U.S. table tennis team visits communist China

U.S. table tennis team visits communist China

The U.S. The well-publicized trip was part of the PRC’s attempt to build closer diplomatic relations with the United States, and was the beginning of what some pundits in the United States referred to as “ping-pong diplomacy.”

READ MORE: How Ping-Pong Diplomacy Thawed the Cold War

Diplomatic relations between the United States and the PRC ended in 1949 when the U.S. severed ties to the new communist government that had taken power. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the United States and the PRC remained implacable enemies. During the Korean War they clashed militarily, and during the 1960s they supported opposing sides in the conflict in Vietnam. By the late 1960s, however, the communist leadership in the PRC began to rethink its policy towards the United States.

Several factors motivated China to reconsider its relationship with the United States. Chinese officials hoped that closer relations with the United States might provide a very useful counterweight in Chinese relations with Russia. Chinese communists were concerned that the Soviets were deviating from the Marxist hard-line, and Soviet and Chinese troops engaged in some brief but bloody border skirmishes in 1969. The Chinese desire for U.S. trade was another factor motivating the re-establishment of diplomatic ties. The invitation to the U.S. table tennis team in April 1971 was a friendly gesture indicating that the Chinese hoped for a general easing of tensions.

The “ping-pong diplomacy” worked. In June 1972, President Richard Nixon made a historic visit to China to begin talks about re-establishing diplomatic relations. The Chinese table tennis team also toured America, causing a short-lived craze for table tennis.


China-US friendly table tennis match celebrates "Ping Pong Diplomacy"

The doubles competition paired Chinese and American players.

When Chris Miller, a business advisory services manager at the US-China Business Council, watched the film “Forest Gump," which featured Ping Pong Diplomacy, he had never thought that he would take part in anything related to it.

But that did happen on Saturday afternoon. He attended a friendship table tennis match at the International Table Tennis Federation Museum and China Table Tennis Museum in Shanghai to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historical event.

Half a century ago, at the conclusion of the 31st World Championships in Nagoya, Japan, the US table tennis team received an invitation from the Chinese table tennis team to visit China.

They arrived on April 10, 1971, becoming the first US group to visit since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. The Chinese team paid a return visit the following year.

An American tennis table player (right) trains with a Chinese tennis table player, in April 1971 in Beijing.

The mutual visits broke the ice in 22 years of estranged Sino-US relations and eventually led to the normalization of bilateral ties.

During their eight-day visit to China, they played friendly competitions with Chinese ping pong players with a principal “friendship first, competition second.”

The Saturday event, organized by the Shanghai People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, Shanghai Sports Federation, Shanghai University of Sport and Shanghai Institute of American Studies, with the same principal, gathered 13 Chinese people and 13 Americans working and living in Shanghai. They were mixed and divided into four teams to play the doubles competition, with each American paired with a Chinese.

“Though I’m busy and I’m going to get married next week, I wanted to take part in it and spent time practicing once a week over the past month,” he told Shanghai Daily.

Wu Yiman (right, front) from China Table Tennis College puts on the bib number for Vivian A. Mitnick (left, front) from the US Consulate General in Shanghai prior to a China-US Ping-Pong friendly match during a special event in Shanghai, east China, April 10, 2021.

Jeffrey Lehman, vice-chancellor of New York University Shanghai, the first Sino-US joint university in China, said ping pong has been one of his favorite sports since his childhood.

He shared his memories of the Chinese table tennis team’s return visit to the US in 1972.

“The Ping Pong Diplomacy was a turning point in the US-China relation,” he said.

“It started with a critical moment when one (American) player got on the wrong bus and another (Chinese) player reached out to him and they became friends. From that, they changed our history. I’ve now been living in China for 13 years. At the level of individuals, students, business people, it’s natural to be friends, to cooperate and to engage to do these things.”

Before the competition kicked off, the Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai gave a video speech at the launching ceremony for the celebrations.

Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai delivers a video speech during a special event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Ping-Pong Diplomacy between China and the United States in Shanghai, east China, April 10, 2021.

“The Ping Pong Diplomacy of 50 years ago is of special significance in the history of China-US relations," he said.

"It opened up a creative and unique way of communication between the two peoples, who had been separated for decades, and sent a signal to both countries and the world that China and the United States would improve their relations, thus ushering in a series of major events from President Nixon’s visit to China to the establishment of China-US diplomatic relations."

He pointed out that today the China-US relationship faces a critical choice as to its future path.

“The two sides should inherit and carry forward the spirit of Ping Pong Diplomacy featuring mutual respect and seeking common ground while reserving differences,” he said.

“At present, the pandemic and the great changes unseen in a century are intertwined, and traditional and non-traditional security threats have emerged one after another.

"In the face of varied global challenges, China and the United States can and should cooperate in more rather than less areas. The two countries should strengthen coordination and collaboration on issues such as COVID-19 response, climate change and economic recovery, provide more public goods to the world, and make globalization more open, inclusive, balanced, and beneficial to all.”

The United States Table Tennis Team poses for a portrait with their guides in front of a pagoda at the Summer Palace near Beijing, China in 1971.

Sheri Cioroslan, former president of USA Table Tennis, told her story in her video speech of how she got to know Ping Pong Diplomacy at a young age and decided to choose table tennis as her sport.

After Cioroslan became president of USA Table Tennis in 1999, she decided to revive the China-US friendship in terms of table tennis. She recalled memories about the 35th and 40th anniversary celebrations of the Ping Pong Diplomacy in 2006 and 2011.

“There are so many memories to cherish and so many more to make,” she said.

Sha Hailin, chairman of the Shanghai People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, gifted eight Chinese witnesses the "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" souvenir medals and Ping-Pong paddles. The souvenirs for American witnesses were received by James Heller, the US Consul General in Shanghai.

Guests were shown around the China-US Ping-Pong Diplomacy 50th Anniversary Exhibition at the museum, where photos, collections and videos were displayed to help the audience look back on history.

Players from both sides warm up prior to a China-US Ping-Pong friendly match during a special event in Shanghai, east China, April 10, 2021.


