It was 50 years ago, but Zhang Xielin remembers vividly how a shaggy-haired US table tennis player stepped onto the Chinese team’s bus, a chance encounter which would shape history.
It was the world championships in Nagoya, Japan, and Glenn Cowan mistakenly hopped in with Zhang and his teammates — an awkward moment because the US and China were then deeply at odds.
“We were on the bus and were talking and laughing,” said Zhang, now 80. “But when we realized that an American had come onto the bus, we fell silent.”
The Chinese triple world champion Zhuang Zedong eventually came forward and famously broke the ice, giving Cowan a silk embroidery as a souvenir from China.
They did not know it at the time, but it was the spark for China and the US to begin normalizing relations, in what became known as “ping-pong diplomacy.”
Zhang, a doubles world champion and later China’s coach, said: “Mr Zhuang understood that there was a difference between the US people and the US government, and that we should be nice to US people, so he took the initiative to chat with Glenn.”
Photographers captured Zhuang and a 19-year-old Cowan shaking hands and smiling.
“The newspaper came out the next day and it seemed that China and the US were about to have a relationship,” Zhang said.
Days later, on April 10, 1971, the US team became the first Americans to step foot in China for nearly 25 years when they were invited to play friendly matches in the country.
The thaw saw then-US president Richard Nixon visit China in February 1972 and a Chinese table tennis squad visit the US.
In 1979 formal relations were established between the two countries.
During the Americans’ groundbreaking trip, Yao Zhenxu played Cowan — who died in 2004.
Yao still remembered the score — he won 21-12, 21-14 — and said that Cowan thanked him afterward for “a serious game.”
The US team were vastly inferior to the Chinese, so the hosts sometimes let their visitors win points in the spirit of sportsmanship and goodwill.
Now 74, Yao said that it was only afterward that he realized that he had played a part in something historic.
“Because of ping-pong diplomacy, we changed the world order, and the people of China and the US started friendly exchanges,” he said.
On Saturday in Shanghai, Yao appeared alongside Zhang to mark 50 years of ping-pong diplomacy, with city authorities hosting an event with speeches and friendly amateur matches.
However, the anniversary comes at a time when relations between Washington and Beijing have deteriorated markedly over a number of issues, notably trade, the fate of China’s Uighur minority and a clampdown in Hong Kong.
In a recorded speech to mark the 50th anniversary, Chinese Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai accused some in the US of “ideological bias and zero-sum thinking.”
However, he and Chinese state media took a largely positive tone, with Xinhua news agency hailing ping-pong diplomacy’s “wonderful legacy.”
Yao and Zhang hope that the spirit of 1971 can help transform future relations between the world’s two biggest economies into something better.
“Everyone knows that the relationship between China and the US is a bit tense nowadays,” Yao said. “We hope that we can agree to disagree and keep friendly relations. Don’t be afraid of competition, we can compete peacefully.”
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