I decided to revisit the initial encounter between the sports teams that preceded the Mao-Nixon meeting, because I think it can help us to make sense of contemporary debates about whether sport and politics should be 'mixed' or kept 'separate.'
As a tool in the construction of modern nation-states sport is inherently political, but it has always had the potential to transcend narrow nationalisms, because it provides an arena in which countries can unambiguously lose one contest yet win another; when we watch international sporting events, we may root for the home team, but we are also conscious of the contingency of national identity, prestige, virtue, and so on. And I think that a brief history of ping-pong in Chinese politics illustrates this rather well.
Soon after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Mao Zedong made ping pong the new national sport (guoqiu). He chose ping pong because it seemed like a sport China - a poor, densely-populated nation - would be able to win against other countries, and become a unified nation in the process.
The CPC set up a vast network of talent scouts were dispatched to identify potential champions. In doing this, Mao was following in the tradition of his predecessors, who had also tried to use sport for state-building (and who, in their turn, followed the model set by other modern nation-states like the U.S., which promoted sports as a means of improving the fitness of its military recruits).
At the turn of the 19th-Century, China was dubbed the "sick man of Asia" in an article by an famous Chinese intellectual. In response the Qing government (1644-1911), the last imperial dynasty to rule China, imported military exercises, including gymnastics, from Germany and Sweden, as part of a broader "self-strengthening" movement (ziqiang); it was designed to re-connect the government with the masses through greater efficiency and selective modernisation.
Later, in 1919, the Nationalist government issued a decree entitled The Work Plan for the Promotion of Sport. It stressed that sporting success was vital to the vitality of the new Republic:
Governments have often popularised certain sports in the hope of building a shared national identity over and above deep social divisions, related to class, race or religion. Thus the Communists made ping pong the national sport to soften some (but not all) of the class distinctions, and to put identification with the nation before traditional bonds of kinship. It had come to China from Europe in 1901 and was starting to become popular in urban areas in the 1930s.
China joined the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) in the last years of Europe's dominance of the sport. In 1956-7, China's team ranked highly, and came third in the women's singles. Then, in 1959, the table tennis player Rong Guotan made history as the first Chinese sportsman to win a world championship. Rong is the central figure in the photograph below.
It was an occasion for jubilation in China. In 1917 Mao wrote one his first articles on the importance of sport for nation-building. Four decades later he demonstrated his savvy awareness of 'soft power', describing Rong's powerful backhand and forehand drives as constituting a "spiritual nuclear weapon".
Here is some footage of Rong at the 1959 championships (starts at 06:25).
Another Chinese player, Zhuang Zedong, won the following three championships, from 1961-5 (there is footage of his play in the video above at 08:40).
But this growth spurt in the international sporting arena was cut short; China did not send a team to the next World Championships in 1967, because by then the Cultural Revolution was underway, during which the country was turned entirely inwards on itself, and the routines of daily life were often violent and unpredictable.
At the outset of the Cultural Revolution, professional sportsmen were denounced as "sprouts of revisionism." The danger for the CPC of using sport as a political tool was that it had to be kept in check; it was a blunt tool and any ambiguity, such as Rong's having spent most of his life outside of China, was a worrying liability, and so he stood accused of being a foreign spy. So long as China had equally talented but more politically-correct players, Rong was expendable to the regime. Tragically, he and his two teammates committed suicide after being tortured in detention.
Perhaps Mao had allowed the political tumult to reach so high up in the sporting establishment as a kind of warning to sportspeople to be faultless "icons of revolutionary virtue." Or perhaps this had been an example of the Red Guards going too far on their own initiative. Either way, it sent a clear signal to Rong's colleagues to obey orders from the top - the only problem being that the orders themselves were far from clear.
Although they stayed at home, the Chinese table tennis team resumed training in 1969. Zhuang was the star player. He was a politically reliable former army man, with a penchant for speaking in slogans. For instance: "to play table tennis is a revolutionary endeavour and serves the interest of the people; it is not for fun or for the opportunity to show off."
Yet even Zhuang found himself implicated in Cultural Revolution-era paranoia; he was detained along with other players for alledgedly allying themselves too closely with Mao's rival, Liu Shaoqi.
|A sign greeting the visiting U.S. team to the PRC in 1971|
Fear of attack from the Soviet Union dominated Mao's geopolitical thinking at the start of the 1970s. Fear of electoral defeat without a semi-orderly exit from Vietnam gripped Nixon. Separately, the two men came to see each other as the 'lesser evil' in the triangular diplomacy of the Cold War, and they recognised that a limited friendship of convenience could be mutually beneficial.
