The Chinese Ping-Pong team in front of the Statue of Liberty in New York, 1972. When they arrived in Detroit, the Chinese team was bemused at the sight of a welcoming crowd of people waving Mao’s “Little Red Book.” COURTESY OF NATIONAL COMMITTEE FOR UNITED STATES–CHINA RELATIONS.

In 1971, Ping-Pong—the “ping heard round the world”—helped to create the first person-to-person, and then diplomatic, ties between two Cold War enemies: China and the United States.

Ping-Pong, also called “table tennis,” came to international prominence in 1971 because of Cold War diplomatic maneuvering. China, the world’s most populous nation, had been cut off from diplomatic relations with most of the rest of the world for over two decades when, seemingly out of the blue, the U.S. table tennis team, visiting Nagoya, Japan, in April 1971 for the World Table Tennis Championship, was invited to visit the People’s Republic of China—a nation that no American citizen had been allowed to enter for twenty-two years. The visit took place three months later, in July.

From the perspective of the Chinese authorities, namely Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 made it seem that the USSR was a more potent threat to China than the United States. They decided that improved relations with the United States would increase China’s international security as well as its stature. Meanwhile, President Richard M. Nixon believed that ties with the People’s Republic would counterbalance the Soviet Union, improve Nixon’s own political standing at home, and improve the United States’ position in the Vietnam War.

In 1970 the Chinese offered to arrange a meeting between high-level officials of both governments, which led eventually to national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger’s visit to Beijing in July 1971. But that same month, during the U.S. table tennis team’s visit—an event that may have been spontaneous and personal, as is usually claimed, or may have been encouraged by diplomatic efforts, as some suggest—the young American and Chinese table tennis players, many of them teenagers, changed the way ordinary people in their countries thought about so-called Red or Communist China and the decadent, imperialistic United States. Time magazine dubbed the event the “ping heard round the world.”

By all accounts the trip was deemed a success, although not without its worries. One player was worried about being amongst atheists, while a player of Korean descent decided against going. The team was treated royally, sometimes being offered five meals a day, and was besieged by news bureaus wanting first-hand information. This “people-to-people” exchange, which was extolled by the press and by both governments, provided President Nixon with a backdrop for the major diplomatic shift that was in progress. During the team’s visit, the United States announced the end of a twenty-year trade embargo against the People’s Republic. Nixon himself went to Beijing from 20 to 27 February 1972, the first visit by an American president to China.

China Visits the United States

The Americans reciprocated by inviting their Chinese opponents to visit the United States, which they did in April of 1972. In this case, a nongovernmental organization, the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR), stepped in to organize what became a huge media event, broadcast by every news outlet and publicized in magazines as diverse as Life and Seventeen. The two teams traveled on one charter plane to play in matches across the country; another plane was needed for reporters and camera people. The tour inspired both enthusiasm and protests. Upon their arrival in Detroit, the Chinese team was bemused at the sight of a welcoming crowd of people waving Mao’s “Little Red Book,” an embarrassment because by that time the Chinese Cultural Revolution was over and the book and its ideas had fallen out of favor in China. The Chinese players completely dominated the matches, but the U.S. players managed to win surprise victories when the tour landed in their hometowns.

Throughout the 1980s, there were many athletic exchanges that introduced Chinese athletes to huge U.S. audiences across the country, all in the spirit of “friendship before competition.” The table tennis matches of the 1970s helped to change, or begin to change, the negative images Americans and Chinese had of each other. Sports would continue to play a role in diplomatic relations with other countries after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) re-instated China. The Nagoya Resolution of 1979 that led to China’s re-admittance stipulated that China would use its name, flag, and anthem, while Taiwan’s team was required to use the name “Chinese Taipei.”

Table Tennis at the 2008 Olympics

Table tennis only became an Olympic sport in 1988, but it was a centerpiece at the 2008 Beijing Games because of its importance in China—and perhaps because of the role it has played in building bridges for China in the early days of its re-entry into the international community. It is a sport in which China excels: in the four table tennis events of 2008 (men’s and women’s singles and doubles), China won four gold, two silver, and two bronze medals. The new table tennis venue, the Peking University Gymnasium in Beijing, was the first Olympic venue specifically built for table tennis.

Ping-Pong Oddity

H. Roy Evans, president of the International Table Tennis Federation, reflects on the American sport that brought China and the United States together in the 1970s.

I never thought that I would be happy to see the words “Ping Pong,” and in a newspaper of all places—in fact, in many newspapers. These words are hated by all who struggled hard in the early days to persuade a general public, derisive because of the ping pong table in the basement, that table tennis is a first class sport, involving art and great physical stamina.

Yet in May, 1972 newspapers all over the World carried banner headlines—“Ping Pong Diplomacy”—and I was glad. It was scarcely to be expected that journalists anywhere would not leap to use an onomatopoeia which not only gave them a neat lead, but, by the very fact of their Chinese appearance, were a “must” in introducing a story which rocked the world!

The fact that British and Canadian teams were invited to tour China after the Nagoya World Championships was news enough, for all physical contact with the Chinese had terminated in 1965, and little if anything was known of their activities throughout the Cultural Revolution.

But when the Americans were invited, that really got the wires buzzing, and the implications were tremendous. Perhaps “tremendous” isn’t an exciting enough word to use to describe the impact in the United States. Probably there, for longer than anywhere, our game had suffered the indignity imposed by the name by which it was known. And the fact that such a game had been the means of establishing a detente between World Powers politically so far apart was almost unbelievable!

Little wonder then that, as President of the International Table Tennis Federation, I was so proud that our game had been used as a vehicle of approach that I instantly forgave all those who used those hated words.

Source: Boggan, T.. (
1999). History of U.S. Table Tennis, Vol. V. Retrieved March 16, 2009, from, http://www.usatt.org/articles/ppoddity01.shtml

Further Reading

Boggin, T. (1999). Ping-pong oddity. Unpublished manuscript, retrieved August 29, 2008, from http://www.usatt.org/articles/ppoddity01.shtml

Charyn, J. (2001). Sizzling chops and devilish spins: Ping-pong and the art of staying alive. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.

Factbox-Olympics—Statistics about Beijing. (2008). Retrieved Aug 27, 2008, from http://uk.reuters.com/article/topNews/idUKSP23689320080429?pageNumber=1&virtualBrandChannel=0

Olympic table tennis venue inaugurated. (2007). Retrieved August 29, 2008, from http://en.beijing2008.cn/cptvenues/venues/pkg/headlines/n214208251.shtml

The ping heard round the world. (1971, April 26). Time, 97, 17.

Solomon, R. (1995). Chinese political negotiating behavior, 1967–1984. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Source: Christensen, Karen (2009). Ping-Pong Diplomacy. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1765–1768. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

The 1972 Chinese Ping-Pong team delegation arrives at the United States. When the U.S. team visited China it was treated royally, sometimes being offered five meals a day. COURTESY OF NATIONAL COMMITTEE FOR UNITED STATES–CHINA RELATIONS.

A Ping-Pong serve by Lin Xiu-ying, a member of the women’s 1972 Chinese Ping-Pong team. COURTESY OF NATIONAL COMMITTEE FOR UNITED STATES–CHINA RELATIONS.

Roster for the 1972 Chinese Ping-Pong team. En route to matches scheduled across the country, the two teams traveled on one charter plane; another plane was needed for reporters and camera people. COURTESY OF NATIONAL COMMITTEE FOR UNITED STATES–CHINA RELATIONS.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy (P?ng-P?ng Wàiji?o ????)|P?ng-P?ng Wàiji?o ???? (Ping-Pong Diplomacy)

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