Yesterday I suggested Nixon couldn’t have opened China since ping pong opened it a year before.
If you’re like me, you’ve never heard of “ping pong diplomacy.” Or maybe you’ve heard the words together, but don’t know what they mean. I understand people who were adults at the time will all know the phrase, if perhaps from hazy memories. From Wikipedia’s page on ping pong diplomacy:
Ping pong diplomacy refers to the exchange of ping pong players between the United States and People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the 1970s. The event marked a thaw in U.S.–China relations that paved the way to a visit to Beijing by President Richard Nixon.
Ping pong, even as huge as I hear it is in China, would hardly seem to matter in the thick of the cold war with its nuclear weapons, wars, and various forms of brinksmanship.
Here’s the story, again from Wikipedia. I bolded where I thought the interesting part began.
According to History of U.S. Table Tennis by American table tennis player Tim Boggan, who went to China along with the U.S. Table Tennis Team, three incidents may have triggered the invitation from China. WelshmanH. Roy Evans, then President of the International Table Tennis Federation, claimed that he visited China prior to the 31st World Table Tennis Championship and suggested to the Chinese sports authorities and Premier Zhou Enlai that China should take steps to get in contact with the world through international sport events after the Cultural Revolution. Further, the American player Leah “Miss Ping” Neuberger, the 1956 World Mixed Doubles Champion and nine-time U.S. Open Women’s Singles Champion, was traveling at the time with the Canadian Table Tennis Team that had been invited by China to visit the country. China diplomatically extended its approval of Leah Neuberger’s application for a visa to the entire American team. The third incident, perhaps the most likely trigger, was the unexpected but dramatic meeting between the flamboyant American player Glenn Cowan and the Chinese player Zhuang Zedong, a three-time world champion and winner of many other table tennis events. Zhuang Zedong described the incident in a 2007 talk at the USC U.S.-China Institute.
The events leading up to the encounter began when Glenn Cowan missed his team bus one afternoon after his practice in Nagoya during the 31st World Table Tennis Championship. Cowan had been practicing for 15 minutes with the Chinese player, Liang Geliang, when a Japanese official came and wanted to close the training area. As Cowan looked in vain for his team bus, a Chinese player waved to him to get on his Chinese team bus. Moments after his casual talking through an interpreter to the Chinese players, Zhuang Zedong came up from his back seat to greet him and presented him with a silk-screen portrait of Huangshan Mountains, a famous product from Hangzhou. Cowan wanted to give something back, but all he could find from his bag was a comb. The American hesitantly replied, “I can’t give you a comb. I wish I could give you something, but I can’t.” When it was time for them to get off the bus, hordes of photographers and journalists were waiting for them. In the political climate of the 1960s, the sight of an athlete of Communist China with an athlete of the United States was sure to garner attention. Glenn Cowan later bought a T-shirt with a red, white and blue, peace emblem flag and the words “Let It Be,” which he presented to Zhuang Zedong at another chance meeting.
Glenn Cowan missed a bus and interacted with Chinese players like any human beings would. They offered a ride and he accepted — what people do when they aren’t burdened by the Cold War on their shoulders.
Moreover, they competed in a game where one person wins and the other loses, but outside the game they seem to have treated each other as human beings, with the mutual respect that goes with it.
In fact, they built on their interactions and transcended the individual aspect precisely by not making a big deal of it and treating each other like competitors and human beings, as we’ll see tomorrow.
Tomorrow: what happened next
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