Michelle Obama’s DNC Speech

What Chinese Netizens Are Saying

Something big is about to happen in China. After ruling the country for a decade, China’s current leadership, helmed by President Hu Jintao, will transfer power to a new group of leaders. The process will be opaque, the date of the transition is a secret, and no one knows for sure who will be among China’s next group of senior leaders. About Xi Jinping, the man presumed to fill Hu Jintao’s top slot, Chinese people know next to nothing. Right now, they don’t even know for sure where he is.

Paradoxically, the lives of China’s top leaders tend to become more secretive the higher up the political ladder they climb.

So where do Chinese citizens turn for an antidote to their leaders’ under-sharing? To the U.S. Presidential election, of course, where there is more than enough pasta and tuna fish to go around. Six hours after Michelle Obama delivered her speech at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, a Sina Weibo user named 管鑫Sam from northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang edited and posted a twelve-minute highlight video of the First Lady’s speech with Chinese subtitles. That video embedded in the original tweet has now been viewed over 2.9 million times, generating more than 35,000 retweets and close to 5,000 comments.

While certain nuances may have been lost in translation, the American First Lady’s speech struck a chord with Chinese netizens. In his original post, 管鑫Sam described Michelle Obama as a “母仪天下,” literally “a motherly model for all women under heaven,” a term traditionally reserved for those Chinese empresses whose grace and moral fiber were held up as an ideal that all women in the empire should emulate. While many netizens shared similar sentiments, others questioned the choice of words:

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Democratic National Convention attendees hold signs reading “We Love Michelle” as First Lady Michelle Obama speaks on stage, September 4, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

王维嘉: Michelle touches people’s hearts not because she “a motherly model for all women under heaven,” but because “she is one of us.”

房产地产营运邵惠中: Give me a break ... Who still use terms like “a motherly model for all women under heaven”? It is a concept from the 19th century. She is just a common person, please!

To most viewers though, the American First Lady appears anything but common:

王闹儿闹儿: The most successful thing Obama has done was to have married his wife …

vista看天下: Now you know what kind of girlfriend to look for.

爱在落基山脉: Among First Ladies, Michelle definitely tops the charts in terms of public speaking, wisdom, and acting skills. Good women should really study … and work out too! Look at those strong arms.

玛瑙mn: Then why do men dislike highly educated girls in China?

望宋: China is a nation that respects women, but only a woman like her deserves feminism. Strong yet gentle, tough yet exquisite, opinionated but not stubborn, her vision of the future is based on solid and conscientious ideas. Will Obama lose the game? Michelle will be the first to say no!

American actress Maggie Q, who is active on Weibo, also added her tribute to the chorus.

therealMaggieQ: If any of you missed Michelle Obama’s speech last night at the DNC ... please watch it. I have never been prouder to be a woman. Incredible.

Another frequently brought up topic was “拼爹 (pindie) vs. 拼老婆 (pinlaopo)”—“to compete on dads vs. to compete on wives.” The widely used colloquial term pindie describes how in Chinese society, channels for upward mobility are largely dependent on how privileged and resourceful one’s father is. The latest iteration of the term is pin gandie (拼干爹), or “to compete on sugar-dads.” In this context, Chinese netizens found it refreshing to see the wives of American politicians playing important roles in their campaigns. Competing on wives is an arguably more merit-based competition, Chinese netizens said.

But while early comments focused on the First Lady herself, the conversation quickly, perhaps inevitably, turned to the different model of leadership transition in the two countries, and the comparisons spurred discussion of what virtues political leaders ought to possess. Some netizens suggested that Chinese leaders should learn from Obama, and that they should start by having dinner with their families every day. Property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang 任志强 wrote: “I hope CCTV broadcasts this. The responsibility of a president is to create equal opportunities for all citizens.” And user 徜徉郎 observed: “Some presidents try their best to portray themselves as ‘common people,’ while others make themselves look like ‘gods.’”

Others vented frustration:

吉祥yz: Our heavenly dynasty is also changing its emperor soon! Pretty soon the troops will be mobilized across the country to maintain stability; we are going to lose our rights to use the main roads in the cities …

机械动物: Damn it, American leaders just look so noble! This must all be lies and illusions. Time to censor.

Some couldn’t resist unflattering comparisons to speeches made by Chinese political figures:

糖甜水: I really don’t understand. Why do leaders of a certain country always exhibit a stone-face while giving speeches and pause for half a day before uttering a word let alone being passionate. They’re so dull that audiences can’t stay awake. Why? Please tell me why …?

飘移的58: Wow, so touching. Representatives of the 18th National Congress and Standing Committee members—won’t you also try and give some speeches? We’ll see how much of the audience you can move. I really want to be moved by you guys, please! I’m on my knees!

JAMES王一鹏: When one day our leaders can speak without a script, I’ll shed happy tears.

Some Chinese selected favorite quotes to post on their Weibo accounts. Among the most retweeted were:

“Success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”

“He wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love.”


“In the end, for Barack, these issues aren’t political—they’re personal.”

As the Weibo conversation matured, it came to rest on question of how Chinese values looked when refracted through the lens of Mrs. Obama and her speech:

轩辕剑v: Of course we have moral values! We believe in them firmly, no less. For instance, “Every man for himself, devil take the hindmost,” “Seize power while you can; it will be gone before you know it,” “Those who are not greedy are fools,” etc.

高睿南: American dream? We have our Chinese dream—be a higher level official and earn a big fortune.

神经病越来越多: That’s what we call a gap. If we suddenly became Americans, we probably wouldn’t be able to get used to it. We have such a strong sense of servility!

david王志: So many people are impressed by Michelle’s charisma and talent in giving speeches, but are we Chinese really not good at giving speeches? You are all just talking about the kind of public speaking skills inculcated by a democratic election system. Has it ever occurred to you that one can only speak so passionately about the truth?

Politics, Society
Michelle Obama, Viral, Video