HU Xiaoming 胡小明

In 1904 WANG Daoping 王道平, manager of a stationery shop in Shanghai, bought equipment from Japan for a new indoor game. He demonstrated the game— a kind of tennis— in order to sell the tables, nets, balls, and rackets. This was the beginning of table tennis in China.

Though table tennis is widely associated with Asian nations today, Japanese and Chinese dominance in the sport did not become obvious until the 1950s when they began winning tournaments using the supposedly outdated penhold grip (European players had moved on to the shakehand grip). But the game originated on the other side of the globe. At a house party somewhere in Victorian England —where parlor games were an important part of social life— someone decided to turn the dining room table into a miniature version of the traditional lawn tennis court. The players are said to have used a line of books to serve as the net. They carved a ball from a champagne cork, and cut rackets from empty cigar boxes and later from parchment paper stretched around a frame.

Evolution of “Flim-flam”

In the beginning the game was called “gossima,” “flim-flam,” or “ping-pong.” The words, as can be assumed, were derived from the sound that the ball made when hit back and forth on the table and rackets. In 1901 English manufacturer J. Jaques & Son registered one of the names for table tennis— Ping-Pong— and sold this trademark to the Parker Brothers in the United States.

During the early 1900s, the table tennis racket had a long handle and a pear-shaped hitting surface, making it look like a small-size tennis racket. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the sport underwent a few changes in England as a celluloid ball and a wooden paddle with a pimpled rubber surface were introduced— the type of equipment that Mr. Wang introduced to his customers in Shanghai in 1904.

The rules and equipment have changed drastically as table tennis has achieved more widespread popularity and then became an organized competitive sport.

In 1926 the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) was founded in Berlin by England, Sweden, Hungary, India, Denmark, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Wales. A year later, the ITTF established the first official world championship and table tennis began to be adopted in Japan and other Asian countries as a serious competitive sport, one in which they have excelled. The Japanese dominated the sport in the 1950s and 1960s. The Chinese had their turn in the 1960s and 1970s. As table tennis became an Olympic event in the 1980s, other nations such as Sweden and South Korea have also joined the game’s top ranks, but in many people’s minds Ping-Pong remains strongly associated with China.

Ping-Pong’s Early Days

In 1925, before the international association was founded, several table tennis competitions took place in Shanghai. Two years later, the Chinese national team participated in the Eighth Far Eastern Championship Games in Shanghai but failed to win any medals.

Between 1937 and 1949 development of table tennis in China slowed down its pace because of World War II and the Chinese Civil War. Only after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 did table tennis enjoy a rebirth. In 1952 the first National Table Tennis Championships took place in Beijing, where sixty-two athletes competed for the medals. In the same year the Chinese National Table Tennis Federation became an official member of the ITTF, beginning a new era for Chinese table tennis.

The National Table Tennis Team was founded in 1953 and soon after participated in the World Table Tennis Championships. In 1959 Chinese player RONG Guotuan 容国团 won the men’s singles gold medal at the World Table Tennis Championships in Dortmund, West Germany. This achievement was a landmark in Chinese table tennis history. Two years later, at the World Table Tennis Championships in Beijing, China swept the gold medals in the men’s singles, women’s singles, and men’s team events. By 2002, its fiftieth anniversary, the Chinese National Table Tennis Team had won 125 world championship titles, sweeping all the table tennis gold medals three times at the Table Tennis World Cups and twice at the Olympic Games.

In 1995 the Chinese Professional Table Tennis League was established. This nationwide league was divided into three divisions: Division 1 was the Super League. Division 2 was Jia A, and Division 3 was Jia B (jia 甲 being a Chinese word for “top” or “first”). The Super League consists of the best players in China. The Chinese Professional Table Tennis League has attracted countless table tennis fans and has played an important role in the promotion of both the athletic sport and sport for all in China.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The “Ping” Heard Round the World

Eight years before China rejoined the International Olympic Committee in 1979, the sound of a small hollow plastic ball hitting a green table — the “ping heard round the world,” as Time magazine put it — signaled a turning point in U.S.-China relations, and the beginning of China’s reopening to the rest of the world.

That famous “ping” sounded in April 1971, when the U.S. table tennis team, visiting Nagoya, Japan, for the World Table Tennis Championship, was invited to visit the People’s Republic of China and given permission to go by the U.S. government, which had broken relations twenty-two years earlier. While the invitation was ostensibly a spontaneous gesture by lively young athletes — who exchanged gifts, in Chinese fashion, that included a T-shirt with a red-white-and-blue peace emblem and the words “Let It Be” — historians now agree that it was quietly countenanced by the Chinese government.

The U.S. team’s visit to China took place three months later, in July, and Chinese Premier ZHOU Enlai was quoted as saying, “Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy.”

