Table tennis racket helped bring China and the United States closer fifty years ago

Table tennis racket helped bring China and the United States closer fifty years ago

Yellow, purple, and green globes shine along the edge of the gym. In the middle there are two table tennis tables. Encouraged by a group of enthusiastic kids, American and Chinese players chase a ping pong ball across the net. The teams play in blue and red shirts, but they are mixed.

A viewer joked that if the Americans had to play against the Chinese, they would have been totally destroyed. This is not the intention, because friendly parties aim to commemorate how the sympathetic ping-pong game heated relations between the two countries fifty years ago.

In detail, the photos, medals, and table tennis rackets at the Ping Pong Museum in Shanghai mark the beginning of mutual relations. Or, “How did the small ball get the big ball,” as then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai described it.

They trained together for eight days

At the end of the World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, in April 1971, the Chinese team invited American players to visit China. The visit began on April 10 and lasted eight days, during which the players trained together, visited tourist attractions, and often posed with Prime Minister Chu. It was the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 that a group of Americans had been guests in China.

The photos show what should have been a grueling trip, as the American players visited Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou within a week. At Shanghai Airport, the group stands in front of a statue of Mao Zedong. An American holds a poster with a picture of the Great Burial Man.

Diplomatic relations

Pingpong has brought the West closer to anonymous communist China. A year later, US President Nixon visited Chu Enlai, followed by Henry Kissinger and the talks began, which in 1979 culminated in formal diplomatic relations between the two countries.

“Happy Ping Pong” is written on a sign near the table tennis tables. A screen in the lobby of the museum reads “Friendship first, competition second.” According to the Chinese, “racket power”, racket power, is the best way to melt frozen relationships – and now also make China excel at table tennis. In recent decades, every lamp has been used to commemorate table tennis diplomacy and to show off another delegation of American table tennis players across China.

The first hour players have been given the official nickname “Witnesses to Table Tennis Diplomacy”. Before the younger generation starts their social media sites, witnesses are called to the stage. Amid the dramatic music, elderly fit receive bags containing a breakfast plate-sized commemorative medal and pingpong cartons. The Americans, prevented by the epidemic, are represented by US Consul General James Heller.


Chinese Ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, said in a video message that human relations have always been the lubricant in the relationship between China and the United States. The fact that this relationship is now under such pressure, he says, is not China’s fault. “Some on the American side are obsessed with ideological bias and Total zero-Think, keep creating obstacles to our human exchange. ”

Among the compliments, the ambassador’s criticism makes it clear that the time is remote.

It’s not as black and white as it was in 1971. Americans and Chinese know more about each other’s country than they do at the time. Interests are intertwined, connections are more intense, problems standing in the way of a warm relationship are more complex and concrete. In 1971, in a world divided, China was an ally of the Soviet Union, the American enemy. Now China itself is the enemy, and it is much stronger than it was then. What is the power of a “paddle”?

Smiling, the American Heller threw a few sentences of compliments into the crowded room. Coy’s contribution was even more fierce – perhaps because US politicians last week suggested that the United States might boycott the Beijing Olympics in February 2022 in protest of human rights violations in China.

Beijing sends the ball to the United States

Fifty years ago, allowing dissidents to play sports to bring up political issues for discussion was a success. Subsequently, the strategy was used more often – in 2022 again in the controversial football tournament in Qatar. After all, anyone who stands by the boycott cannot change anything, as they say.

China – always ready for a table tennis match – puts the ball in Americans’ hands. “We hope the US side will remove the obstacles as soon as possible so that exchanges and cooperation can be resumed,” Cui said. But Beijing is not saying its plans to remove obstacles from the Chinese side. China’s borders are closed to foreigners, in part due to the epidemic. They may open again to Olympic athletes next year, but that will take a long time.

At the Ping Pong Museum, a ping pong ball bounces over the tables. Here he is politically away and remains fun. Players happily wave their paddles – the Chinese players are clearly holding back.

Correction: An earlier version of this article wrote about a controversial football tournament this summer in Dubai. It had to be: the controversial football tournament in Qatar in 2022.

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