Ping-Pong Powerhouses and Table Tennis Tales

The 1971 “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” between China and the United States is often treated as a mere historical footnote, a quirky prelude to Richard Nixon’s path-breaking trip to the People’s Republic a year later. In his recently published book, Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World, journalist Nicholas Griffin, whom I saw speak about his book at Capital M’s literary festival in Beijing last month, seeks to redress that oversight. The result is an informative and entertaining book that covers far more ground than the single week of Ping-Pong Diplomacy itself.

Griffin begins with the history of table tennis (there were many early names for this small-ball sport, including “gossima” and “whiff-whaff”), a game that enjoyed a brief period of popularity in Edwardian England before dying out when the next fad came along. The man who almost single-handedly revived ping-pong, and turned it from an after-dinner game into a global sport, was Ivor Montagu, son of a prominent Jewish banking family that had climbed into the British aristocracy only two generations before. But Montagu, a character tailor-made for a cameo on Downton Abbey, had a rebellious streak that led him to communism. He also loved ping-pong, and ping-pong, curiously, would lead him to prominence within the communist world. Montagu relentlessly promoted the game, which he touted as the ideal activity for the masses, as equipment was inexpensive (and could be improvised) and a ping-pong table took up only a small amount of space (compared to the large fields necessary for sports like soccer and polo). He introduced table tennis to the Soviet Union in the mid-1920s and quickly saw the sport take off in countries around the globe.

Though the game had its adherents in China (American journalist Edgar Snow slept on a ping-pong table while making the visit to the communist base in Yan’an described in Red Star Over China), table tennis didn’t become identified with Chinese dominance until the 1950s. The new communist government wanted to find sports that Chinese athletes could win to prove their nation’s strength, and elite ping-pong status seemed within reach — if China could topple Japan from the top spot it occupied. It took less than a decade for the New China to assert itself as a ping-pong powerhouse. In 1959, the PRC won its first gold medal in any sport with a victory at the World Table Tennis Championship. Two years later, in the midst of the calamitous Great Leap Forward Famine, Beijing hosted the World Championships, where the Chinese beat the Japanese team to take the men’s cup, while the Chinese government managed to keep visiting teams from realizing that mass starvation was the order of the day in many parts of the country.

Ping-pong fell out of favor during the early years of the Cultural Revolution decade (1966 – 1976) the Chinese team’s victories were now derided as “trophyism,” and its travels around the world regarded not as soft-power diplomacy but rather dangerous exposure to foreign thoughts and practices. But when Mao and Zhou Enlai decided to find a subtle way to approach the United States and begin the process of mending relations in 1971, they chose ping-pong. The PRC sent a team to the World Championships in Nagoya, Japan, where Chinese players followed what seems to have been a carefully prepared script on making overtures to the Americans. Glenn Cowan, a colorful Californian who was far better at self-promotion than ping-pong, allegedly boarded the Chinese team’s bus by mistake (he claimed he was waved onto the bus by one of the players), and then struck up a conversation with Zhuang Zedong, China’s ping-pong star. Zhuang just happened to have a gift to present to Cowan — not the standard Mao pin that other foreigners received, but a silk-screened portrait of Huangshan, one of China’s most famous mountains. The next day, Cowan approached Zhuang and gifted him with a t-shirt printed with a peace sign, American flag, and the words “Let It Be.” The lines of communication thus opened, Mao sent a message to the head of the Chinese delegation and ordered him to invite the Americans to China — on a trip that would begin in only 36 hours.


15‐Man U.S. Table Tennis Team Crosses Into China From Hong Kong

HONG KONG, Saturday, April 10 — Members of the United States table tennis team crossed from Hong Kong into Communist China this morning, walking over a railway bridge that marks the border between this British Crown Colony and Chinese Communist territory.

The 15 members of the team —nine players, one a sportswriter as well, four officials and two wives—were the first Americans to visit China as a group since the mid‐nineteenfifties.

The team accepted an invitation, given during the world table tennis championship in Nagoya, Japan, earlier this week to spend a week in China playing exhibition matches.

As the Americans crossed the bridge, walking in bright sunshine, they could be seen from the British side receiving a cordial welcome from Chinese officials, who shook hands with the visitors. Loudspeakers on the Chinese side were playing soft orchestral music as a background to the event.

The Americans were escorted to a waiting train, which will take them to Canton, about 40 miles northwest of Hong Kong. From Canton they will fly to Peking, where the rest of their itinerary will be decided.

The team arrived last night: in Hong Kong, which they were given a friendly reception by representatives of Communist China.

The Americans were welcomed at Hong Kong's airport by representatives of Hsinhua, the Chinese Communist press agency, and the China Travel Service, an official agency of Peking, which makes all the arrangements for those invited to China.

Those in the United States team are Graham B. Steenhoven, 59 years old, of Detroit, the team president Rufford Harrison of Wilmington, Del. the deputy team leader George Buben of Detroit, an official Richard Miles of New York, a nonplaying member Tim Boggan, 40, of Merrick, N.Y., the writer Jack Howard, 36, of Seattle, player, captain and coach of the team John Tannehill, 18, of Middleport, Ohio Glenn Cowan, 19, of Santa Monica, Calif. Errol Roseck, 29, New York Olga Soltesz, 18, of Orlando, Fla. George Braithwaite, Brooklyn Connie Sweerts, 23, of Grand Rapids, Mich. Judy Bochenski, 15, of Eugene, Ore. Mrs. Reseck and Mrs. Buben.

Teams from four other countries, Britain, Canada, Nigeria and Colombia—have also accepted invitations to tour China.


Ping-Pong Diplomacy

Thirty years ago: April 1972. The Cold War is entering its 26th year with no end in sight. In Vietnam, war still rages. On April 12, a Pan Am 707 lands in Detroit, Michigan, carrying the People's Republic of China's world champion table tennis team for a series of matches and tours in ten cities around the United States.

The era of Ping-Pong diplomacy had begun 12 months earlier when the American team—in Nagoya, Japan, for the World Table Tennis Championship—got a surprise invitation from their Chinese colleagues to visit the People's Republic. Time magazine called it "The ping heard round the world." And with good reason: no group of Americans had been invited to China since the Communist takeover in 1949.