For example, in 1970 Mao invited the veteran American journalist Edgar Snow for one last meeting with him. It was publicised heavily in the Chinese press as an expression of authentic international friendship, and Mao had the photo below put on the front page of the People's Daily in the hope that the Nixon administration would take the hint and get in touch.
The only problem was that Edgar Snow had no credibility in Washington because of his Communist sympathies, so its significance went unrecognised.
As an indication of just how isolated China had been in the years before ping-pong diplomacy, here is a clip of an American news broadcast anticipating Nixon's visit in 1972. The anchorman draws comparisons between the U.S. and PRC, but the overriding impression is that he is describing a newly-discovered planet.
Meanwhile, the Chinese ping pong team were preparing to re-emerge at the 31st World Championships in Nagoya, Japan. As the date of the competition drew nearer, politics intervened again - North Korea and the exiled head of state in Cambodia both requested that China withdraw in protest against Japan's membership of the Asian Table Tennis Federation, a body that recognised the Republic of China on Taiwan as the legitimate government of the whole of China. Zhou Enlai had already seen the potential for the contest to be a springboard for improved ties with the U.S., so he asked the Chinese team for their opinion - to his disappointment, they supported the idea of a boycott.
Yet they were officially dispatched under the banner of "friendship first, competition second." This apparent contradiction illustrates the nervousness of the PRC leadership about making tentative gestures to which it could not predict the American response, and their fear of losing face in a very public arena.
It was Mao's impulsive reaction to the photograph of Zhuang and Cowan that would be the turning-point. Mao was lying in bed, signing-off on decisions taken elsewhere in the bureaucratic machine when he saw the pictures and was suddenly inspired. According to Jung Chang's biography of Mao, "his eyes lit up and he called Zhuang 'a good diplomat.'" In On China, Dr. Kissinger conveys the scene:
They also played two exhibition matches to packed stadium audiences - it was dubbed "the ping heard around the world."
The superiority of the Chinese team gave them the diplomatic option of going easy on the Americans, of which, as the retrospective in the video below shows, the Americans were well aware at the time.
It was a momentous occasion, signified by their meeting with Zhou, who stressed that the visit was intended to open up improved relations between the two countries; as he later put it, "the small ball set the big one, the earth, in motion."
Of the American players, Cowan arguably attracted the most attention wherever he went in China because of the contrast between his free-flowing hippy fashion and the drab 'Mao suits' which were ubiquitous at that time. The way that Cowan described the trip afterwards suggests a certain degree of romanticising the poverty he would have witnessed, and the bonds of interdependency forged by living in such a large population: "I loved the Chinese", he said, "Where else, man, would you see a child of three carrying a child of two in his arms?"
Here he is, effortlessly drawing attention (some of it contrived, as he spent much of the trip trying to get pictures that would get him on the cover of Life magazine):
When he was asked by Cowan for his thoughts on the hippie movement, Zhou replied that it was not political enough: "Young people ought to try different things. But they should try to find something in common with the majority." The following day's New York Times headline read: ZHOU, 73, AND 'TEAM HIPPIE' HIT IT OFF. A year later, Cowan won the accolade of Rolling Stone's 'Groupie of the Year.'
The White House took the hint, and immediately pushed through key changes to their foreign policy as regards China, the most significant being the ending of a 21-year old trade embargo dating from the Korean War. Dr. Kissinger recognised that ping pong had provided the perfect cover for the Chinese to publicly engage the Americans without the risk of losing face if their entreaties were rebuffed:
What wider lessons can we draw from this episode? It would seem to suggest that international sporting events can be used to make a political argument that brings about a desired effect.
Moreover it was seen by the Chinese as a low-risk manoeuvre because if the Americans had rejected their invitation, they would have seemed petty and childish. And yet it only really worked in this way - the product of a schizophrenic political campaign and sheer luck - because of the extreme level of political interference in the Chinese team. In the long-run, this degree of manipulation devalues sport as an instrument of internationalism in a more subtle way - by depriving spectators from all countries of the chance to watch a fair test of ability amongst all of their teams, an experience that breeds a kind of patriotism that George Orwell distinguished from narrower forms of nationalism.
In his Notes on Nationalism Orwell wrote that patriotism is the desire that your team will win, whereas nationalism is an automatic presumption of superiority. The former, whilst it reflects the nation-building potential of sport, is more contingent and fragile than the latter, and can incorporate a willingness to learn from the tactics of other countries; China reversed its decline in the table tennis rankings in the 1980s by adopting the winning tactics of breakthrough teams from Sweden and South Korea, but it was only able to do so because post-Mao political reforms had abolished his rigid prescriptions for how all table-tennis players ought to be trained.
As the Olympics showed in 2008, the impulse to politicise sport remains. I hope to have shown that ping pong diplomacy is actually more of a cautionary tale than is commonly supposed.