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Zhuang Zedong The accidental architect of 'ping-pong diplomacy'


Zhuang Zedong was a three-time world table tennis champion who rose to fame in the early 1970s for his role in helping to thaw the frosty relations between the United States and China at a particularly critical point in the Cold War. His unofficial role in what became known as "ping-pong diplomacy" began in April 1971 at the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan.

 The American player, Glenn Cowan, had accidentally boarded a bus carrying Chinese competitors, having missed his own team's official transport. After he had sat there for 10 minutes, with no one daring to speak to him, Zhuang approached, offering a silk-screen picture of the Huangshan Mountains as a gift. He spoke through an interpreter to Cowan, saying: "Although the US government is unfriendly to China, the American people are friends of the Chinese. I give you this to mark the friendship from the Chinese people to the American people."

In a later interview Zhuang recalled how his team-mates had urged him not to make contact with Cowan. "The trip on the bus took 15 minutes, and I hesitated for 10 minutes. I grew up with the slogan 'Down with the American imperialism!' and during the Cultural Revolution, the rope of class struggle was tightened unprecedentedly, and I was asking myself, 'Is it OK to have anything to do with your No 1 enemy?'"

When Chairman Mao Zedong saw the report of the encounter, he is reported to have said, "This Zhuang Zedong not only plays table tennis well, but he is good at foreign affairs, and he has a mind for politics." Sensing the potential for improving relations, on 6 April the American team were sent an official invitation by their Chinese colleagues to visit. This would be the first time since the beginning of Communist rule in 1949 that Americans had been permitted to enter China.

At a banquet held in the Great Hall of the People on 14 April 1971, Premier Zhou En-lai spoke to the US table tennis team and gathered members of the press. "You have opened a new chapter in the relations of the American and Chinese people," he said. "I am confident that this beginning again of our friendship will certainly meet with majority support of our two peoples." The US reciprocated with an announcement the same day, lifting the 20-year-old trade embargo.

President Nixon's week-long visit to China, which took place in February the following year, would not have happened without that chance meeting between Zhuang and Cowan. Zhou En-lai remarked, "Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy." Nixon referred to his visit as "the week that changed the world".

A year after the first encounter, on 12 April 1972 a jet landed in Detroit carrying China's table tennis team for a 10-city tour. Sport, in the form of ping-pong diplomacy, was keeping the channels of communication open between the people and politicians of the two countries.

Zhuang Zedong was born in 1940 and joined the Chinese national table tennis team as a teenager. He had adopted a modified version of the "dual-sided offense" style of playing from his colleague Wang ChuanYao. He won three World Championships, in 1961, 1963 and 1965.

It was while at the 1959 World Youth Peace and Friendship Festival in Vienna that he had first met his future wife, Bao Huiqiao, a pianist. They met again three years later in Beijing and were married in 1968.

Following the events of the early '70s, Zhuang became friendly with Mao Zedong and his wife Jiang Qing. However, soon after Mao's death in September 1976 armed guards arrived at Zhuang's home and took him to a prison camp. He was released in 1980 but then spent five years of internal exile in Shanxi Province. He was subsequently rehabilitated to Beijing, where he spent the rest of his life coaching and pursuing his other great passion, calligraphy. Interviewed in 2011, during the Spring Festival in Beijing, when he already had cancer, he said: "As a sick man in his seventies, I can only stay at home in events like this. However, I consider this as my happiest moment where I can be with my family and watch my grandchildren visiting me."

Judit Farago, Chief Executive of the International Table Tennis Federation, told The Independent: "Zhuang Zedong, better known in our circles as Chuang Tse-Tung, was a great champion, great athlete and also had a great sense of politics. He was instrumental in the opening of relations between China and the west, the so-called Ping-Pong Diplomacy. Technically speaking, he had a devastating forehand attack. He is definitely an integral part of our sport's history. He will be greatly missed, but always remembered."

Zhuang Zedong, table tennis player and coach: born Yangzhou, China 25 August 1940; married 1968 Bao Huiqiao (divorced 1985; one son, one daughter), 1987 Sasaki Atsuko; died Beijing 10 February 2013.