This week marks the anniversary of one of the most surprising, unusual and ultimately significant moments in the history of China's foreign relations: 乒乓外交 (pīngpāng wàijiāo), usually known in English as "ping-pong diplomacy", the landmark trip by the US table tennis team to China in 1971 that eventually led to a visit by US President Richard Nixon to China and the gradual tempering of relations between the two countries. No one can deny that the US-China relationship remains deep and complex, but in this week's ChinesePod Weekly we're going to take a closer look at how one visit by a sports team made a world of difference.
Part of what makes the whole story so interesting is that it all unfolded very quickly; there weren't really plans in place for a formal visit, and then within the span of a week the US team was making a landmark visit to Beijing, the first group of Americans to do so in an official capacity since the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949. How did such a momentous historical event come about so quickly? Well, the story goes that the previous week, the US table tennis team was in Nagoya, Japan participating in the Table Tennis World Championships. US star Glenn Cowan was getting in some extra practice volleying (is that the term? We'll go with that for now) with Chinese player Liang Geliang. The pair apparently ran over their allotted time in the practice space and were asked to leave by a local official. Cowan had missed his team's bus, which had already left to take them back to their hotel, so he began wandering around looking for a way back to the city. The legendary Chinese player 庄则栋 (Zhuāng Zédòng) saw Cowan and waved him onto the Chinese team bus, which was heading in the same direction. While some members of the Chinese team were cold to Cowan, 庄则栋 presented him with a gift of a silk-screen picture of the Huangshan Mountains, a traditional gift in his native 杭州. He later recalled asking himself, "Is it okay to have anything to do with your No. 1 enemy?"
This friendly exchange did not go unnoticed by Chinese authorities. Though Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai had initially denied the US team's request to play exhibition matches in China, news of 庄则栋's kindness prompted a change. Mao was said to remark, "This Zhuang Zedong not only plays table tennis well, but is good at foreign affairs, and he has a mind for politics." Impressed, China's leadership immediately extended an invitation to the US team, and on April 10th, just four days after Glenn Cowan's fortuitous tardiness, the US National Table Tennis Team became the first group of Americans to enter China in decades. The exhibition matches (most of which the Chinese team supposedly let the Americans win) went well, and a year later the Chinese team flew to the US for another series of matches. The US team's visit to China became all the more significant in February of 1972, when US President Richard Nixon landed in Beijing for a week of visits and meetings, forever altering the landscape of Sino-American relations.
As China's role in the world has changed over the last several decades, a new form of diplomacy has arisen: basketball diplomacy. Like its predecessor, basketball diplomacy is a two-way street and has been lead by a charismatic athlete, in this case Shanghai native 姚明 (Yáo Míng). Yao's time in the NBA helped to demystify China at a time when some Americans had grown to fear the rising superpower. Similarly, American players like Stephon Marbury have achieved success and popularity in China's league, the CBA, helping Chinese fans to better understand Americans and American culture. The place of sports in Chinese culture and society has helped make these seemingly trivial developments much more significant, and everyone has benefitted as a result!