CHINA / SOCIETY
50th anniversary of ping-pong diplomacy highlights tenacity of China-US ties amid current stalemate
Revolving diplomacy
Published: Apr 10, 2021 09:23 PM
Xu Yinsheng (left), honorary president of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), plays table tennis with Sha Hailin, chairman of the Shanghai People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, at the Champion Hall of the International Table Tennis Federation Museum and China Table Tennis Museum in Shanghai on Saturday, where the commemorative event took place. Photo: Chen Xia/GT

Xu Yinsheng (left), honorary president of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), plays table tennis with Sha Hailin, chairman of the Shanghai People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, at the Champion Hall of the International Table Tennis Federation Museum and China Table Tennis Museum in Shanghai on Saturday, where the commemorative event took place. Photo: Chen Xia/GT

A commemorative event to mark the 50th anniversary of ping-pong diplomacy, a milestone in the history of the China-US relations that once mildly and smartly broke the ice for the two powerful countries, was held in Shanghai on Saturday. 

April 10, 1971 was the day when the US table tennis delegation arrived in Beijing and started its visit to China on China's invitation, prior to which the two countries had no official contact at all for more than two decades. Chinese table tennis players conducted a same visit to the US the next year.

The exchanges between Chinese and American table tennis players at that time, later becoming known as ping-pong diplomacy, largely contributed to the re-establishment of suspended China-US relations. "People use the phrase 'the little ball moves the big ball' to describe China-US ping-pong diplomacy," Chinese Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai said in a video speech he gave for the commemoration on Saturday. 



"This event went beyond sport exchanges and had a far-reaching impact on shaping China-US relations and the world landscape, giving us profound insights," Cui remarked.

The main spirit of ping-pong diplomacy - "friendship first" - has been long-lasting among Chinese and US table tennis lovers over the decades. Sheri Cioroslan, former president of USA Table Tennis (USATT), a non-profit governing body for table tennis in the US, shared her experiences of visiting China and communicating with Chinese players in her video speech. "There are so many memories to cherish and so many more to make," she said.

"Sports provide an avenue for the US and China to connect on multiple levels," James Heller, Consul General of the US in Shanghai, said in the speech he made at the event.

"Like ping-pong, people-to-people exchanges are the foundation of the relationship [between the two countries]," Heller told the Global Times on Saturday. "It's good to see all these great folks coming out to commemorate the 50th anniversary of ping-pong diplomacy."

Several former players and coaches who witnessed ping-pong diplomacy in the early 1970s attended the Saturday event. They include 83-year-old Xu Yinsheng, honorary president of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF).

Xu shared with the Global Times his feelings when he heard Chinese leaders were going to invite the US table tennis players to visit China in 1971. "I was very excited and heartened," he told the Global Times on Saturday. "I felt that we ping-pong players not only fight to be champions, but also contribute to peace and friendly exchanges of mankind. I was proud of that."

An American player at a match Photo: Chen Xia/GT

An American player at a match Photo: Chen Xia/GT

 A Chinese player and an American player cooperate at the doubles during a friendly match. Photo: Chen Xia/GT

A Chinese player and an American player cooperate at the doubles during a friendly match. Photo: Chen Xia/GT

 

Friendliness

A friendly match between Chinese and American table tennis enthusiasts was also held at Saturday's commemorative event, which was co-organized by Shanghai People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries at the International Table Tennis Federation Museum and China Table Tennis Museum in Shanghai.

From former gold medalists to amateurs, participants of the match competed at the museum's Champion Hall accompanied by cheers and applaud. 

"I learned how to play ping-pong when I was very young; it is a terrific sport," said Ker Gibbs, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai (AmCham Shanghai) and a member of the match's "Happy Pingpong" team. "It brings out the best in people when there is friendly competition," he told the Global Times on Saturday.

Back in the 1970s, Chinese and American people also got to know more about each other through friendly table tennis matches, said the commemoration's attendee Zheng Minzhi, a member of the Chinese table tennis delegation in the trip to the US in April 1972, after the then US president Richard Nixon visited China in February.

On this trip, Zheng said she was impressed by the sincerity and hospitality that US table tennis players and ordinary Americans showed to them. She recalled that when the Chinese players had an exhibition game at a car factory in the US, the workers gave them a warm welcome.

"They shook hands with us and said 'welcome, welcome;' Zheng told the Global Times. "We didn't speak each other's languages, but I could feel their friendliness through their facial expressions and body language." 

The Chinese and US players forged a profound friendship during the trips, Zheng said. "These years, I always miss my old friends in America: How are they? Are they in good health? Do they still play ping-pong?"

Zheng Minzhi talks with the Sweeris couple in a video call on April 9, 2021. (photo: Chen Xia/GT)

Zheng Minzhi talks with the Sweeris couple in a video call on April 9, 2021. (photo: Chen Xia/GT)

Zheng Minzhi, a former table tennis player and member of the Chinese delegation to the US in April 1972, signs her name on a ping-pong-table-shaped board. Photo: Chen Xia/GT

Zheng Minzhi, a former table tennis player and member of the Chinese delegation to the US in April 1972, signs her name on a ping-pong-table-shaped board. Photo: Chen Xia/GT

Zheng eventually "met" her two old friends on Friday. At Zheng's home in Shanghai, the Global Times reporters witnessed a Zoom video conversation between Zheng and the Sweeris couple - Connie Sweeris, part of the US women's table tennis team that traveled to China in 1971, and her husband Dell Sweeris, a member of the reception team and then the top-ranked player in the US, who played the game with the visiting Chinese team in 1972.

From president Nixon's and premier Zhou Enlai's greetings, to a series of friendly matches, to Disneyland, the Forbidden City, sausage and Peking duck, Zheng and the US couple excitedly reminisced about the days they spent together in both countries during the remarkable trips.

The couple told the Global Times that they highly value the need for commemoration of ping-pong diplomacy. "People exchanges can break down the barriers and bring understanding and cooperation and connect us again, to get us back on the road, to having some better diplomatic ties," Connie said.

(Hu Yuwei contributed to this story) 

Friendly match participants talk during the break. Photo: Chen Xia/GT

Friendly match participants talk during the break. Photo: Chen Xia/GT



A pair of table tennis rackets with signatures of some participants of their commemoration, including former table tennis gold medalists and enthusiasts from both China and the US. Photo: Chen Xia/GT

A pair of table tennis rackets with signatures of some participants of their commemoration, including former table tennis gold medalists and enthusiasts from both China and the US. Photo: Chen Xia/GT


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