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How Table Tennis Changed The World, 50 Years On

Fifty years ago, Zhang Xielin still vividly remembers a hairy American table tennis player stepping into the Chinese team’s bus. This is a coincidental encounter that shapes history.

It was Japan’s World Championship in Nagoya, and Glenn Cowan accidentally jumped in with Zhang and his teammates-and it was a messy moment as the United States and China were in deep conflict.

“We were on the bus talking and laughing,” Zhang, now 80, told AFP.

“But when we noticed that the Americans got on the bus, we were silent.”





Zhang Xielin still remembers the team’s chance encounter with Glen Cowan.
AFP / Hector Ritamaru

China’s Triple World Champion Zhuang Zedong soon came forward, crushing the famous ice and giving Cowan silk embroidery as a souvenir from China.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it triggered the start of normalization of the relationship that China and the United States became known as “ping-pong diplomacy.”

Zhang, a doubles world champion and later coach of China, recalls: Glen. “

The photographer captured Zhuang and 19-year-old Cowan with a handshake and a smile.

“The newspaper was published the next day, and it seemed that China and the United States were trying to build a relationship,” Zhang said.



Yao Zhenxu says Cowan thanked him after the match "Serious game


Yao Zhenxu says Cowan thanked him for the “serious game” after the match.
AFP / Hector Ritamaru

A few days later, on April 10, 1971, the US team became the first American to set foot in China for almost a quarter of a century when invited to play a friendly match in China.

The thaw saw President Richard Nixon visit China in February 1972 and Chinese table tennis teams visit the United States.

A formal relationship was established between the two countries in 1979.



President Richard Nixon visits China in February 1972


President Richard Nixon visits China in February 1972
AFP /-

Yao Zhenxu played Cowan, who died in 2004 during an American breakthrough trip.

Yao still remembers the score and won 21-12, 21-14, after which Cowan says he thanked him for the “serious game”.

The American team was far inferior to the Chinese team, so hosts sometimes made their visitors score points in a spirit of sportsmanship and goodwill.

Yao, now 74, says it wasn’t until later that he realized he had contributed to something historic.

“Thanks to ping-pong diplomacy, we have changed the world order and the people of China and the United States have begun amicable exchanges,” he said.

Yao appeared on Saturday alongside Zhang in Shanghai to commemorate the 50th anniversary of ping-pong diplomacy, and city officials hosted the event with speeches and friendly amateur matches.

However, the anniversary has come a time when Washington-Beijing relations have deteriorated significantly due to many issues, including trade, the fate of the Uighur minority in China, and the crackdown in Hong Kong.

In a recorded speech commemorating the 50th anniversary, Washington’s Chinese ambassador, Cui Tiankai, accused some people in the United States of “ideological prejudice and zero-sum thinking.”

However, he and the Chinese press praised the Xinhua News Agency for the “great legacy” of ping-pong diplomacy, with most positive tone.

Yao and Zhang hope that the spirit of 1971 will help shape the future relationship between the world’s top two economies.

“Everyone knows that relations between China and the United States have been a little tense these days,” Yao said.

“We agree with the disagreements and hope that we can maintain a friendly relationship.

“Don’t be afraid of competition, we can compete peacefully.”



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