The icy relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, PRC, began a slow thaw in early April of 1971. The U.S. Table Tennis Team had been competing in Nagoya, Japan for the World Championships. On April 6th, the team received an official imvitation from the Chinese government for an all-expense paid visit to China.
The team quickly accepted the invite. Then, on April 10th, the players and accompanying reporters became the first American delegation to visit Beijing since 1949. Nine players, four officials, and two spouses walked across the bridge from Hong Kong to mainland China. Ten journalists, five of whom were American, were permitted to cover the big event.
The press was quick to name the following series of visits, “Ping Pong Diplomacy”. The news media had a field day full of photo opportunities and alliteration-filled stories. Time magazine called it “The ping heard round the World”. The long-standing information blockade from the PRC lifted to allow the flow of public relations images and reportage to the West from April 11th through the 17th.
American viewers and readers followed the daily reports of the exhibition games and later tour stops at the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, and the Canton Ballet. News clips of visits with factory workers and students were sprinkled into Premier Chou En-lai’s public relations extravaganza. The games, themselves, were close matches but more were chalked up as wins for the PRC team.
Ever since Mao Zedong’s regime, sports became an integral and important part of international diplomacy. Mao incorporated the slogan, “Friendship First, Competition Second”. While the wall of isolation was in place, athletes were among the very few PRC citizens allowed to leave the country. Previously, only eleven Americans had been admitted to visit China for a week because they had proclaimed their affiliation with the Black Panthers who allegedly followed a Maoist political ideology.
The idea for the 1971 Table Tennis visit possibly came about after an accidental meeting between the flashy American, Glenn Cowan and the Chinese player Zhuang Zedong after the practice session in Nagoya, Japan closed down. Cowan forgot about the time, so he missed the American team bus. Soon, a Chinese player invited Cowan to ride on the Chinese bus, instead. During the ride, Zedong greeted Cowan and gave the American a picture of the Huangshan Mountains. When the bus stopped, there was a media rush at the stop to greet everyone.
The sight of an American and a Chinese together was too good to miss. A reporter asked Cowan if he’d like to someday visit China, Cowan answered, “Of course.” Much later, during a 2002 interview, Zedong recalled that he’d been raised in an atmosphere of anti-American fervor. On the bus, Zedong asked himself, “Is it OK to have anything to do with your number one enemy?” Then Zedong remembered the “Friendship First, Competition Second” slogan. The friendship then fell into place.
Apparently, Chou En-lai and Mao Zedong read accounts of the team bus meeting and interviews, they decided to invite the American team. Mao reportedly commented, “This Zhuang Zedong not only plays table tennis well, but is good at foreign affairs, and he has a mind for politics.”
The friendship between the Table Tennis teams helped break the ice for diplomatic conversations between Washington and Beijing. After a secret meeting by Henry Kissinger to Beijing in July of the following year, President Richard Nixon finally announced that he had decided to accept a Chinese invitation for him to visit the PRC. Thus began the first volley in ongoing Ping Pong Diplomacy that continues to this day.
The Blue Jay of Happiness likes this quote from the character, Luke, from the “Gilmore Girls”: “The whole town should be medicated and put in a rec room with ping pong tables and hand puppets.”