While the exchange was spontaneous, it came about during a period of changing alliances. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, MAO Zedong and Zhou Enlai, seeing the USSR was a more potent threat than the United States, decided that improved relations with the United States would increase China’s international security as well as 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 high-level meeting, and that offer led eventually to national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger’s visit to Beijing in July 1971.

In any event, it was the young American and Chinese table tennis players, many of them teenagers, who changed the way ordinary people in their countries thought about so-called Communist China and the “decadent, imperialistic” United States. The team was treated royally. According to U.S. team member Tim Boggan, they were sometimes offered five meals a day: “no Ming emperor was treated so well.” 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.

Richard Solomon, now president of the United States Institute of Peace and then deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs. explains, “Ping-Pong showed how sports can be a political signaling device, a way to reach out to other nations without a full commitment from the government.”

Naturally, the Americans reciprocated by inviting their Chinese opponents to visit the United States. In this case, the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR) stepped in to organize, along with the U.S. Table Tennis Association, what became a huge media event, broadcast by major news outlets and publicized in magazines as diverse as Life and Seventeen. The teams traveled on one charter plane; another plane was needed for reporters and camera people. The theme was “friendship first, competition second,” and although the Chinese players completely dominated the matches, somehow U.S. players managed to win surprise victories when the tour landed in their hometowns. Ticket prices were kept very low so everyone could attend — an approach the 2008 Olympics organizers also took in order to ensure that Chinese people would see the Games for themselves.

The Chinese ping-pong players were able, engaging representatives of their country — which was then referred to by many Americans as “Red China.” The team’s escorts, some of whom were undoubtedly intelligence officers, let all the matches continue in spite of some rowdy protests that they clearly would have liked to have seen stopped.

Throughout the 1980s, there were many athletic exchanges that introduced Chinese athletes to huge U.S. audiences across the country, as well as trips to China by U.S. athletes, organized by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations along with American athletic associations and their Chinese counterparts — all in the spirit of “friendship before competition.”

Instead of operating at the elite policy or academic level, efforts like Ping-Pong diplomacy bring international relations into venues that attract ordinary citizens and create interest in the popular media. Indeed, beyond gold medals, the Olympics for China are about the kind of people-to-people relationship building that was at the center of Ping-Pong diplomacy. Before the Beijing Olympics, CHEN Haosu, president of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), was quoted in the Chinese press as saying, “Meetings between leaders have to be reinforced by people-to-people contacts, which are the best way to rid mutual suspicion and keep the diplomatic momentum moving forward.” As Chen put it, these efforts are, “about the attraction of your culture and the image you leave in the hearts of foreigners.”


Ping-Pong’s Importance

Perhaps “Ping-Pong diplomacy” can explain why table tennis held such an important place in China during the 1970s. The era of Ping-Pong diplomacy 乒乓外交 began in 1971 when the United States table tennis team, which was participating in the Thirty-first World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, received an invitation from the Chinese team to visit the People’s Republic of China. MAO Zedong, chairman of China’s Communist Party, believed that by opening a door to the United States, China could put its hostile neighbors, notably the U.S.S.R., on notice about a possible shift in alliances. The United States welcomed the opportunity. President Richard Nixon secretly sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Beijing to arrange a presidential visit to China. Nixon’s journey seven months later, in February 1972, became one of the most important events in U.S. postwar history. “Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy,” said Chinese premier ZHOU Enlai. For Nixon it was “the week that changed the world.”

Table 1: Medal Tally in Olympic Table Tennis Events, 1988–2004

Year Host City Gold Silver Bronze
1988 Seoul 2 (out of 4) 2 1
1992 Barcelona 3 (out of 4) 2 1
1996 Atlanta 4 (out of 4) 3 1
2000 Sydney 4 (out of 4) 3 1
2004 Athens 3 (out of 4) 1 2

Source: International Olympic Committee’s website.

Olympic Leaders

In terms of international competition, table tennis is the sport that has never disappointed the Chinese. China has dominated all major table tennis competitions and shows no signs of letting up. Since 1988 China has won sixteen Olympic gold medals out of twenty (see table 1). As the defending champions, Chinese players have been well studied by all their rivals around the world. In 2008 they must stay cautious and play their own game, although there seem to be no rivals capable enough to challenge the dominance of China (see table 2).

Table 2: ITTF Top Ten Rankings (2007)

Rank Name Country
Top Men
1 Ma Lin China
2 Wang Liqin China
3 Boll, Timo Germany
4 Wang Hao China
5 Oh Sang Eun Korea
6 Samsonov, Vladimir Belarus
7 Chen Qi China
8 Ma Long China
9 Ryu Seung Min Korea
10 Hao Shuai China
Top Women
1 Zhang Yining China
2 Wang Nan China
3 Guo Yan China
4 Guo Yue China
5 Li Xiaoxia China
6 Tie Yana Hong Kong
7 Li Jia Wei Singapore
8 Wang Yue Gu Singapore
9 Niu Jianfeng China
10 Jiang Huajun Hong Kong

Source: International Table Tennis Federation.

