How Ping-Pong Thawed a U.S.-China Standoff

A ragtag table tennis team that had to pay its own way to world events (and usually lost) helped to open the door for President Nixon’s 1972 visit.
By Karen M. Sughrue

In Tokyo this weekend, the U.S. teams will compete in the lightning-fast game of table tennis, an Olympic sport since 1988. It was also the sport that, 50 years ago, launched a breakthrough in U.S.-China relations known as “Ping-Pong diplomacy.”

In April 1971, at the table tennis championships in Nagoya, Japan, American player Glenn Cowan was running late for his match. A member of the Chinese team offered him a ride on their bus – a shocking gesture at a time when Chinese players were not allowed to shake hands with Americans, and relations between Washington and the communist government in Beijing were in a 20-year deep freeze.

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U.S. table tennis player Glenn Cowan, right, shakes hands with Chinese player Zhuang Zedong after getting a ride on the Chinese players’ bus at the World Table Tennis Championships in 1971. (Image: Getty)

On the bus, a top Chinese player gave Cowan a gift: a silk screen of a Chinese mountain. Later, Cowan, a long-haired fan of Mick Jagger, reciprocated with a peace sign T-shirt. (This was the 1970s after all.) The encounter was quickly turned into a public relations play by Chinese leaders seeking to boost their global image.

From Nagoya, the U.S. team was invited to China on the government’s tab to play “friendship” matches in front of thousands of fans of a sport called the national game of China. Foreign reporters, granted rare visas into China, followed their every move. The U.S. players, ranked 24th in the world, even got some tutoring from their Chinese counterparts.

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While the players were in China, the diplomatic thaw began. President Richard Nixon eased the ban on travel to China and lifted the trade embargo. Within weeks, the groundwork was being laid for Nixon’s 1972 visit to the People’s Republic, the first time an American president had set foot on the Chinese mainland. The Chinese team toured the U.S. that same year, above (Image: Library of Congress).

With the establishment of diplomatic relations, Mao Tse-Tung summed up the role of Ping-Pong saying “the little ball moves the Big Ball.”

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Juan Liu (Image: Alamy)

Fifty years ago, the U.S. table tennis team was a ragtag group of teenagers, hippies and midcareer types who had to pay their own way to world events and usually lost. At the Olympics, Juan Liu, above (seeded 68th of 70 players), reached the Round of 16 before she was eliminated, only the third American player to do so. She is from Queens, N.Y., and co-owner of a sports club there. Liu who was born in Wuhan, China, previously competed on the Chinese team; she became an American citizen in 2016. The U.S. table tennis teams have some tough games ahead in Tokyo in a sport dominated to this day by China.

KAREN M. SUGHRUE is a senior producer at Retro Report.

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