Forty years ago, the U.S. Table Tennis team became the first sports delegation in over two decades to travel to China. The concept of "Friendship First, Competition Second" and the team's interactions with the Chinese through the game of ping pong, contributed to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China.
In celebration of Ping Pong Diplomacy's 40th Anniversary, members from the original 1971 U.S. Table Tennis Association, current players on the U.S. national team, and officials from the U.S. Olympic Committee spent a week in China earlier this month. The visit followed that of a Chinese delegation to the U.S. this past summer where Chinese table tennis players and representatives from China's Olympic Committee and Ministry of Sport toured the United States with stops in Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Outside of Los Angeles, players from the 1971 Chinese and American teams, as well as individuals from the Chinese Consulate, gathered at the Nixon Library for a nostalgic match of ping pong.
"Ping Pong Diplomacy" has become an iconic term for its immensely important role in history. The connections that developed through respectful ping pong games paved the way for a meeting between National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Zhou En-lai, the premier of China. This milestone opened the door for conversations between President Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong. Connectivity between Chinese and American citizens followed suit through the expansion of opportunities for shared cultural and face-to-face interaction. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's and State Councilor Madame Liu Yandong's meeting earlier this year reinforced the countries' commitment to enhancing people-to-people exchanges. For more about the U.S.-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange (CPE), you may read Secretary Clinton's remarks here.
In this same spirit, the U.S.-China Consultation on People to People Exchange was created in 2010. This bilateral agreement aims to strengthen ties between the U.S. and China -- on the individual level -- in the areas of culture, education, sports, science and technology, and women's issues. It was at this level that Ping Pong Diplomacy is said to have originated:
In 1971, while the U.S. and China table tennis teams were in Nagoya, Japan, for the World Championships, one American player found himself on a bus full of Chinese table tennis athletes. After initial awkwardness, one Chinese World Champion player approached the American and presented him with a silkscreen portrait of the Huangshan Mountains. The media captured this exchange and both governments were relieved to finally have a positive subject of discussion.
The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs' SportsUnited division is enthusiastically building on the legacy of Ping Pong Diplomacy through this month's table tennis exchanges and continues to expand diplomatic relations through people-to-people connections.
Click here to learn more about the 40th anniversary trip.