BEIJING—Historians have long marveled that the relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic China really began to defrost because of table tennis. Well, heck, why not? It’s a good game. It brings people together. You can see it here every single day.
Here we are in Chaoyang Park. It’s early morning in Beijing, the outline of an orange sun glows faintly through the clouds and haze, the humidity has not crawled out of bed yet. It’s a good time to be outside. But the basketball courts are empty. The soccer fields are empty. There are not too many people walking around. Instead, there are 19 outdoor ping-pong tables bolted to the concrete. People play on every single table.
“I have played ping pong for long time,” says Xuewen Jia just after she runs me from one side of the table to the other, making me ping and pong. “It is part of everything.”
I love that ... it is part of everything. The table tennis lifestyle is a fascinating thing to see. Every morning, not long after the sun comes up, people show up in Chaoyang Park (or Sun Park). They build their mornings around it. They bring their own table tennis nets, their own rackets, their own ping-pong balls. They sweat for an hour before work or school. Some, like the couple at the table next to me, go to the market first and get some vegetables, then stop for a little table tennis workout before heading home.
“It’s much more fun playing table tennis than finding vegetables,” one man shouts across the table after he hits a winning smash. “They are both hard work, but table tennis is much more fun.”
Table tennis is part of the landscape here. The obvious comparison to America would be basketball—without driveway goals everywhere—but, in fact, table tennis seems to be even more integrated into the culture here. America is a land of many sports—if you wander around enough on a summer morning in the States, you can see fathers and sons playing catch, mothers and daughters kicking soccer balls to each other, husbands and wives hitting tennis balls across nets, old friends playing golf together.
Here, at Chaoyang Park, it’s striking how much of China’s sporting identity is built around this one sport. You see men and women, young and old, all playing interchangeably. Then you go back and turn on the television and four different channels feature Olympic table tennis. Then you open up a couple of Chinese newspapers, and you see table tennis photos and stories everywhere, the sport is covered here the way an NFL Sunday is covered is a Monday newspaper in America.
“It is just what we grow up with,” says our interpreter Linjun Fan. She can speak to this firsthand. She grew up in a tiny city called Rudong in the Hunan Province of China. She said that at her school there were eight concrete ping pong tables on the playground—and, incidentally, the Chinese people seem perfectly happy to call table tennis “ping pong,” and they’re better at it than the snooty people who rush in to correct anyone who says “ping pong.” Anyway, at Linjun’s school, during recess, they all played table tennis. There were also ping-pong tables around town. When she left her town and went to college in Beijing, there were of course ping-pong tables everywhere. She said that it isn’t even something you think about it.
“I’ve just always played,” she says. “It is intuitive.”
We have long known about China’s love of table tennis, of course. It really is no exaggeration to say that ping-pong opened ties between China and the United States. That was China’s famous ping-pong diplomacy of the early 1970s, and it’s a fun story. In April 1971, during the World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, an American player named Glenn Cowan missed his bus. In the spirit of sportsmanship, he was invited to ride back on the bus with the Chinese team.
At first, nobody talked to him on the bus—Chinese men and women had been raised to loathe and fear Americans. And vice versa. Then the great Chinese player and former world champion Zhuang Zedong—in an impulse gesture that literally would change the world—approached from the back of the bus and gave Cowen a gift, a beautiful and rare portrait of the Huangshan Mountains in Eastern China. Cowan was deeply touched and he wanted to return the favor, but he only had a comb in his pocket. He didn’t think a comb was an especially fitting gift (later he would give Zhuang a T-shirt). Anyway, the two men talked warmly for a few moments.
When the bus arrived at the hotel, a few dozen photographs snapped pictures of the rarest sight—an American coming off the bus of Chinese athletes. Something big and dramatic had happened. One week later, the U.S. table tennis team accepted an invitation to go into China, the first American sports delegation to be in China since 1949.
That started it. Three months later, President Richard Nixon sent his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, to China on a secret task. And less than a year after ping-pong broke the ice, President Nixon himself traveled to China in his historic mission.
That’s how good a game table tennis is—it can bring the world together.
Still, even knowing how much table tennis means to the people here—China has won 16 of the 20 Olympic gold medals in table tennis before these Olympics—it is startling as an American to see it in action. It seems like everyone here plays this game and plays it at very high level. People who just happen to be walking by, walk over, pick up a paddle in that distinctly Chinese way (with the head of the paddle facing down) and start pounding shot after shot. They all look like Olympic medalists.
“I’m the only one who holds the paddle regular,” I say without thinking.
“Regular?” Linjun says while laughing. “Oh, so your style is regular?”
Well, OK, no, it’s regular for the United States. My table tennis style is built around what I like to call the “American Basement Grip,” since, like so many Americans, my grip and style was honed on a chipped and faded ping pong table in the basement (one usually covered with clothes that needed to be folded). The style, I will admit, is remarkably ineffective against the vicious spin of Xuewen Jia, a mother who lives in Beijing and whose oldest son lives in Los Angeles. She hits the serve and the ball just spins crazily off my racket. Then I play another guy, and his serve has even more spin. Then I get hit in the back by a smash from the table behind.
Still, everyone wants to play, everyone is encouraging, ping pong diplomacy in its own way is still alive and well long after Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon are gone.
“My boyfriend holds the racket like you do,” Linjun says helpfully. She means this earnestly, as a compliment. I ask her how long she has been going out with her boyfriend—she says about five years.
“So you have played a lot of table tennis with him?” I ask. She blushes a little bit.
“Of course,” she says. “Of course. This is China. This is what we do.”