In the men’s singles, German player Timo Boll may be a rival to China’s Ma Lin and Wang Liqin. In the women’s singles, the final competition would be between Wang Nan and Zhang Yining.

The ITTF announced plans to replace the doubles events with the team competitions at the 2008 Olympics to make the matches more exciting — and perhaps to set some limits on the table tennis superpower, China.

Paddle Powerhouses

DENG Yaping 邓亚萍 (b. 1973), the “Table Tennis Queen,” is considered to be one of the best female table tennis players in the world. She won four Olympic gold medals and was a participant, individually or as a team member, in ten World Table Tennis Championships titles. Between 1991 and 1998 she was ranked the number one woman player in the world. After retirement in 1998, Deng Yaping enrolled in Tsinghua University in Beijing. After graduating from Tsinghua, she went to study for her master’s degree in Loughborough University in England. She is now studying for her PhD degree at Cambridge University. She is a member of the International Olympic Committee Athletes Commission and the deputy head of the Olympic Village in Beijing.

KONG Linghui 孔令辉 (b. 1975) is one of the outstanding male players in Chinese table tennis history. In 1995 he won a gold medal in the men’s singles competition at the Table Tennis World Cup in France. At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Kong claimed men’s doubles gold with teammate LIU Guoliang. At the 1997 World Table Tennis Championships in Manchester, England, Kong was the champion in the men’s doubles competition, again teamed with Liu Guoliang. In 2000 Kong claimed the gold in the men’s singles and the silver in the men’s doubles events at the Sydney Olympic Games. He is one of the three players in the world to complete a table tennis grand slam by winning the World Table Tennis Championships, the Table Tennis World Cup, and the Olympic singles titles.

WANG Liqin 王励勤 (b. 1978) joined the national team in 1993 when he was only fifteen years old. Wang’s style is probably best described as a strong forehand and backhand looper. His above-average height allows him additional leverage for acceleration and momentum, creating more powerful shots. Wang won his first World Table Tennis Championships in Osaka, Japan, in 2001. In 2005 he again became the champion at the World Table Tennis Championships in Shanghai, China. Wang won the gold medal in doubles at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and the bronze medal in singles at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. For most of the year in 2005, 2006, and 2007, he was ranked number one among the world’s male table tennis players.

WANG Nan 王楠 (b. 1978) began to play table tennis when she was seven years old. Her particular skills are her ability to change the placement of the ball during rallies and her loop drive as well as her notable speed. In 1994 Nan won the women’s singles at the Sweden Table Tennis Open. The next year she was selected for the national team and began to represent China at important competitions, such as the World Table Tennis Championships, the Women’s Table Tennis World Cup, and the Olympic Games. From 1997 to 1998, she won the championships in women’s singles at the Women’s Table Tennis World Cup twice as well as the China Open. At the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, Wang won all four gold medals (singles, doubles, mixed doubles, and women teams). At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, she won two gold medals in singles and doubles. Her record made her a grand slam champion. In the 2004 Olympic Games, she failed to retain her singles crown but won the women’s doubles with Zhang Yining.

ZHANG Yining 张怡宁 (b. 1981) is China’s most promising player in women’s singles competion. Zhang participated in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and won gold in both singles and doubles with partner Wang Nan. In May 2007 Zhang was ranked number one in the ITTF in both women’s singles and women’s doubles.

LIU Guoliang 刘国梁 (b. 1976) started playing table tennis at the age of six. He joined the national team in 1991. In 1994 Liu Guoliang won the gold medal in the men’s singles at the Table Tennis World Cup. Two years later, he won the gold medal in the men’s singles and men’s doubles (with Kong Linghui) at the Atlanta Olympics. Liu Guoliang is China’s first table tennis player to make a clean sweep of all titles at major world tournaments, including the World Table Tennis Championships, Table Tennis World Cup and the Olympic Games. After retirement in 2002, Liu became a coach of the national men’s team and a student at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He was appointed the director of the coaching and research group as well as the head coach of the national men’s team in 2003.

CAI Zhenhua 蔡振华 (b. 1961) is generally considered one of the best coaches that China has ever produced. Cai was an international player in the 1970s. He won his first international title at age of twenty and later finished first in three other -world–class competitions before becoming a coach of the Chinese national team at the age of twenty-four. Under Cai’s successful guidance, the Chinese table tennis team swept the board, taking the gold medals in the men’s, women’s and mixed events at the world championships and the Olympics in the 1990s and early twenty-first century.

Source: Hu Xiaoming. (2008). Table tennis. In Fan Hong, Duncan Mackay & Karen Christensen (Eds.), China Gold, China’s Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory, pp. 65–70. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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