40 Years Ago: Ping-Pong the Ambassador

Jun 29th, 2011No Comments

It’s hard to believe that nearly 40 years ago, US-China foreign relations were virtually non-existent. Under the communist rule of Mao Ze Dong, China had lived in isolation from the rest of the world for decades. Nearly 7,000 miles apart, it seemed as if the most powerful nation in the world and the most populous nation in the world were indefinitely separate.

And then in 1971, ping-pong… Yes, ping-pong, helped to put an end to the hostility.

1971—Nagoya, Japan (31st World Table Tennis Championship): Glenn Cowan, a member of the U.S. national ping-pong team, stumbled onto the Chinese team bus after accidentally missing his own. As the bus doors closed, he realized he made a big mistake. Back in China, the Cultural Revolution was ongoing, fueled by nationalist rhetoric and a fierce hatred of American imperialism. As a result of the divide, Chinese athletes were told to avoid foreigners at international competitions. As Cowan entered the bus, none of the Chinese players moved or said anything as the scared and confused Cowan wondered what to do. Among these players was the three-time world champion Zhuang Zedong. Zedong felt sorry for Cowan, and took it upon himself to help the American out. Little did these two men know, their interaction would be a monumental force in causing China to formally open its borders to the American ping-pong team. Forty years later, historians tab this event as the turning point, which signaled the arrival of a new era in US-China relations. Undoubtedly, the series of table tennis matches between the People’s Republic of China and the United States laid the groundwork for renewed diplomatic relations between the two countries.

To celebrate this landmark event, USA Table Tennis will host a 14-member Chinese delegation to stage the “40th Anniversary Celebration of Ping-Pong Diplomacy Exhibition” July 1, at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The delegation will include veterans of the original Ping-Pong diplomacy competitions.

A glimpse into Ping-Pong Diplomacy can be seen below on Youtube.

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