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Zhuang Zedong dies at 72; helped get 'pingpong diplomacy' rolling

Chinese table tennis champion broke the ice with Americans in 1971 after decades of Cold War tension with an act of friendliness. Whether spontaneous or meticulously planned, it changed history.

February 12, 2013|By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times
  • In this photo taken April 9, 1961, and released by New China News Agency, Zhuang Zedong, right, competes in the men's team finals of the 26th World Table Tennis Championship in Beijing.
In this photo taken April 9, 1961, and released by New China News Agency,… (Zhang Hesong / New China…)

It might have been a chance meeting or a cunning act of propaganda, but the encounter more than 40 years ago between two pingpong champions — one Chinese, the other American — launched what President Nixon would call "the week that changed the world."

Zhuang Zedong, the captain of the Chinese team competing at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, was at the back of his team's bus when its doors swung open for a straggler, American juniors champion Glenn Cowan.

With the United States and China still stuck in the Cold War, none of the Chinese players dared utter a word to the American. Ten minutes passed in silence.

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Then, Zhuang, against the advice of his teammates, made his way up the aisle to the lanky, long-haired player from Santa Monica College. Through an interpreter, he asked Cowan's name and offered friendship and a silk portrait of China's famous Huangshan Mountain. When they arrived at the main tournament hall a few minutes later, the Chinese athlete and his new acquaintance stepped off the bus into history.

Zhuang, whose gesture launched "the ping heard around the world," died Sunday in Beijing. He was 72 and had cancer, according to the New China News Agency.

A three-time world table-tennis champion, Zhuang became an unlikely ambassador for a country that had been closed to Americans since the communist takeover of China in 1949. After the April 4, 1971, meeting on the bus, photos of a smiling Zhuang and Cowan flashed around the world, presenting the Chinese government with a unique opportunity: To the astonishment of much of the world, it invited the American pingpong team to Beijing. On April 10, Cowan, his teammates and a few journalists became the first group of U.S. citizens to visit China in two decades.

Less than a year later, in February 1972, Nixon visited China in a historic move toward normalizing relations with a longtime nemesis. In April, the Chinese and American teams toured the U.S. in a riveting display of "pingpong diplomacy."

The unusual merger of statecraft and sports "turned the familiar big-power contest into a whole new game," Time magazine wrote.

Zhuang, whose athletic prowess had made him a national hero, was not shy about claiming credit for the stunning turnabout.

"The Cold War," he told a reporter years later, "ended with me."

The rapprochement of East with West was, of course, far more complicated than that. Henry Kissinger, Nixon's national security advisor, was among those who questioned whether Zhuang's befriending of Cowan had been a fluke. "One of the most remarkable gifts of the Chinese is to make the meticulously planned appear spontaneous," he wrote in his memoir "White House Years."

For some months before the fateful pingpong encounter, Nixon and Kissinger had been conducting top-secret exchanges with their Chinese counterparts, Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Prime Minister Chou En-lai. When China, emerging from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, decided to send a team to the World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, in 1971, Chou sent word that Chinese players should have friendly contacts with teams from other countries.

"There was a lot of big politics behind it," Maochun Yu, who teaches East Asian and military history at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., said of Zhuang's star turn on the world stage.

Zhuang "was politically astute and also he was a three-time champion, so he had a certain hubris and prestige to act with little bit of freedom," Yu said. "But without Chou's specific instructions he would not have shaken hands with Mr. Cowan, let alone give him the gift. Nothing was specifically instructed, but he understood what needed to be done."

The American team was feted in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, hosted by Chou himself. The next year, when the Chinese players toured several U.S. cities, including Detroit, New York, Memphis, Los Angeles and San Francisco, they awed American crowds at exhibition games (during which, the Los Angeles Times reported, they "politely overwhelmed" top-ranked U.S. competitors).

Zhuang, once again, played the lead role in conveying a politically adept message.

"Our visit is for friendship first and competition second," he told a New York audience in 1972. "Losing or winning is something passing. Friendship is something everlasting."

"He said what he was supposed to say and said it smoothly," recalled China scholar and UC Riverside professor Perry Link, who served as an interpreter for the Chinese team in 1972.

Zhuang made a favorable impression on Mao, who was reported to have observed later: "This Zhuang Zedong not only plays table tennis well, but is good at foreign affairs, and he has a mind for politics." The pingpong star became a favorite of Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and was named minister of sports in 1975 and a member of the Chinese Communist Party's powerful Central Committee.

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