Why had they been invited? The Chinese felt that by opening a door to the United States, they could put their mostly hostile neighbors on notice about a possible shift in alliances. The United States welcomed the opportunity President Richard M. Nixon had written: "We simply cannot afford to leave China outside the family of nations."

Soon after the U.S. team's trip, Nixon, not wanting to lose momentum, secretly sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Peking to arrange a Presidential visit to China. Nixon's journey seven months later, in February 1972, would become one of the most important events in U.S. postwar history. "Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy," said Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. For Nixon, it was "the week that changed the world."

In February 2002, President George W. Bush, in his second trip to China, recalled the meeting that came out of Ping-Pong diplomacy, telling President Jiang Zemin: "Thirty years ago this week, President Richard Nixon showed the world that two vastly different governments could meet on the grounds of common interest and in a spirit of mutual respect."


Now Streaming

Mr. Tornado

Mr. Tornado is the remarkable story of the man whose groundbreaking work in research and applied science saved thousands of lives and helped Americans prepare for and respond to dangerous weather phenomena.

The Polio Crusade

The story of the polio crusade pays tribute to a time when Americans banded together to conquer a terrible disease. The medical breakthrough saved countless lives and had a pervasive impact on American philanthropy that continues to be felt today.

American Oz

Explore the life and times of L. Frank Baum, creator of the beloved The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.


Drawing on History and Looking to the Future to Advance China-U.S. Relations along the Right Track

Chinese and U.S. players participate in a friendly ping-pong match in Shanghai on April 10. That day was the 50th anniversary of China-U.S. Ping-Pong Diplomacy. [GAO ERQIANG/CHINA DAILY]

In Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of China-U.S. Ping-Pong Diplomacy

This year marks the 50th anniversary of China-U.S. Ping-Pong diplomacy. In April 1971, the U.S. table tennis team, which was attending the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, paid a visit to China at the invitation of the Chinese table tennis team. One year later, the Chinese team made a return visit to the United States. During the visits, both teams were warmly welcomed and received by each other's country and people. The two sides enabled the little ball to move the big ball, thus thawing the ice of over two decades of estrangement between the two countries.

Back fifty years ago, the elder generation of Chinese and American leaders-Chairman Mao Zedong, Premier Zhou Enlai, President Richard Nixon and Dr. Henry Kissinger-acted in the common interests of the two peoples and demonstrated strategic vision and extraordinary political courage, with their strategic decision to reopen the door of exchanges between China and the United States. They were personally involved in the decision-making to bring about the Ping-Pong diplomacy. In July 1971, Dr. Kissinger paid a secret visit to China. In February 1972, President Nixon visited China. A "handshake that crossed the vast Pacific Ocean" was realized between China and the United States, which opened a new chapter in relations between the two countries.

Over the past five decades, China-U.S. relations have braved wind and rain and continued to move forward and score historic achievements. This has not only brought real benefits to the two countries and peoples but also contributed significantly to world peace, stability and prosperity.

Since the establishment of diplomatic ties, China-U.S. trade has kept growing on a steady basis. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, trade in goods grew by 8.3 percent last year to exceed US$580 billion. In the first quarter of this year, two-way trade surged by 61.3 percent over the same period of last year. Such trade and economic cooperation has served the mutual benefit of the two sides over the years.

China and the United States have joined forces for the conclusion of the Paris Agreement on climate change, lending important impetus to global climate cooperation. On 22 April, President Xi Jinping attended the Leaders Summit on Climate at the invitation of President Joe Biden and delivered important remarks. President Xi underlined that China looks forward to working with the international community including the United States to jointly advance global environmental governance. At an earlier date, the two sides also released a Joint Statement Addressing the Climate Crisis in Shanghai. China and the United States worked together in responding to the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2008 international financial crisis, making important contribution to international financial stability and world economic recovery. China and the United States have carried out trilateral cooperation on food security in Timor-Leste and jointly combated Ebola in Africa. The two sides have also coordinated effectively in such fields as counter-terrorism, nonproliferation, anti-narcotics, disease prevention and control and peacekeeping, and have maintained communication and coordination on the Middle East and other regional hotspot issues.

Chinese leaders have been involved on a personal basis in promoting people-to-people exchanges between the two countries. Over the years, President Xi Jinping has attached great importance to and been personally engaged in people-to-people interactions between the two sides. His 30-year-long friendship with old friends in Iowa and his support to Elizabeth Gardner who, in her late 70s, fulfilled her late husband's wish to revisit Guling in Fujian province, are all fondly remembered stories of China-U.S. people-to-people exchanges.

Since the mutual visits between the two table tennis teams in 1972, Chinese and American table tennis players have engaged in frequent exchanges. In 2002, the Chinese table tennis team was invited to Chicago and Los Angeles, where three generations of table tennis players from both sides gathered to renew the friendship initiated by Ping-Pong diplomacy. The two sides have also enjoyed close exchanges and cooperation in the field of arts and culture and on natural disaster response, and have supported and assisted each other in addressing COVID-19.

There are now 50 pairs of sister provinces and states and 232 pairs of sister cities between the two countries. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, people across sectors in the two countries have maintained frequent contacts, through either phone calls, correspondence or video conferences. All these come as the result of long-term dedication and commitment by Chinese and American peoples through generations, and all must be cherished and taken good care of by both countries.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ping-Pong diplomacy, we look back at the past journey of China-U.S. relations, with all its ups and downs, so that we could learn from history, stick to the present and open up the future. To say the least, that past history may give us the following three important inspirations:

First, China and the United States need to and are fully capable of living in peace and engage in win-win cooperation. The fundamental reason why the two countries were able to break the ice of long-term antagonism and estrangement to establish full diplomatic ties fifty years ago, and why they have since enjoyed fruitful cooperation across the board, lies in the very fact that both countries have managed to act in the shared interests of the two countries and two peoples, as they aspired to seek common ground while reserving differences on the basis of respecting each other's political systems and development models.

