BEIJING - US first lady Michelle Obama met her Chinese counterpart on Friday, a long-anticipated encounter during a week-long trip to promote education and cultural ties.
Obama, who is visiting China with her mother and two daughters, is expected to forgo discussion of trade, human rights and the tangle of other issues that have weighed on US-China relations. Instead, she plans to focus on building goodwill through soft diplomacy.
The trip to China comes days before US President Barack Obama is scheduled to begin bilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Hague on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit next week.
Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan accompanied the visitors on a visit to the Beijing Normal School attended by elite Chinese students and American teenagers from prestigious schools such as Exeter, Andover and Sidwell Friends on study abroad programmes.
Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer, wore wide-legged black slacks and a loose black vest.
Conversation between the two women was stilted during a morning visit to a calligraphy class, especially because both spoke via their own translators. "I'm nervous," Obama said, as she picked up her calligraphy brush. "Don't be nervous," Peng replied in English.
Peng, an adept calligrapher, then drew the four characters of an ancient aphorism about virtue and presented it to Obama.
The two also visited a robotics class, and Obama played ping-pong with students.
The two seemed to warm to each other during a jaunt through the Forbidden City late on Friday morning. Peng took care to ensure that Obama's daughters understood the history of buildings with names like "Hall of Supreme Harmony" and "Palace of Heavenly Purity", a senior US administration official said.
Peng, dressed immaculately in a cornflower-blue skirt suit, with a red leather clutch and matching stud earrings, appeared to speak limited English, but gamely ventured a few comments to foreign students and the Obama family.
But the classroom lectures as well as the tour of the Forbidden City were conducted only in Chinese.