April 10 – The Start of "Ping-Pong Diplomacy"

Posted on April 10, 2016

One thing I love about sports is that they often encourage diplomatic – peaceful! – relations between countries, instead of suspicion, tension, and war. On this date in 1971, the world got a little safer and more peaceful as a table tennis team from the United States responded to China's invitation and traveled there.

After World War II, China had a civil war in which communists under Mao Zedong gained control of the government. The defeated government, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan and claimed to be the “real” Chinese government.

American President Truman intended to recognize Zedong's communist government, since U.S. tradition (after Woodrow Wilson, at least) was to recognize governments once they had demonstrated control of their countries. But political and military advisors urged him to wait just a few months so that Chiang's supporters couldn't blame the U.S. for his inevitable defeat.

However, the Korean War broke out. For two whole decades, the U.S. didn't recognize China – and that meant no diplomatic relations, no trade agreements, no nothin'!

That began to change in the summer of 1971. The U.S. ping pong team was in Japan for the World Table Tennis Championship. The Chinese government extended an invitation for the team to visit China. And when the team said “yes,” they became the first Americans to step foot in China's capital city of Beijing in 22 years!


Did the ping-pong visit actually help make better relations between the U.S. and China? You bet! By the next year, U.S. President Richard Nixon visited China, and the Cold War shifted and resettled. Nixon called his visit to China “the week that changed the world,” and “Nixon going to China” has become a metaphor people sometimes use when talking about unexpected actions taken by politicians.

Since the U.S. ping pong team's visit to China also lasted a week, I think we could say that THEIR visit was “the week that changed the world”!

Did you know...?

The guy who just hit the ball
is Zhuang Zedong.
One reason that the U.S. team was invited to China was probably the encounter between American table-tennis player Glenn Cowan and Chinese star player Zhuang Zedong.

One afternoon in Japan, at the Table Tennis Championship, Glenn Cowan had been practicing with a Chinese player, but the training area was about to be closed for the day. Cowan looked around for his team bus, but it was nowhere to be found – it turned out that it had left without him! The Chinese player invited Cowan to get onto the Chinese team bus.

Zhuang Zedong and Glenn Cowan,
with the silk-screened art piece.
Cowan talked to all the players, using an interpreter. And suddenly Zhuang Zedong came up to Cowan and presented him with a silk-screened art piece of mountains. 

Cowan told him that he wished he had something to give back, but he didn't have much in his bag – other than a comb. 

Cowan apologized for not having anything he could give back.

When the athletes left the bus, there were some photographers who took a picture of the American and Chinese athlete unexpectedly together.

Cowan was able to buy a T-shirt that he later gave Zhuang. It was decorated with a red-white-and-blue peace-sign flag along with the words “Let It Be.” (It's said that Cowan was a bit of a hippie.)

Later, interviewers from both countries asked the American and Chinese athletes about their encounter. Asked why he had given a gift to the American player, Zhuang explained that China's Chairman Mao had said that China should place its hope on American people. So when he saw Cowan on the bus, Zhuang rummaged in his bag, looking for something good enough to give as a gift.

And when a journalist asked Cowan if he would like to visit China, Cowan immediately said “Of course!”

And he probably said it really enthusiastically. In the photo below, Cowan is the guy who is waving exuberantly as he arrived in China.


I like diplomacy, including the diplomacy that happens when sports are international (like the Olympics), and ESPECIALLY when sports ends up creating moments like this gift exchange between people who were raised to think of “the other” as an enemy!


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