Ping Pong Diplomacy

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Image:Zhuang Zedong Glenn Cowan.jpg
Three-Time World Men's Singles Champion Zhuang Zedong (left) and U.S. team member Glenn Cowan (right) on the Chinese team bus in Nagoya, Japan, 1971.

Ping Pong Diplomacy (Chinese: 乒乓外交) refers to the cultural exchange of ping pong players of the United States and People's Republic of China (PRC) in the 1970s. This marked a thaw in U.S.-China relations that led the way to a visit to Beijing by President Richard Nixon.

On 6 April, 1971 the U.S. Table Tennis team was in Japan for the 31st World Table Tennis Championship when they received an invitation from their PRC counterparts to visit the PRC. On 12 April 1971 the team and accompanying journalists became the first Americans to set foot in the PRC capital since Mao's communist party had come to power 22 years earlier, in 1949. The meeting was facilitated by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

According to History of U.S. Table Tennis by Tim Boggan, who went to China along with the U.S. Table Tennis Team, three incidents may have either singularly or jointly triggered the invitation from China...

The first is that Welshman H. Roy Evans, the President of the International Table Tennis Federation of that time, claimed that he visited China prior to the 31st World Table Tennis Championship and suggested to the Chinese sports authorities and Premier Zhou Enlai, that China should take steps to get in contact with the world through international sport events after the Cultural Revolution.

The second was because of Leah "Miss Ping" Neuberger, the American who was the 1956 World Mixed Doubles Champion and nine times U.S. Open Women's Singles Champion, was traveling at the time with the Canadian Table Tennis Team that had been invited by China to visit the country. As part of diplomatic tactics, China extended its approval of Leah Neuberger's application for a visa to the entire American team.

The third incident, perhaps the most likely trigger, especially according to sources of information from China, was the unexpected but dramatic meeting between the flamboyant American player Glenn Cowan and the Chinese player Zhuang Zedong, a three-time world champion (1961, 1963 and 1965) and champion at numerous other table tennis events.

It just so happened that Glenn Cowan missed his team bus one afternoon in Nagoya during the 31st World Table Tennis Championship after his practice in one of the training areas. Cowan had been practicing for 15 minutes with the Chinese player, Liang Geliang, when a Japanese official came and wanted to close the training area.

As Glenn Cowan looked in vain for his team bus, a Chinese player waved to him to get on his Chinese team bus. Moments after his casual talking through an interpreter to the Chinese players, Zhuang Zedong came up to him from his back seat to greet him and presented him with a silk-screen portrait of Huangshan Mountains, a famous product of such kind from Hangzhou. Cowan wanted to give something back, but all he could find from his bag was a comb and he said, "Jesus Christ, I can't give you a comb. I wish I could give you something, but I can't."

When it was time for them to get off the bus, hordes of politically sensitive photographers and journalists were waiting for them.

Glenn Cowan later found and bought a T-shirt with a red, white and blue, peace emblem flag and the words "Let It Be". At another chance meeting with Zhuang Zedong, he gave the gift to Zhuang and the latter took it.

When a journalist asked Cowan, "Mr. Cowan, would you like to visit China?"

He answered, "Well, I'd like to see any country I haven't seen before--Argentina, Australia, China, ... Any country I haven't seen before."

"But what about China in particular? Would you like to go there?"

"Of course," said Glenn Cowan.

During an interview in 2002 with the famous TV personality Chen Luyu, Zhuang Zedong told more of the story.

"The trip on the bus took 15 minutes, and I hesitated for 10 minutes. I grew up with the slogan 'Down with the American imperialism!' And during the Cultural Revolution, the string of class struggle was tightened unprecedentedly, and I was asking myself, 'Is it okay to have anything to do with your No. 1 enemy?'"

Zhuang then remembered that Chairman Mao Zedong met Edgar Snow on the Rostrum of Tiananmen on the National Day in 1970 and said to Snow that China should now place its hope on American people.

Zhuang looked in his bag and first went through some pins, badges with Mao's head, silk handkerchiefs, and fans. But he felt these were not decent enough to be a good gift. He finally picked the said silk portrait of Huangshan Mountains.

On the following day, many Japanese newspapers carried photographs of Zhuang Zedong and Glenn Cowan.

A few days later, the Chinese Department of Foreign Affairs received a report that the U.S. Table Tennis hoped to get invited to visit China. As usual, the Department declined, and Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong agreed with the decision. In the evening of the same day, however, Mao Zedong saw the news in Dacankao, a newspaper accessible only to high-ranking government officials, that Zhuang Zedong met with Glenn Cowan. This changed Mao's mind and he decided to invite the U.S. Table Tennis Team.

It was reported that Mao Zedong said, "This Zhuang Zedong not only plays table tennis well, but is good at foreign affairs, and he has a mind for politics."

On April 10, 1971, nine American players, four officials, and two spouses stepped across a bridge from Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland and then spent their time on April 11 - 17 playing exhibition matches, touring the Great Wall and Summer Palace and watching a ballet, and so on.

In February, 1972, Richard Nixon paid his historic visit to China.

Two months after Richard Nixon's visit, Zhuang Zedong visited the U.S. as the head of a Chinese table-tennis delegation on April 12 - 30, 1972. Also on the itinerary of the same trip were Canada, Mexico and Peru.

[edit] Fictional references

In the book Forrest Gump (and the film adaptation of it), the title character was part of the US delegation.

[edit] External links

ko:핑퐁 외교 lt:Ping-pong diplomatija nl:Pingpongdiplomatie zh:乒乓外交

Ping Pong Diplomacy

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