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During the tense cold war era between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, no one would have guessed that the break in hostility would begin over a game of table tennis. After more than two decades of virtually no communication after the Communist takeover by Mao Zedong in 1949, “Ping Pong Diplomacy” would facilitate the beginning of a friendlier relationship between the US and China.
There is perhaps, no better game than table tennis to melt even the iciest of relationships. During the period of 6-17 April 1971, the game would prove to be the uniting link between two countries with vastly different cultures and political ideologies. It began at the World Table Tennis Championship held in Japan on 6 April 1971, when the Chinese ping pong team formally invited the US team to play in their country on an all expense paid trip. Called “the ping heard ‘round the world” by Time magazine, the resulting Ping Pong Diplomacy may have been a combination of an orchestrated public relations ploy by the Chinese government and two unsuspecting ping pong players from opposite sides of the world.
When American player Glenn Cowan missed his team’s bus after practice, he was offered a ride by Chinese player, Zhuang Zedong. This friendly display of good will was documented by the press, and plans of Ping Pong Diplomacy were soon underway. Later that day, the American team was formally invited to China, which in itself was historic, because they were among the first group of US citizens permitted to visit China since 1949. The American team of nine, accompanied by judges, spouses and journalists (including five Americans) arrived on the Chinese mainland on 10 April 1971.
The goodwill games were marked by the friendly atmosphere, and the Chinese motto towards ping pong, “Friendship first. Competition second.” The exhibition games took place from 11-17 April, and the Ping Pong Diplomacy had an historic impact on the US-Chinese relationship. While the teams played, and the Americans toured Chinese landmarks, such as the Summer Palace, The Great Wall, and dined in the Great Hall of the People, things began to happen. On 14 April 1971, the US government lifted a trade embargo with China that had lasted over 20 years. Talks began to facilitate a meeting between top 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 optimistically hopeful that the spirit of Ping Pong Diplomacy would remain, facilitating cooperation between the two powerful nations.
It didn't hurt that both U.S. President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger were both interested in normalizing relations with China and the Soviet Union, either. Detente was in full swing back then and the U.S. was considerably more open to easing tensions with its Communist adversaries than in the previous couple of decades.