In China, she has also become a point of comparison for another young woman of unexpected but undeniably potent political influence: President Trump’s elder daughter, Ivanka. Even Chinese commentators who are utterly skeptical of the President have pointed to Ivanka as the most respectable of an otherwise dubious cohort. The reigning sentiment seems to be that the father is a volatile question mark at best and an imbecilic blowhard at worst, but the daughter is the paragon of “white rich beautiful,” a recent Chinese neologism to denote the crème de la crème in an increasingly stratified society.
The Times, in a recent article probing Ivanka’s popularity in China, reported that the First Daughter has been compared to a goddess, and she does, in certain ways, fulfill the image of the consummate Westerner in the Chinese imagination: regal, poised, resplendently golden. Ivanka love among twentysomething women working and living in cities runs particularly strong. “Yi Wan Ka has it all,” a woman in her fourth year of college, from Shanghai, gushed admiringly online, using the Mandarin rendering of Ivanka’s name. “Doubly equipped with beauty and brains, she is the new modern woman.” Yet for millennia Xi Shi has been celebrated for attaining a similar ideal, raising the question of how “new” the Ivanka image is. Her personal mythology serves as the cornerstone of a prevailing prejudice masquerading as adulation: at the height of feminine perfection, a woman is an asset to be flaunted and strategically weaponized—less, not more, than the sum of her parts. After all, beautiful and brilliant men may one day rise to be kings or ministers. A woman may only aspire to complete a man’s arsenal, whether he is her father or the King of Yue.
Behind the scrim of Ivanka the career woman and independent success story is Ivanka the P.R. rep extraordinaire for the Trump tribe. She is now thirty-five, but she has spoken about her desire to stay under the Trump umbrella since childhood. “Even when we were kids, there was talk around the dinner table about how we all might join the family business some day,” Ivanka writes in her memoir, “The Trump Card.” The decision makes a certain amount of financial sense. Ivanka has never really strayed from the Trump Organization and has reaped enormous advantages from her family name. It’s a name that, according to Ivanka, already “represented luxury, glamour, wealth and aspiration,” qualities that she, in her various business ventures, would never think to “leave on the cutting room floor.”
The Chinese are no strangers to kleptocracy and nepotism, of course, but there’s something distinctly troubling about Ivanka’s arrival as a feminist role model for a generation of Chinese women. The dark political tumult of China’s last century means that many of Ivanka’s most ardent admirers are the first members of their famillies to attend college and grew up in homes in which traditional gender roles were occupied and female domesticity was expected. While Ivanka preaches working-women’s rights, it is likely that she has never experienced the necessity of those rights for ordinary women. Because she is the scion of a gilded dynasty, Ivanka’s illustrious lineage may hold a certain appeal for many Chinese, but how she lives clashes considerably with the image that she projects as the winning prototype of the new, self-possessed woman. Ivanka no doubt has many worthy qualities, but her power comes almost exclusively from a willingness to play her part and fit herself into her father’s increasingly controversial regime.
Jill Filipovic, writing in the Times, depicted Ivanka as “a kind of post-feminist huckster, selling us traditional femininity and support of male power wrapped up in a feminist bow.” Most recently, Ivanka was granted the role of an unpaid government employee with a White House office and a deliberately opaque title (“special assistant to the President”), which invites us to question the parameters of her influence. That such a vexed figure may serve as the role model for Chinese women who are just beginning to grapple with their identity in a society that has historically been hostile to their empowerment seems like a regression. Underneath the sexy sheen of commodified feminism is the notion that unless you are beautiful, privileged, and, most important, part of an essentially (and, in Ivanka’s case, literally) patriarchal setup, your success as a working woman is still very much probationary.
The tale of Xi Shi kept me rapt as a young girl, and I often asked my mother to repeat it. But it began to fray at the edges as I grew older and more impetuous. I, too, wanted to be beautiful and virtuous like Xi Shi, but distressing questions began to assert themselves when I reëxamined the story. I asked my mother, What if she did fall in love with the Wu King? And wasn’t it kind of a bummer to be shipped off to another country with no foreseeable hope of returning to your family just because you were pretty? Xi Shi is the most prominent among the four classical beauties of China, but, around the time that I began having second thoughts about Xi Shi’s fate, I learned that the ancient annals also duly recorded the most hated women in Chinese history. The three women—Moxi, Daji, and Bao Si—were the consorts of the last rulers of the Xia, Shang, and Western Zhou dynasties, respectively. Their evil arose from their allure, charisma, and dazzling good looks. Their beauty was bewitching; they were also the ruin of three empires.
In Presient Trump’s first hundred days in office, Ivanka has assiduously done her part to soften her father’s bristly and contradictory stance toward China. Her special assistant, so to speak, is her five-year-old daughter, Arabella, who began learning Chinese from a nanny at eighteen months and has launched admirable charm offensives with her recitation of Chinese poems and songs, recorded and Instagrammed by her mother. In February, not long after the President threatened to get tough with China and hinted that the United States might recognize Taiwan, Ivanka and her daughter, dressed in red, dropped by the Chinese New Year celebration at the Chinese Embassy for a surprise visit. Last week, Arabella and her toddler brother Joseph serenaded President Xi Jinping and his wife at Mar-a-Lago, during Donald Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with the Chinese leader.
The five-year-old opened with a rendition of the classic Chinese folk song “Jasmine Flower,” a number that Peng Liyuan, Xi’s wife, had performed on television for the entire country in 2005, when her husband was not the President and she was still permitted her own career. “Jasmine flower, beautiful jasmine flower, fragrant upon lovely petals,” Arabella sang softly. “Everyone praises your snow-white buds. Let me pick you from the stem and give you as a gift to another friend.” It’s a song that Arabella will likely be asked to perform many more times in the coming days and months, at events carefully choreographed by her mother and grandfather. Its meaning, however, may remain elusive for years.