The United States table tennis team heralded the era of ‘ping pong diplomacy’ by becoming the first official American delegation to visit China in 20 years.
Relations between America and China had soured in the aftermath of the Communist Revolution, and grew worse as a result of the Korean War in which the countries fought on opposing sides. Relations were so poor that, by the time the two countries travelled to Nagoya in Japan for the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in 1971, they had no diplomatic or economic relationship.
Richard Nixon intended to bring China in from the cold when he took up the presidency in 1969. Meanwhile, increasing tensions between China and the USSR had similarly led Chairman Mao to consider rebuilding relations with the United States. Both table tennis teams being in Nagoya offered the perfect opportunity.
Having missed the US bus after practice one evening, American player Glenn Cowan travelled back to his room with the Chinese team. Although the Chinese claim that Cowan “stumbled up the steps” of their bus, he claimed in an interview that he was invited to travel with them. Whatever the reality, during the short bus journey Cowan was given a silk-screen picture of the Huangshan mountains by the Chinese player Zhuang Zedong.
Favourable press coverage, which led Mao to comment on Zhuang Zedong’s positive actions as a diplomat, resulted in the entire American team being invited to China after the tournament ended. Having arrived in the country on 10 April, they spent ten days touring Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai. Their visit heralded a new period in Sino-American relations that culminated in President Nixon himself travelling to China the following year.