Central role in 'ping-pong diplomacy'





ZHUANG Zedong, who has died aged 72, was a three-time world table tennis champion and, in 1971, became one of two key figures in the "ping-pong diplomacy" that realigned global politics after two decades of standoff between China and America.

The other man involved was Glenn Cowan, a buck-toothed, hippie-haired teenager who was part of the United States team attending the world table tennis championships in Japan in April 1971. Cowan, having missed his bus one day after training, climbed on another that was occupied by the entire Chinese team. It was only when he turned around to take his seat, revealing the letters USA on the back of his shirt, that they realised who he was.

"We got nervous and nobody talked to him," Zhuang said later, explaining that the Chinese players were under strict instructions to avoid fraternising with the political enemy. "He [Cowan] was on the bus for 10 minutes and no one came to talk to him."

Zhuang eventually approached Cowan and, after asking his name through an interpreter, offered him a small gift. The two men shook hands and wished each other luck, and the tale of their encounter soon spread. Almost immediately, in Beijing, chairman Mao Zedong decreed that an invitation to visit be issued to the American team; days later the players became the first delegation from the US to China since the communists had taken power in 1949. The following year Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit communist China, and extended a return invitation to the Chinese table tennis team to visit America, where they were received at the White House - and where Zedong and Cowan renewed their acquaintance.

Zhuang Zedong was born in August 1940 and - too slight for soccer, too short for basketball - quickly became a table tennis star. He joined the national team as a teenager, employing a style of play in which the bat is held not like a tennis racket but like a pen.

The method, however, prevents the player generating power on the backhand side. To counter this, Zhuang learnt to produce short, devastating backhand blows, which he modelled on martial arts punches.

His technique made him the most successful player in the sport's history, as he secured the men's title at three consecutive world championships. His third victory came in 1965, when he was still in his mid-20s, and he appeared set for many more years of dominance.

But then, in his own words, "everything changed". As the Cultural Revolution swept China, in 1966 sporting institutions were declared "a bastion of anti-Maoist revisionism and were to be dismantled". China did not take part in international table tennis for the next five years.

Instead, suspicion, denunciations and "confessions" became the order of the day, with former friends and colleagues riven by the paranoia of the purges. Among those arrested were Zhuang's coach, Fu Qifang, national team member Jiang Yongning, and Rong Guotuan, the first Chinese to win a world title in any sport - at the world table tennis championships in 1959. Tortured and convicted of spying, all three hanged themselves in 1968.

Zhuang, however, remained at liberty, and even decades later admitted that he had "complete trust in Chairman Mao . . . I feel my belief in Chairman Mao is bigger than my feeling towards my friends. I still believe that Chairman Mao had the interests of China at heart."

As his teammates were disgraced, Zhuang's star rose. He became sports minister and was even elevated to the Central Committee, the powerbroking elite at the top of the Communist Party.

He formed an alliance with the Gang of Four, the faction headed by Mao's third wife, Jiang Qing. He was granted so many private audiences with her that rumours of an affair began to swirl - rumours that Zhuang always denied, describing her as "like a mother to me". Installed in the top ranks of power, however, Zhuang organised mass meetings at which denunciations, beatings and self-criticism were the norm. "I was on the wrong side," he said in 2007. "I did many dreadful things that I now regret."

If his ties to the Gang of Four protected him during Mao's rule, Zhuang's connections guaranteed the collapse of his fortunes afterwards, when the Gang of Four and their allies were denounced. Mao died in September 1976. Within a month, armed men seized Zhuang at his home and took him to a rural prison camp where, during the next four years, he had no contact with the outside world. His wife and children assumed he had been executed.

He was released in 1980, but forced to endure another five-year spell in internal exile in Shanxi province. Eventually he was permitted to return to Beijing, where he coached the game that had set him on the road to stardom.

He later life was low-key, and as time passed he came to be remembered more for his role in ping-pong diplomacy than the Cultural Revolution.

Away from table tennis, Zhuang Zedong was a devoted calligrapher, and in 1994 his work was given an exhibition in Singapore.

His first marriage, to the pianist Bao Huiqiao, ended in divorce in 1985. They had one daughter. He married, secondly, Sasaki Atsuko.

Want access to our latest research and new buy ideas?

Start a free 15 day trial and gain access to our research, recommendations and market-beating model portfolios.

Sign up for free

Join the Conversation...

There are comments posted so far.

If you'd like to join this conversation, please login or sign up here

Related Articles