Nixon Library Hosts 'Pingpong Diplomacy' Rematch The Nixon Presidential Library in California hosts a "pingpong diplomacy" rematch between Chinese and American players in honor of the historic 1971 and '72 matches. Those games helped to open relations between the United States and China and pave the way for President Nixon's visit to the communist nation.

Nixon Library Hosts 'Pingpong Diplomacy' Rematch

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Some news now of an event back in 1971, when a sport most associated with basement rec rooms broke the silence between two rival nations.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Mr. MIKE WALLACE (Journalist): China lifted the bamboo curtain today, long enough to let in 15 American ping-pong players for a week of exhibition matches and sightseeing.

MONTAGNE: That spring, Americas top table-tennis players unexpectedly became the first Americans to officially enter China in decades, and ping-pong diplomacy became the biggest story of the day.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: Globe-girdling ambassadors of the paddle, the American table-tennis team talked mild politics with some university students in Peking today. Then they went to gaze upon the Great Wall of China.

MONTAGNE: Time magazine called it the ping heard round the world. We're looking back on this history-making sports event because today there's a rematch between two of the original Chinese and American players. It's taking place at the Nixon Presidential Library here in Southern California. After all, that '71 match preceded a shining moment for Richard Nixon - his 1972 trip to China, where he shook hands with Chairman Mao.

Historian Margaret MacMillan has written how Mao got the idea to invite these first Americans. It turns out he was watching the Americans play in a table-tennis tournament in Japan.

Ms. MARGARET MacMILLAN (Author, "Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World"): And when a Chinese player motioned to an American player to come and sit on the team bus because the American player had missed his ride back to the hotel, that was reported back to China, and everyone, I think, was on tenterhooks that Mao would be absolutely furious, and Mao apparently said no, no, no. He said that table-tennis player, the Chinese table-tennis player, is a great diplomat, and then Mao sort of waited for about two days. He sat there chain-smoking. Would he invite the Americans to come to China or not? And at the last moment, as the table-tennis tournament in Japan was winding down, word came from Beijing - go ahead, invite them.

MONTAGNE: It's just so fascinating, looking back, that he would even pay attention. Was he interested in ping-pong?

Ms. MacMILLAN: I don't think Mao was that much interested in ping-pong. I think it was the timing, really, because the Chinese and the Americans had been moving very, very cautiously to establish contact with each other. The Chinese government, Mao Tse Tung and his prime minister, Zhou Enlai, were actually exchanging top-secret messages with President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger.

At the same time, both sides were sending out public signals that maybe they wanted bygones to be bygones, and so the Chinese, for example, stopped describing President Nixon as a blood-sucking capitalist, and President Nixon started referring to the People's Republic of China rather than calling it Red China, which had been the case for quite a long time.

So when the Chinese invited the American table-tennis team, it was read rightly back in Washington as a sign that the Chinese were really now going to - were prepared to move on mending relations with the United States.

MONTAGNE: So the upshot of this is that this table-tennis team and a couple of journalists became the first Americans to get into China in - since the revolution.

Ms. MacMILLAN: Pretty much that. I mean, what they found themselves at the center of was a major - a major diplomatic breakthrough, let's say, because suddenly Americans were going to China at the invitation of the Chinese government. A few American journalists were allowed to go with them, and suddenly it became possible for Americans to read in their newspapers and to see on their televisions pictures of the People's Republic of China, which had really been very much closed off to Americans and indeed to a lot of the outside world.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Mr. DAVID BRINKLEY (News Anchor): During the day, the Americans had a lunch of sweet-and-sour carp, meat dumplings, North China steamed bread, rice, fried prawns, cold meat, pork, vegetables, and Chinese soda pop, whatever that is.

MONTAGNE: What did the Americans, most of them quite young, find when they got to China?

Ms. MacMILLAN: Well, they found a China that had not only been closed off but a China that was just coming out of the Cultural Revolution, and I think very few people outside China had any idea at the time of just how ghastly that event had been. But since 1966 China had been in anarchy.

Now, what they saw in China was a country in which the Maoist policies of extreme equality, for example, were very much still in force, and so women were discouraged from wearing makeup. They had really very simple hairstyles, and pretty much everyone wore the sort of navy blue jackets and pajamas. So there was very little color in the streets, and no advertisements in the streets, I mean nothing that would really look familiar to an American. I mean, the only things that were up were giant pictures of Mao and giant inscriptions of his, sayings of his, which fortunately most of them couldn't read because they tended to be very rude things about people like Americans.

Now, the Chinese, for their part, were fascinated by the Americans because some of these table-tennis tournaments were shown on television in China, and there was one of the players, a young man at the time called Glenn Cowan, who had long hair.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Mr. WALTER CRONKITE (News Anchor): An American hippie in the land of Confucius and Mao Tse Tung. Glenn Cowan of Santa Monica, California in the legendary Middle Kingdom. His entry pass: a talent at table-tennis and other sports of the young everywhere.

Ms. MacMILLAN: I talked to a Chinese who was a young person at the time, and she said we'd never seen anything like it. We were absolutely fascinated by this strange young man with his long hair. Glenn Cowan would appear in leopard-skin pants and bright purple, sort of long shirts, and there was a young American table-tennis player, a woman who wore miniskirts, which again the Chinese really hadn't seen before.

And so it was a meeting of peoples who were looking at each other as if they were very strange creatures indeed.

MONTAGNE: How much did this moment, this ping-pong diplomacy, how much did it open the door wider for President Richard Nixon himself to go to China?

Ms. MacMILLAN: I think everything that was happening in those crucial months in the first half of 1971 was helping to open the door wider because what had to be overcome as China and the United States inched cautiously towards each other was that suspicion on both sides, and so it was one, and perhaps one of the more-important gestures in a whole series of gestures of good will and reassurance, that were being made by either side as the two great countries tried to move towards establishing relations again.

MONTAGNE: Margaret MacMillan wrote the book "Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World."

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing) Ping-pong, ping-pong. There goes that Chinese wall, knocked down by a ping-pong ball.

MONTAGNE: Today at the Nixon Presidential Library, a member of the American table-tennis team, George Braithwaite, takes on Liang Geliang, one of the original Chinese players, in a rematch.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) There goes that Chinese wall, knocked down by a ping-pong ball. When the president called in the State Department, and Henry Kissinger too, he said I've got to know exactly what it all means. It seems too good to be true. They said it looks like a tiny little hole in the middle of the Chinese wall. So don't underestimate a ping-pong paddle and a tiny little ping-pong ball.

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