The U.S. Ping-Pong team became the first group of Americans to visit mainland China since the Communist takeover in 1949.
“You have opened a new chapter in the relations between the American and Chinese people,” said Premier Chou En-Lai. “I am confident,” he continued, “that this beginning again of our friendship will certainly meet with majority support of our two peoples.” These words were delivered in April 1971 to a very unlikely delegation, the American Table Tennis Team who were invited to play their Chinese counterparts in a series of exhibition matches less than a year before President Nixon would arrive in Peking.
The athletes became the first group of Americans to visit the mainland since the Communist takeover in 1949.
With Washington watching the events around the American delegation unfold, the warm reception was just as important as the words Premier Chou carefully used. His test balloon was people-to-people diplomacy, a compliment to traditional statescraft based on creating and building interpersonal relationships between nations.
The consequences of this first engagement were lightened, as Dr. Kissinger noted, by “the fact that the [Ping-Pong] players could not possibly represent a particular political tendency,” which only “added to the attractiveness” of this precursory meeting for both sides. Sports have always been an avenue for countries to come together and engage each other in the spirit of competition; and Ping Pong diplomacy fulfilled this role in a subtle way, providing a venue for important—though nonofficial—dialogue. This paved the way for the official dialogue, which successfully occurred in February 1972 in the President’s meetings with Chairman Mao and Premier Chou.
As a sport, the Chinese hold table tennis in the highest regard. Because the game requires very little equipment, and is inexpensive to practice, it is considered a game of the people. In 1972 there were 3.2 million Chinese registered players compared to 2,800 in the United States. To this day, Ping-Pong remains one of the country’s most popular sports.