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50 Years of Ping Pong Diplomacy: Changing the World One Match at a Time

2021-04-22
Fifty years ago on April 10, 1971, the U.S. table tennis delegation paid a historic visit to Beijing, making them the first Americans to visit China since 1949.  [Photo credit: China Daily]
Fifty years ago on April 10, 1971, the U.S. table tennis delegation paid a historic visit to Beijing, making them the first Americans to visit China since 1949. [Photo credit: China Daily]

If someone 100 years ago was to predict ping pong would be the foray into a new era of China-U.S. relations, no one would have believed them. Yet, this is what happened. Fifty years ago on April 10, 1971, the U.S. table tennis delegation traveled to Beijing, making them the first Americans to visit China since 1949. The legendary eight-city tour of the country, which led to the visit of the Chinese team to the U.S. as well as a trip to China by President Richard Nixon, is known as “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” and ignited the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

The American table tennis players during that trip became a window into the soul of China - and the whole world was watching. Ten journalists, including five Americans, were also invited to cover the expedition. The American public followed the daily progress of the team’s journey with reverence as they played in exhibition matches with their Chinese hosts, toured the Summer Palace and Great Wall, conversed with Chinese students and workers, and attended the Canton Ballet.

From left: 1971 U.S. Table Tennis team members Olga Soltesez, Judy Bochenski, as well as Madeleine Buben, and Connie Sweeris. [Photo credit: Bettmann/Getty]

It worked. In June of 1972, after the table tennis team’s tour, President Richard Nixon made a historic visit to China to begin peaceful discussions on the future of China-U.S. relations. Near the end of the trip, the two governments issued the Shanghai Communiqué. The agreement established a “One China” policy and provided the basis for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, which would formally occur in 1979. This voyage is known to many as one of the most important events in U.S. postwar history. “Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy,” said Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai. For Nixon, it was "the week that changed the world."

Soon after, the Chinese table tennis team would tour the U.S., igniting the ping pong craze in the States. In February 2002, President George W. Bush applauded Chinese and U.S. efforts to realize common interests during his second trip to China. He told Chinese President Jiang Zemin that Ping Pong Diplomacy allowed two different governments to meet on “grounds of common interest and in a spirit of mutual respect.”

In June of 1972, after the table tennis team’s visit, President Richard Nixon made a historic visit to China to begin peaceful discussions on the future of China-U.S. relations. [Photo credit: SCMP Pictures]

Judy Bochenski was 15 years old and one of nine young U.S. ping pong players invited to China after the American and Chinese teams became friendly during an international tournament in Japan. Bochenski remembers the events from the spring of 1971 quite vividly. She recalls being awestruck by the Great Wall, entranced by the ballet, the opera, the exhibitions, and delighted at the delicious cuisine. "I was in 10th grade when we went to China. And in ninth grade, we had studied China. We studied mostly the dynasties and the long, full, rich history of China," Bochenski said. "We knew about the Communist Revolution, but we didn't really know much about modern-day China, I don't think many people really did,” Bochenski reflects.

Setting foot in the country opened her eyes to a rich culture that was becoming more and more modernized by the minute. Bochenski returned to China in 1997 for the 25th anniversary of the Chinese table tennis players coming to the United States and raved about the excitement vibrating throughout the stadium.

"The audience 25 years later was just like an American basketball crowd watching a big game. There were kids up on platforms standing up, and this was actually part of the international challenge where some good international players came and played some of the Chinese stars,” Bochenski recalls.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted Bochenski’s plans of traveling to China to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ping Pong Diplomacy, she still believes in what the series of events stands for. "I feel like we really need to have people-to-people exchanges… to try to understand each other on a personal level, on a sports level outside of politics. We need to find common ground before we can solve the big problems in the world."

"I feel like we really need to have people-to-people exchanges… to try to understand each other on a personal level, on a sports level outside of politics. We need to find common ground before we can solve the big problems in the world." - Judy Hoarfrost (Bochenski) [Photo credit: Xinhua]

The importance of Ping Pong Diplomacy today cannot be overstated. While tensions between China and the U.S. remain strained, officials from both countries express optimism at the idea of future collaboration. At a celebration honoring the events of April 10, 1971, Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai said, “50 years ago, the differences between us were far greater than they are today. But the two sides, bearing in mind the fundamental well-being and common aspirations of the people, showed respect for their differences.”

Cui praised those who continue to work toward a common vision and reminded us that there is always time for teamwork. “In the face of varied global challenges, China and the U.S. can and should cooperate in more rather than fewer areas,” he closed.

Today, countries are more connected than ever through technology, trade, and development, allowing us to remember 50 years of Ping Pong Diplomacy and how it continues to be a bridge of hope; changing the world one ping pong match at a time.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the China-U.S. Ping Pong Diplomacy, a commemorative celebration, which is sponsored by CUSEF, will be held on April 24, 2021 in Beijing. Renowned sports players, including Yao Ming and Lang Ping from China and Stephon Marbury from the U.S., will share about building friendship through sports exchanges. Learn more about the event here.

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