Monday, 11 February 2013

The Genesis of Ping Pong Diplomacy

Zhuang Zedong and Glenn Cowan with the silk painting
The table tennis player who initiated "ping pong diplomacy" between China and the United States has died. Zhuang Zedong was 73.

Back in 1971 during the 31st World Table Tennis Championship held in Nagoya, Japan, American Glenn Cowan had been practicing for 15 minutes with Chinese player Liang Geliang when a Japanese official came and wanted to close the training area.

Cowan looked in vain for his bus, but it had already left so a Chinese player motioned for him to go on the Chinese team bus.

Zhuang ignored warnings from his teammates to interact with the American and came up from his back seat and presented Cowan and silkscreen of the Huangshan Mountains in Hangzhou.

"Although the US government is unfriendly to China, the American people are friends of the Chinese. I give you this to mark the friendship from Chinese people to the American people," Zhuang recalled saying in an interview with Reuters in 2007.

Cowan wanted to give him something in return, but all he could find was his comb.

"I can't give you a comb. I wish I could give you something, but I can't," he said.

Zhuang was a table tennis champion in the 1960s
And when they came out of the bus, the sight of an American athlete with the Chinese got a lot of media attention.

Later Cowan gave Zhuang a T-shirt in red, white and blue with the peace sign and the words "Let It Be" at another chance meeting.

When Chairman Mao saw all the attention Zhuang and Cowan got in the media, he seized on the opportunity to invite the American team to China later that year.

"Zhuang Zedong not only knows good ping-pong, he knows good diplomacy," Mao reportedly said. This later led to US President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972.

At the time Zhuang was a three-time world champion and huge sports star in China in the 1960s.

He later became sports minister in his 30s and appointed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

However, with the death of Mao in 1976 followed by the fall of the Gang of Four, Zhuang was detained and not allowed to play table tennis.

It was not until 1985 did Zhuang emerge from internal exile and returned to Beijing.

Two years later he married a Chinese-born Japanese woman Sasaki Atsuko, and Cowan died in 2004.

It's unfortunate Zhuang was on the wrong side politically and ended up fading into the background.

However he won't be forgotten as the catalyst in bringing the two countries together, to put aside their differences and begin a diplomatic dialogue that continues to this day.

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