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Table Tennis

Ping Pong diplomacy: How table tennis helped bring USA and China together

The Ping Pong or Table Tennis Diplomacy was a diplomatic strategy put into action by the USA and the People's Republic of China to mend their otherwise messy political relations during the Cold war era.

U.S. and Chinese exhibition teams pose for a photo at the exhibition, April 1971 (Source: National Museum of American Diplomacy)
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U.S. and Chinese exhibition teams pose for a photo at the exhibition, April 1971 (Source: National Museum of American Diplomacy)

By

Abhijit Nair

Published: 20 Nov 2021 9:30 AM GMT

The 2021 World Table Tennis Championships are all set to kick off on 23rd November 2021 in Huston, Texas. This is the first time in history that the United States of America (USA) will play host to this prestigious event, which comes just months after the 50th Anniversary of the Ping Pong Diplomacy.

What is the Ping Pong Diplomacy?

As the name suggests, the Ping Pong or Table Tennis Diplomacy was a diplomatic strategy put into action by the USA and the People's Republic of China to mend their otherwise messy political relations during the Cold war era.

During the late 1940s, the USA saw China as an aggressor nation and put an economic embargo on the East Asian country after it entered the Korean War in 1950. The next two decades flew by without much diplomatic or economic trades between USA and China.

However, towards the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s, both nations realized the need to mend relations with each other. China needed the USA as an ally due to its deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union, while the USA needed China for peace negotiations with North Vietnam.

This is where the Ping Pong Diplomacy came in.

Having always seen sports as a medium to better diplomatic relations, the Chinese government led by Mao Zedong invited the American Table Tennis contingent to the country in 1971.

But, how did this happen?

The American paddlers were busy competing at the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan when they received this invitation. That particular tournament was China's return to the World Championships after an absence of six years.

During one of the training sessions then, the American paddler Glenn Cowan missed his team bus back to the hotel. He was practising with a Chinese player, Liang Geliang when he realized this.

With no other way to return back to the hotel, Cowan had to board the Chinese team bus. While a majority of the Chinese players in the bus had a hostile reaction to an American's presence, Zhuang Zedong was rather friendly.

Zedong was already a three-time World Champion by then shook hands with Cowan, presented him with a gift and even spoke to him via an English translator.

Just as the players walked off the bus, the Chinese media present in the vicinity clicked Zhuang Zedong and Glenn Cowan together. This small interaction between the two-star paddlers came as something unexpected for the entire world, considering the tense relations between China and USA.

Chinese three-time world champion Ping Pong player Zhuang Zedong presented a Yellow Mountain silk weaving art piece to American athlete Glenn Cowan on April 4, 1971. (Source: National Museum of American Diplomacy)

Much before this, the US table tennis team had expressed to the Chinese foreign affairs department their interest in visiting the country. The proposal was then rejected, but Mao Zedong after noticing the interaction between Zhuang and Cowan sensed an opportunity to mend diplomatic relations between the two countries and extended an invitation to visit the country to the USA table tennis contingent.

The USA paddlers in early April 1971 visited China and became the first official American delegation to visit the Chinese capital since the year 1949. The team then played a few fun matches and visited some tourist spots in the country during their stay.

This later paved way for the USA President, Richard Nixon's, famous visit to China in February 1972.

Just two months after Nixon's visit to China, a Chinese table tennis delegation led by Zhuang Zedong travelled to China and played matches with the students of the University of Maryland, with the US President's daughter in the stands.

This entire period helped in reducing the existing tensions between USA and China and eventually came to be known as the 'Ping Pong Diplomacy'.

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