The Shanghai Communique of 1972 explicitly stated that "there are essential differences between China and the United States in their social systems and foreign policies. Yet, the two sides agreed that countries, regardless of their social systems, should conduct their relations on the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, non-aggression against other states, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence". The two sides stated that progress toward normalizing China-U.S. relations served the interest of all countries. The Shanghai Communique, the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations, and the 1982 Joint Communique established the principles of mutual respect, equality and seeking common ground while putting aside differences as the guiding principles in conducting China-U.S. relations. They form the political foundation of China-U.S. relations.

It is not China's intention to dismiss the political system and development path of the United States or any country in the world. Nor is it China's desire to disseminate its own political system and development path elsewhere. Nonetheless, the Chinese people will never concede to anyone attempting to challenge the Communist Party of China, China's political system, or its structure of leadership. China will firmly defend its own sovereignty, security and development interests.

It is normal that China and the United States may have differences. What is crucial is that the two countries respect and treat each other as equals, and manage their differences constructively to ensure that the bilateral relationship move forward in the right direction.

Second, as the largest developing country and the largest developed country, and as the world's two largest economies and permanent members of the UN Security Council, China and the United States shoulder special global responsibilities and obligations, and share extensive and important common interests. China and the United States working together can make great things happen for the two countries and the world at large, while the two countries stuck in confrontation spells disaster for both countries and beyond.

Never before have countries in the world been so interdependent and so closely interconnected. Humankind are in a community with a shared future. No country can prosper in isolation or meet all challenges on its own. Embracing unity, cooperation and coordination is the only right way forward. China and the United States should keep pace with the times, and view and handle their relationship with a broader vision and mind. The two countries should work together toward a new model of major-country relations featuring non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, so as to make important contribution to peace and development in the world.

As a big developing country with 1.4 billion people, China has tremendous market potentials. We are stepping up efforts to foster a new development paradigm with domestic circulation as the mainstay and domestic and international circulations reinforcing each other. We will further improve the business environment that is based on market principles, governed by law, and up to international standards. All this will create greater development space for companies from around the world, including those from the United States. We are happy to see American companies succeed in China. We hope they will join us in keeping industrial and supply chains safe and stable for the benefit of both sides.

COVID-19 is the common enemy of humankind, and containing the pandemic should become a new platform for China-U.S. cooperation. Medical experts, research teams and businesses from the two countries should work more closely together on vaccine R&D and COVID response to contribute to the global fight against the virus.

Climate change concerns the future of humankind, and it calls for a joint response from all countries. China and the United States should work with other parties to better enforce the Paris Agreement and ensure the success of COP15 to the Convention on Biological Diversity, COP26 to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and other events, so as to contribute to the global endeavor to address climate and environment challenges and build a community of life for man and Nature.

China is ready to enhance cooperation with the United States on counter-terrorism, non-proliferation and other international and regional issues as well as under multilateral frameworks including the United Nations and the G20, so as to jointly safeguard regional and world peace, stability and development.

Third, people-to-people exchange is an important foundation and enduring driving force for the sound and steady development of China-U.S. relations. "Amity between the people holds the key to state-to-state relations." Over the past five decades since Ping-Pong diplomacy, people-to-people exchange has played an increasingly important role in upholding and advancing China-U.S. relations. Communication and interaction between the two peoples from various sectors help to deepen mutual understanding and friendship between the two countries, expand common interests of the two peoples, and facilitate sound development of bilateral relations. In recent years, some in the United States, out of the Cold-War zero-sum mentality, have caused disruption and created obstacles to normal people-to-people exchanges. They stood on the wrong side of history and moved against the will of the people, and their attempt enjoyed no support from the people.

It is the people that make history. Every day stories take place of friendly exchanges between the Chinese and American peoples. Last month, the fifth China-U.S. Subnational Legislatures Cooperation Forum was successfully held online. Leading officials of seven Chinese provincial legislatures and seven U.S. state legislatures spoke at the event. Chinese and U.S. friendly organizations co-hosted the China-U.S. Agriculture Roundtable. Leading officials of agricultural departments, representatives from subnational governments, the business community and educational institutions of both countries, as well as members of the U.S. Congress attended the event and sent video messages. And they actively explored opportunities for business, educational, and think-tank exchanges and cooperation. Earlier this month, the two sides held commemorations in Beijing for the 50th anniversary of Ping-Pong diplomacy. Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan and former U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger delivered important remarks through video links, and representatives from political, business, academic, sport and other sectors of both countries attended the event. Chinese and American participants who were involved in Ping-Pong diplomacy 50 years ago played a virtual ping-pong game in a lively atmosphere that touched the hearts of the audience in both countries.

It is now important that we listen to the call of the people on both sides for peace, development and cooperation, and work to create enabling conditions for exchanges and cooperation at the subnational levels and between businesses, think tanks, media and non-governmental groups of the two sides, so that more will join, benefit from and become supporters of China-U.S. relations.

We see in front of us the unstoppable trend of friendly exchanges between the Chinese and American peoples, as well as the common aspiration of the two peoples and the wider world for China-U.S. relations to maintain stability and grow further. We hope that the United States will work with China to carry forward and promote the spirit of Ping-Pong diplomacy. We hope the two sides will act on the guidance of the phone call conversation between President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden, take a clear grasp of the global trend, and go along the tide of the times. We hope the two sides could focus on cooperation, manage differences, move China-U.S. relations forward in a sound and steady manner, and work with other countries in the world to jointly advance the noble cause of world peace and development.

The author is a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee.


The Myths and Realities of Ping-Pong Diplomacy

When the United States’ table tennis team was invited to China in 1971, the trip was about far more than sporting competition. Dubbed ‘ping-pong diplomacy’, it heralded a thaw in diplomatic relations between the two nations.

President Nixon attending a table tennis exhibition in Beijing, 23 February 1972.

