TIME Asia

Michelle Obama Tours Beijing With China’s First Lady

Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping shows U.S. first lady Michelle Obama how to hold a writing brush as they visit a Chinese traditional calligraphy class at the Beijing Normal School, a school that prepares students to go abroad in Beijing, March 21, 2014.
Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping shows U.S. first lady Michelle Obama how to hold a writing brush as they visit a Chinese traditional calligraphy class at the Beijing Normal School, a school that prepares students to go abroad in Beijing, March 21, 2014. Andy Wong—AP

Obama is on her first-ever trip to China, alongside her mother and two daughters, and will spend four days in Beijing before heading to a string of popular tourist sites in the interior cities of Xi'an and Chengdu

Back during the Ming dynasty, some four centuries ago, the Hall of Earthly Tranquility in Beijing’s Forbidden City was the redoubt of China’s empress. On Friday, under rare unpolluted skies, the first ladies of the world’s two biggest economies, Michelle Obama and her Chinese counterpart Peng Liyuan, embarked on a lightning tour of the imperial residence. They strode through the Hall of Supreme Harmony, checked out the Hall of Preserving Harmony and admired a golden throne off-limits to most tourists. Obama and Peng glided past by a large stone carving that was labeled “Large Stone Carving.” Alas, time was running tight so they had to skip a tea ceremony in the Lodge of Fresh Fragrance.

Perhaps next time.

A day before, Obama had arrived on her first trip ever to China with her mother Marian Robinson and children Malia and Sasha in tow. She is set to spend four days in Beijing before heading to the interior cities of Xi’an and Chengdu, where she will take in some of China’s most famous tourist sights: the terra-cotta warriors and the giant pandas. Obama is even blogging about her China experience, a process that will likely require her handlers to use a virtual private network to evade Chinese Internet censorship. In a month, President Barack Obama is also due in Asia. But his four-nation tour, somewhat controversially, will not include a China stop. Instead, it was left to his wife to help smooth ties and develop a relationship—however brief and somewhat stiff—with Peng.

“The relationships between the United States and China couldn’t be more important,” Obama said on Friday morning, “and having the opportunity to travel here, to listen, to learn, to hear more about the education initiatives here in this country and to share my travels with students throughout the United States is a very unique experience, and it’s one that I will never forget.”

Obama began her day at Beijing Normal School, an elite high school whose students enjoy a leafy campus and state-of-the-art equipment. The walls are decorated with murals glorifying both Euclid and Karl Marx. She and Peng visited a robotics class, where students were learning about various robots, including a hexagonal snowflake robot that one student described to Obama as “very amazing and adorable.” The first ladies also took in a calligraphy class, where Peng wrote a four-character aphorism that describes how individuals with high morality can accomplish major tasks. She presented the calligraphy to Obama as a present.

Finally, the two wrapped up their school tour by visiting a ping-pong class where students spend 40 minutes slamming plastic balls onto green tables with metronomic precision. Table tennis is a serious sport in China, with deep political significance. After enduring decades of international isolation during which the world chose the government in Taiwan as China’s rightful representative, Beijing began to integrate into the global community. Ping-pong led the way.

After a speech in which each ping-pong teacher was introduced with great solemnity, Obama slipped out of her vest-coat and tried her hand at ping-pong. The students stayed silent as she whiffed her first few attempts. But as she began to make contact with the table, the kids broke out into gasps and claps. Afterward, Obama, who has made physical fitness one of her signature campaigns, joked about her husband’s ping-pong prowess. “My husband plays,” she said. “He thinks he’s better than he really is.” The students laughed nervously.

The Chinese first lady, whose hair was coiffed in an elaborate braid known in China as “scorpion head,” declined to play. She did, however, nod and smile at her American counterpart’s enthusiastic efforts. For years, Peng, now 51, was far more famous in China than her husband, President Xi Jinping, who quietly rose through the Communist Party’s ranks. A folk singer with the People’s Liberation Army, Peng attained the rank of major general and was known for warbling rousing socialist ditties like “People From Our Village.” While she has been far more visible than her predecessors, who rarely appeared in any photo-ops with their leader husbands, Peng still hews to a script. She stood rigidly next to Obama as they gazed upon robots, exchanging not a word. Nor did she engage in much small talk with the Beijing Normal School students, although she did admit, as she picked up her calligraphy brush: “I’m somewhat nervous, too.” Peng also spoke phrases of well-enunciated English.

More than 30 American kids are studying at Beijing Normal School, part of a growing corps of 20,000 American students in China (the number of Chinese students in the U.S. is upwards of 200,000). Obama has made the importance of education one of the themes of her China trip, and she is using her personal story as an example of American social mobility.

“As someone from a modest background, [Obama] has parents who didn’t go to college but who emphasized education… as a way to succeed and move forward,” said Tina Tchen, Obama’s chief of staff.

Some of the American students studying at Beijing Normal School come from the U.S.’ toniest private schools, like Phillips Academy Andover in Mass. and Sidwell Friends in Washington, which Obama’s daughters attend. The Beijing Normal School program for some foreign students, according to two American teenagers, costs $50,000 a year. Obama is promoting a State Department-backed program called 100,000 Strong that will send American children of all economic backgrounds to study in China.

On Friday evening, Obama, her mother and daughters headed to the Diaoyutai State Guest House for dinner. There, they met with Xi and posed for photographs with the Chinese President. Obama told Xi that she had tried a little ping-pong earlier in the day. “Not so good,” she remarked, of her sporting foray. She described the rest of her China trip so far as “wonderful.”

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