Skip to main content

Chinese 'ping-pong diplomacy' player dies

By Katie Hunt, for CNN
February 11, 2013 -- Updated 0717 GMT (1517 HKT)
Zhuang Zedong's chance meeting with a U.S. player was instrumental in Beijing's decision to invite the American table tennis team for an exhibition match in 1971. He is pictured here in 2008, looking at a Time magazine cover from 1972.<!-- -->
</br> Zhuang Zedong's chance meeting with a U.S. player was instrumental in Beijing's decision to invite the American table tennis team for an exhibition match in 1971. He is pictured here in 2008, looking at a Time magazine cover from 1972.
HIDE CAPTION
Ping-pong diplomat
Training partners
Sporting potential
Groundwork
Anniversary
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chinese table tennis legend Zhuang Zedong has died aged 73
  • He was key figure in "ping pong diplomacy" that helped thaw ties between China, U.S.
  • U.S.-China table tennis match led to 1972 visit by U.S. President Richard Nixon

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Chinese table tennis player Zhuang Zedong, a key figure in what became known as the "ping pong diplomacy" that helped thaw frosty Cold War relations between the United States and China, has died aged 73, state-run news agency Xinhua reported.

Zhuang's chance meeting with a U.S. player was instrumental in Beijing's decision to invite the American table tennis team for an exhibition match in 1971.

That match laid the groundwork for the visit of U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1972 and ultimately paved the way for the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1979, ending China's isolation from the outside world.

Xinhua said that Zhuang, who was considered one of the best players in the world in the 1960s, had met U.S. table tennis player Glenn Cowan at a tournament in Japan.

Watch ping-pong-playing robot
New era emerges for U.S.-China ties

READ: The ping heard around the world

Cowan, a long-haired teenager, had jumped on the Chinese team's bus after missing his own and Zhuang struck up a conversation through a translator -- a brave act given the constraints of China's Cultural Revolution-era politics.

"We were all tense," Zhuang told CNN in 2008. "Our team had been advised not to speak to Americans, not to shake their hands, and not to exchange gifts with them.

"I looked at him, thinking, 'he is not the one who makes national policies, he is just an athlete, an ordinary American'," he recalled.

Zhuang gave the hippie-looking American a silk brocade as a gift. The next day, Cowan gave him a T-shirt emblazoned with a peace sign and the words "LET IT BE."

Pictures of their encounter spread around the world, and, under the orders of Chinese leader Mao Zedong, the U.S. team was invited to visit China.

I had no idea what was going on. I didn't know what Chairman Mao was thinking. I was merely a ping-pong player.
Zhuang Zedong

During their visit, the U.S. announced the end of a 20-year trade embargo against the People's Republic. Their journey turned out to be the first public move in a rapprochement between the two bitter enemies.

Zhuang said he never thought his simple gesture of friendship would coin the phrase "ping-pong diplomacy."

"I had no idea what was going on," he said. "I didn't know what Chairman Mao was thinking. I was merely a ping-pong player."

READ: Ping-pong diplomacy may return

Zhuang won three world championships and was a hero in table-tennis mad China. An innovative "pen-hold" style propelled him to the top of his sport.

He became China's sports minister but fell victim to the power struggles that followed Mao's death in 1976 and was detained for four years before being exiled to the provinces.

Zhuang later returned to Beijing, where he coached table tennis to teenagers.

According to Xinhua, Zhuang had been suffering from colon cancer since 2008 and died in a Beijing hospital on Sunday after developing liver and lung complications.

CNN's Jaime FlorCruz in Beijing contributed to this report

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
See CNN's complete coverage on China.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0410 GMT (1210 HKT)
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has hit its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 0712 GMT (1512 HKT)
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 0911 GMT (1711 HKT)
Is Xi Jinping a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0631 GMT (1431 HKT)
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1124 GMT (1924 HKT)
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 0656 GMT (1456 HKT)
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0836 GMT (1636 HKT)
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0334 GMT (1134 HKT)
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Anna Coren visits Yulin's annual dog meat festival. Dogs are part of the daily diet here, with an estimated 10,000 dogs killed for the festival alone.
June 19, 2014 -- Updated 0638 GMT (1438 HKT)
People know little about sex, but are having plenty of it. We take a look at the ramifications of a lack of sex education in China.
June 16, 2014 -- Updated 1614 GMT (0014 HKT)
A replica of the Effel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development located in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province.
What's the Eiffel Tower doing in China? Replica towns of the world's most famous monuments spring up all over China.
ADVERTISEMENT