I n April 1971 a series of table tennis matches between the US national team and the world champions China made history. Then ranked 23rd in the world, the US team was comprised of amateur players, even paying their own expenses to travel to the World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan where they first met their Chinese counterparts. The Chinese team’s superiority was clear: across the seven events at the Championships, they won four gold, three silver and two bronze medals. The Americans left empty-handed. Following the championships, the US team were invited to China for a short tour, where they had a chance to visit the Great Wall. On Premier Zhou Enlai’s orders, the Chinese prioritised ‘friendship first, competition second’, throwing a handful of the games. The tour, quickly dubbed ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ by the American press, was historic for its political, rather than its sporting, consequences.

After two decades of hostility between the governments of the two countries, fuelled by Cold War ideology and memories of the Korean War, the diplomacy brokered via table tennis soon led to visits to China by other, more prominent, Americans. They included National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger three months after the tour and President Richard Nixon less than a year later, as well as basketball players, physicists and the Philadelphia Orchestra. China sent an array of sporting and cultural delegations to the US, starting with their table tennis players.

Lin Hui-Ching represents China at the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, 7 April 1971.

One of the most frequently repeated myths surrounding the US team’s visit to China is that it marked the first time Americans had set foot in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since its founding in 1949. Not only had Americans visited Communist China, some had lived there. Sidney Rittenberg, a former GI and a communist born in South Carolina, came to be the most prominent – and controversial – of the American ‘foreign friends’ who lived in China. These left-leaning ‘fellow travellers’ received favour from Chairman Mao Zedong’s government in exchange for their vocal loyalty to the regime. During the Cultural Revolution, Rittenberg was one of the most influential individuals at Radio Peking, then China’s equivalent of the BBC World Service, and his speeches were broadcast throughout China. His influence soon attracted suspicion, however, including from Mao’s wife Jiang Qing. Accused of being an American spy, Rittenberg was imprisoned in 1967 for more than a decade.

‘Ping-pong diplomacy’ is also sometimes referred to as the first time a group of Americans visited the PRC. Even this is not quite true: 41 of the 160 young Americans who travelled to the Sixth World Festival of Youth and Students, held in Moscow in 1957, continued on to China, where Zhou Enlai welcomed them as ‘pioneers in opening the contacts between the people of the two countries’. The visit received worldwide press attention, not least because the young Americans, many of them teenagers, were knowingly violating a US government ban on all travel to the PRC imposed in 1952. But their trip had little effect on diplomatic relations: the US State Department made good on its promise to seize the passports of the attendees and threatened to imprison any other Americans bold enough to follow in their footsteps.

What, then, was different in 1971? While another myth suggests that it was the ping-pong trip itself that restored communication between the two governments, in reality dialogue had continued throughout the Cold War. A series of ambassadorial-level negotiations between China and the US occurred from 1955 until 1970 in Geneva and Warsaw, with 136 meetings taking place. Often these talks reached a deadlock. This had been the case in 1957, when President Eisenhower had limited interest in a serious dialogue with Mao, fearing that any public initiative towards China would be met with hysteria from anti-communists in Congress.

Richard Nixon meets Mao Zedong, 21 February 1972.

By 1971 the situation had changed. Nixon, who had been Eisenhower’s vice president, had made it clear in a 1967 Foreign Affairs article that he no longer supported a policy of isolating China. Some contact with a country of a billion people had to be restored, he argued. Like Eisenhower, however, Nixon worried about a public backlash against any effort to negotiate with Beijing. When he and Kissinger opened a highly secretive backchannel to Mao and Zhou in 1970, they avoided using the White House letterhead for fear that Beijing would leak their correspondence.

Mao personally approved the invitation of the US table tennis players, overruling those in his Foreign Ministry, and even Zhou, who urged caution. Chinese documents reveal that the chairman’s decision was not without precedent: two months earlier, he had ordered that dozens of Americans should be invited to China over the course of 1971 and, crucially, that they could be drawn from across the political spectrum.

Like Nixon, Mao was open to diplomatic talks. He sought a rapprochement with the US, partly in order to deter an invasion of China by the Soviet Union, seemingly an imminent possibility after major Sino-Soviet border clashes in 1969. Mao also wanted to negotiate the end of the US military presence on Taiwan, which had protected the island since the PRC’s entry into the Korean War on the side of the North in 1950. Having pulled out of the secret backchannel with Washington in 1971 in protest at Nixon’s decision to bomb Cambodia, Mao used the table tennis invitation to signal that he had not given up on reaching out to the US.

Nixon was far less involved than Mao in ‘ping-pong diplomacy’. The president personally endorsed the State Department giving the US team permission to travel to China from Japan, but only on the condition that the US government would have no further involvement in the trip. In Washington, Kissinger worried that the amateur table tennis players might muddle his and Nixon’s delicate approaches to Beijing. Both were anxious about the public response to the team’s China trip the overwhelmingly positive reaction of most ordinary Americans encouraged the White House’s diplomatic overtures to Beijing.

Richard Nixon and Zhou Enlai speaking at a banquet, Beijing, 21 February 1972.

‘Ping-pong diplomacy’ was far from spontaneous, then. The Chinese team’s attendance at the World Championships was the first time the country had participated in an international sporting tournament since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Beijing had been divided over whether to send their team to Japan, with hesitancy from both the players and the foreign ministry overcome by direct orders from Zhou and Mao. One reason behind the trepidation was fear: Chinese officials correctly predicted that the PRC athletes would face fierce anti-communist protestors in Japan. Mao told them to be ‘ready for death’ on their daring trip.

One important moment at the Championships did, however, occur by chance. American and Chinese players and officials had already conversed on the sidelines of the games in Japan. Graham Steenhoven, the president of the US Table Tennis Association, pointedly told his Chinese counterpart, Song Zhong, that Nixon had recently rescinded the ban on travel to the PRC violated by the 1957 youth delegation. But the breakthrough occurred when the US player Glenn Cowan boarded the Chinese team’s bus. An awkward silence was broken by the Chinese team captain Zhuang Zedong. As they got off the bus, Zhuang presented Cowan with a silk-screen depiction of China’s Huangshan mountains to rapid-fire clicks from gathered press cameras. Perhaps Zhuang had brought the gift to Japan to give to an American perhaps it was just one of the tokens the Chinese carried for friendly interactions with rival teams. In any case, the interaction was a surprise to Mao back in Beijing. When he learnt of the incident via his digest of Western newspapers, he commented approvingly: ‘Zhuang Zedong is not only very good at ping-pong but also quite diplomatic.’ Soon, Mao sent word for Cowan and his teammates to be invited to China.

