Kansas City Star sports columnist Joe Posnanski is —where else?— in Beijing. In today’s paper he reports about the role ping pong plays in everyday life in China — and how that helps explain the impact that the American ping pong team had when they arrived —as if from outer space after so many decades of non-communication— in the spring of 1971.
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.
Posnanski describes the story of how Glenn Cowan missed his bus and the rest became history.
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.