What’s Ping Pong Diplomacy?

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Ping Pong Diplomacy facilitated a friendlier relationship between the US and China during the Cold War. The Chinese table tennis team invited the US team to play in China, leading to the lifting of a trade embargo and eventually a meeting between Mao Zedong and President Richard Nixon.

During the tense Cold War era between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, no one would have guessed that the eruption of hostility would begin over a game of ping pong. After more than two decades of virtually no communication following Mao Zedong’s Communist takeover of power in 1949, “ping pong diplomacy” would facilitate the start of a friendlier relationship between the United States and China.

There is perhaps no better game than table tennis to dissolve even the coldest of relationships. During the period from April 6 to 17, 1971, the game would prove to be the link between two countries with very different cultures and political ideologies. It began at the World Table Tennis Championship held in Japan on April 6, 1971, when the Chinese table tennis team formally invited the US team to play in their country on a fully paid trip. Called “ping heard ’round the world” by Time magazine, the Ping Pong Diplomacy result may have been a combination of a PR ploy orchestrated by the Chinese government and two unsuspecting ping pong players from opposite sides of the world.

When American player Glenn Cowan missed his team bus after practice, he was offered a lift by Chinese player, Zhuang Zedong. This friendly display of goodwill was documented in the press, and Ping Pong Diplomacy plans were soon underway. Later that day, the U.S. team was formally invited to China, which in itself was historic, because they were among the first group of U.S. citizens allowed to visit China since 1949. The U.S. team of nine, accompanied by judges, spouses, and journalists (including five Americans) arrived on the Chinese mainland on April 10, 1971.

The goodwill games were characterized by the friendly atmosphere and the Chinese motto towards ping pong, “Friendship first. Second race”. The exhibition games were held from April 11 to 17, and table tennis diplomacy had a historical impact on relations between the United States and China. As teams played and Americans visited Chinese landmarks, such as the Summer Palace, the Great Wall, and dined in the Great Hall of the People, things started happening. On April 14, 1971, the US government lifted a trade embargo with China that had lasted for over 20 years. Talks began to facilitate a meeting between senior government officials and eventually a meeting between Mao Zedong and President Richard Nixon. In February 1972, Nixon would become the first American president to visit China.

While the two governments still had a significant amount of diplomacy needed to repair the damaged relationship, many American and Chinese citizens were optimistic and hopeful that the spirit of ping pong diplomacy would remain, facilitating cooperation between the two powerful nations.

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