The Americans were not the only team to get such an invite. Teams from Colombia, Canada, Nigeria and the UK were all touring China simultaneously in April 1971. Nonetheless, the importance of US-China relations meant that Zhou told his closest aides that the Americans should be China’s top priority while in the country.

The Chinese table tennis team at a television studio at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Maryland, 17 March 1972.

‘Ping-pong diplomacy’ did not end in 1971. Almost exactly a year later, the Chinese team arrived on a reciprocal second leg tour of the US. Though this was not the first time PRC citizens had visited the US, it was the first official delegation from Communist China.

The Chinese team played table tennis to 10,000 spectators at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island and in the austere chambers of the United Nations. They visited Disneyland and Hollywood, as well as an African American church in Memphis and a car factory in Detroit. Zhuang Zedong told the Detroit factory workers that the Chinese players ‘salute the American working class’ and that they had ‘come to learn from you’. Whereas the Americans had been guests of the Chinese government, the Chinese team were received by two US non-governmental organisations: the US Table Tennis Association and the National Committee on US-China Relations. Nixon hosted the Chinese athletes at a White House Rose Garden reception.

In April 2021 China used the 50th anniversary of the American team’s visit to urge a return to the spirit that characterised the visit. ‘Ping-pong diplomacy’ has become a powerful example of cooperation trumping hostility – but we should take care to separate myth from reality as we invoke its memory. The 1971 breakthrough in US-China relations did not happen by chance. We should not hold our breath for another spontaneous ‘ping-pong moment’.

Pete Millwood is writing a history of how visits of athletes, musicians and scientists helped re-establish relations between China and the United States in the 1970s, to be published by Cambridge University Press.


Drawing on History and Looking to the Future to Advance China-U.S. Relations along the Right Track

Chinese and U.S. players participate in a friendly ping-pong match in Shanghai on April 10. That day was the 50th anniversary of China-U.S. Ping-Pong Diplomacy. [GAO ERQIANG/CHINA DAILY]

In Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of China-U.S. Ping-Pong Diplomacy

This year marks the 50th anniversary of China-U.S. Ping-Pong diplomacy. In April 1971, the U.S. table tennis team, which was attending the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, paid a visit to China at the invitation of the Chinese table tennis team. One year later, the Chinese team made a return visit to the United States. During the visits, both teams were warmly welcomed and received by each other's country and people. The two sides enabled the little ball to move the big ball, thus thawing the ice of over two decades of estrangement between the two countries.

Back fifty years ago, the elder generation of Chinese and American leaders-Chairman Mao Zedong, Premier Zhou Enlai, President Richard Nixon and Dr. Henry Kissinger-acted in the common interests of the two peoples and demonstrated strategic vision and extraordinary political courage, with their strategic decision to reopen the door of exchanges between China and the United States. They were personally involved in the decision-making to bring about the Ping-Pong diplomacy. In July 1971, Dr. Kissinger paid a secret visit to China. In February 1972, President Nixon visited China. A "handshake that crossed the vast Pacific Ocean" was realized between China and the United States, which opened a new chapter in relations between the two countries.

Over the past five decades, China-U.S. relations have braved wind and rain and continued to move forward and score historic achievements. This has not only brought real benefits to the two countries and peoples but also contributed significantly to world peace, stability and prosperity.

Since the establishment of diplomatic ties, China-U.S. trade has kept growing on a steady basis. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, trade in goods grew by 8.3 percent last year to exceed US$580 billion. In the first quarter of this year, two-way trade surged by 61.3 percent over the same period of last year. Such trade and economic cooperation has served the mutual benefit of the two sides over the years.

China and the United States have joined forces for the conclusion of the Paris Agreement on climate change, lending important impetus to global climate cooperation. On 22 April, President Xi Jinping attended the Leaders Summit on Climate at the invitation of President Joe Biden and delivered important remarks. President Xi underlined that China looks forward to working with the international community including the United States to jointly advance global environmental governance. At an earlier date, the two sides also released a Joint Statement Addressing the Climate Crisis in Shanghai. China and the United States worked together in responding to the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2008 international financial crisis, making important contribution to international financial stability and world economic recovery. China and the United States have carried out trilateral cooperation on food security in Timor-Leste and jointly combated Ebola in Africa. The two sides have also coordinated effectively in such fields as counter-terrorism, nonproliferation, anti-narcotics, disease prevention and control and peacekeeping, and have maintained communication and coordination on the Middle East and other regional hotspot issues.

Chinese leaders have been involved on a personal basis in promoting people-to-people exchanges between the two countries. Over the years, President Xi Jinping has attached great importance to and been personally engaged in people-to-people interactions between the two sides. His 30-year-long friendship with old friends in Iowa and his support to Elizabeth Gardner who, in her late 70s, fulfilled her late husband's wish to revisit Guling in Fujian province, are all fondly remembered stories of China-U.S. people-to-people exchanges.

Since the mutual visits between the two table tennis teams in 1972, Chinese and American table tennis players have engaged in frequent exchanges. In 2002, the Chinese table tennis team was invited to Chicago and Los Angeles, where three generations of table tennis players from both sides gathered to renew the friendship initiated by Ping-Pong diplomacy. The two sides have also enjoyed close exchanges and cooperation in the field of arts and culture and on natural disaster response, and have supported and assisted each other in addressing COVID-19.

There are now 50 pairs of sister provinces and states and 232 pairs of sister cities between the two countries. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, people across sectors in the two countries have maintained frequent contacts, through either phone calls, correspondence or video conferences. All these come as the result of long-term dedication and commitment by Chinese and American peoples through generations, and all must be cherished and taken good care of by both countries.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ping-Pong diplomacy, we look back at the past journey of China-U.S. relations, with all its ups and downs, so that we could learn from history, stick to the present and open up the future. To say the least, that past history may give us the following three important inspirations:

First, China and the United States need to and are fully capable of living in peace and engage in win-win cooperation. The fundamental reason why the two countries were able to break the ice of long-term antagonism and estrangement to establish full diplomatic ties fifty years ago, and why they have since enjoyed fruitful cooperation across the board, lies in the very fact that both countries have managed to act in the shared interests of the two countries and two peoples, as they aspired to seek common ground while reserving differences on the basis of respecting each other's political systems and development models.

The Shanghai Communique of 1972 explicitly stated that "there are essential differences between China and the United States in their social systems and foreign policies. Yet, the two sides agreed that countries, regardless of their social systems, should conduct their relations on the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, non-aggression against other states, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence". The two sides stated that progress toward normalizing China-U.S. relations served the interest of all countries. The Shanghai Communique, the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations, and the 1982 Joint Communique established the principles of mutual respect, equality and seeking common ground while putting aside differences as the guiding principles in conducting China-U.S. relations. They form the political foundation of China-U.S. relations.

It is not China's intention to dismiss the political system and development path of the United States or any country in the world. Nor is it China's desire to disseminate its own political system and development path elsewhere. Nonetheless, the Chinese people will never concede to anyone attempting to challenge the Communist Party of China, China's political system, or its structure of leadership. China will firmly defend its own sovereignty, security and development interests.

It is normal that China and the United States may have differences. What is crucial is that the two countries respect and treat each other as equals, and manage their differences constructively to ensure that the bilateral relationship move forward in the right direction.

Second, as the largest developing country and the largest developed country, and as the world's two largest economies and permanent members of the UN Security Council, China and the United States shoulder special global responsibilities and obligations, and share extensive and important common interests. China and the United States working together can make great things happen for the two countries and the world at large, while the two countries stuck in confrontation spells disaster for both countries and beyond.

Never before have countries in the world been so interdependent and so closely interconnected. Humankind are in a community with a shared future. No country can prosper in isolation or meet all challenges on its own. Embracing unity, cooperation and coordination is the only right way forward. China and the United States should keep pace with the times, and view and handle their relationship with a broader vision and mind. The two countries should work together toward a new model of major-country relations featuring non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, so as to make important contribution to peace and development in the world.

As a big developing country with 1.4 billion people, China has tremendous market potentials. We are stepping up efforts to foster a new development paradigm with domestic circulation as the mainstay and domestic and international circulations reinforcing each other. We will further improve the business environment that is based on market principles, governed by law, and up to international standards. All this will create greater development space for companies from around the world, including those from the United States. We are happy to see American companies succeed in China. We hope they will join us in keeping industrial and supply chains safe and stable for the benefit of both sides.

COVID-19 is the common enemy of humankind, and containing the pandemic should become a new platform for China-U.S. cooperation. Medical experts, research teams and businesses from the two countries should work more closely together on vaccine R&D and COVID response to contribute to the global fight against the virus.

Climate change concerns the future of humankind, and it calls for a joint response from all countries. China and the United States should work with other parties to better enforce the Paris Agreement and ensure the success of COP15 to the Convention on Biological Diversity, COP26 to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and other events, so as to contribute to the global endeavor to address climate and environment challenges and build a community of life for man and Nature.

China is ready to enhance cooperation with the United States on counter-terrorism, non-proliferation and other international and regional issues as well as under multilateral frameworks including the United Nations and the G20, so as to jointly safeguard regional and world peace, stability and development.

Third, people-to-people exchange is an important foundation and enduring driving force for the sound and steady development of China-U.S. relations. "Amity between the people holds the key to state-to-state relations." Over the past five decades since Ping-Pong diplomacy, people-to-people exchange has played an increasingly important role in upholding and advancing China-U.S. relations. Communication and interaction between the two peoples from various sectors help to deepen mutual understanding and friendship between the two countries, expand common interests of the two peoples, and facilitate sound development of bilateral relations. In recent years, some in the United States, out of the Cold-War zero-sum mentality, have caused disruption and created obstacles to normal people-to-people exchanges. They stood on the wrong side of history and moved against the will of the people, and their attempt enjoyed no support from the people.

It is the people that make history. Every day stories take place of friendly exchanges between the Chinese and American peoples. Last month, the fifth China-U.S. Subnational Legislatures Cooperation Forum was successfully held online. Leading officials of seven Chinese provincial legislatures and seven U.S. state legislatures spoke at the event. Chinese and U.S. friendly organizations co-hosted the China-U.S. Agriculture Roundtable. Leading officials of agricultural departments, representatives from subnational governments, the business community and educational institutions of both countries, as well as members of the U.S. Congress attended the event and sent video messages. And they actively explored opportunities for business, educational, and think-tank exchanges and cooperation. Earlier this month, the two sides held commemorations in Beijing for the 50th anniversary of Ping-Pong diplomacy. Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan and former U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger delivered important remarks through video links, and representatives from political, business, academic, sport and other sectors of both countries attended the event. Chinese and American participants who were involved in Ping-Pong diplomacy 50 years ago played a virtual ping-pong game in a lively atmosphere that touched the hearts of the audience in both countries.

It is now important that we listen to the call of the people on both sides for peace, development and cooperation, and work to create enabling conditions for exchanges and cooperation at the subnational levels and between businesses, think tanks, media and non-governmental groups of the two sides, so that more will join, benefit from and become supporters of China-U.S. relations.

We see in front of us the unstoppable trend of friendly exchanges between the Chinese and American peoples, as well as the common aspiration of the two peoples and the wider world for China-U.S. relations to maintain stability and grow further. We hope that the United States will work with China to carry forward and promote the spirit of Ping-Pong diplomacy. We hope the two sides will act on the guidance of the phone call conversation between President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden, take a clear grasp of the global trend, and go along the tide of the times. We hope the two sides could focus on cooperation, manage differences, move China-U.S. relations forward in a sound and steady manner, and work with other countries in the world to jointly advance the noble cause of world peace and development.

The author is a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee.


Table Tennis, in China, Is Not Just a Sport

Table tennis is to China what the Dodgers were to Brooklyn, what college football is to the Southern hamlets of the United States—a way of life. More than 100 million of Communist China's 760 million people, including Chairman Mao Tse‐tung, play table tennis, and they play it well.

Returning to international competition this year after a six‐year absence, the Chinese combined a distinct playing style and a deep commitment to the sport to win four of seven championships.

The American men's team, in contrast, wound up 24th, reflecting the prominence of the sport in this country. Played and cherished by millions of Americans In their paneled basements and family rooms, table tennis has been unable to gain broad acceptance in the United States as a spectator sport.

The World's Greatest

Events of the last few days may open a new era for table tennis in the United States. At a news conference Wednesday during the 31st world table tennis championships in Nagoya, Japan, Graham 13. Steenhoven, the president of the United States Table Tennis Assocation, said that group of American players had been invited to visit Communist China on a weeklong tour. Yesterday they started on their trip.

The announcement was regarded as a significant breakthrough in political relations between the two countries since this will be the first sizable group of Americans to visit Communist China since the middle nineteenfifties. More important to American players in the contingent, the tour will afford an opportunity to meet what is considered to be the world's finest collection of table tennis talent.

The success of the Chinese at the sport embodies spiritual, psychological and physical commitments.

“The writings and spirit of Mao invade every match the Chinese play,” said Rufford Harrison of Wilmington, Del., one of the officials who is accompanying the team on its tour. “The national team, before beginning play, recite Mao quotations to give them courage and in the middle of a tense game, a Chinese crowd will often chant Mao's sayings to spur their heroes on. It has a terrific psychological effect.”

The Chinese treat their young table tennis heroes with the reverence reserved for football or basketball players in this country. Talented athletes are sent to schools and camps for intensive training.

“We play games where size is of less consequence, like baseball and swimming —and table tennis,” Shigeto Ito of Japan, the runner‐up in the recent world singles championships, said to explain the affinity of Orientals for table tennis. Mr. Ito is 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 137 ‐pounds.

The Chinese adopted the game from the Japanese and dominated the sport until the Cultural Revolution of 1966‐68 ended travel opportunities for top players.

Various claims have been made about the origin of table tennis, but it seems to have started during the eighteennineties among the British, perhaps as an indoor counterpart to lawn tennis.

Under the name of “Ping Pong,” the game was brought to this country—by Parker Brothers, the manufacturer of parlor games—from Britain in 1902. Edward P. Parker, president of Parker Brothers, said that his company had sold about 20 million sets of the game over the years.

A Trademark, Not a Sport

The concern constantly reminds the public that Ping Pong is its trademark, not the name of the sport, although both are identical. Mr. Parker explained the confusion over names: “I guess we just made the name ‘Ping Pong’ too prominent,” he said. “Table tennis is stuck With it.”

“We want to make table tennis a competitive sport,” Said Dell Sweeris of Grand Rapids, Mich., a top player whose family is active in table tennis. “We want to take the game out of the basements and clubs and make it a sport.”

“There is no game more individualistic than table tennis,” Andreas Gal, an American prominent in the sport, wrote in the recently published Encyclopedia of Sport Sciences and Medicine. “It is a game of self‐expression, of words and temperament.”

As a sign of their self‐expression, the Chinese have created a distinct playing style. While most Americans use the conventional “shakehand” grip with a paddle and prefer consistency to power, the Chinese are drilled in aggressive tactics. Their “penholder grip,” in which the thumb and forefinger are on the same side of the paddle and the paddle handle is held perpendicular to the table rather than parallel to it, still confounds most Americans. Many Chinese players use only one side of the paddle and never bother to put the rubber‐pit covering on the back side.

“The penholder style just happens to be more popular among Asians,” said Ed Heller, sales manager of the Harvard Table Tennis Corporation in Cambridge, Mass. “Some people say you can achieve more power that way, but it's a matter of individual preference.”


Ping-Pong Diplomacy by Nicholas Griffin – review

T here is a photograph, taken in 1971, of one of the most unlikely groups ever assembled in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. In the back row, Glenn Cowan, a long-haired American college student at centre front stands the late Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, at his side an elderly bespectacled Englishman. All appear to be looking in different directions, as, indeed, they were.

The occasion was the historic visit of the US ping-pong team to Beijing in response to an ostensibly impromptu invitation from their Chinese counterparts, issued at the World Table Tennis Championship in Japan after Cowan, an American player, boarded the Chinese team bus. It is credited with breaking the ice between China and the US after a 22-year freeze and paving the way for Henry Kissinger's secret trip and President Nixon's 1972 visit. China rejoined the world after decades of isolation.

The men who brought this about, as Nicholas Griffin's deft account Ping-Pong Diplomacy: Ivor Montagu and the Astonishing Story Behind the Game That Changed the World makes clear, were a strikingly motley crew. Montagu was the unsporty son of a British peer who compensated with ping-pong, a game invented by a British toy manufacturer. At Cambridge in the 1920s, he joined the Communist party, codified the rules of the game and founded the English Table Tennis Association, followed by the International Table Tennis Federation. He had a political motive: he saw ping-pong as a vehicle for promoting communism China was his greatest triumph.

Zhou Enlai's motives were equally mixed. He seized on ping-pong as a non-threatening means of establishing contact with the US and a way out of China's isolation. The "impromptu" invitation was as carefully choreographed as the subsequent visits.

As for the players, the members of the Chinese national team had been feted as national heroes in the early 60s, only to be savagely persecuted in the Cultural Revolution. Two had committed suicide and a third, who had denounced his colleagues, was to suffer ostracism when the political pendulum swung back.

The Americans also had mixed fates. Their Cinderella sport was briefly the fulcrum of world affairs they were celebrities. Nothing could ever match up. Glenn Cowan, who had kicked off the whole affair, died as a derelict in 2004. Nicholas Griffin interweaves personal histories with the strategic story of ping-pong diplomacy, one of history's more bizarre, world-changing episodes.