When 15 Americans returned from a table-tennis exhibition tour of China in 1971, during which they competed against the powerhouse Chinese team before massive crowds, the Los Angeles Times wrote that the group did “what the Paris peace talks . . . and the State Department couldn’t do in decades — unthaw one-quarter of the world.”
To an American audience, the particular sport was immaterial — they might as well have been playing tiddlywinks, as long as they were playing it with the Chinese. But in his off-beat and engrossing new book, “Ping-Pong Diplomacy,’' journalist Nicholas Griffin chronicles the history of table tennis from its birth through its role in the Nixon era detente and shows how the game has been inherently and intentionally political from it’s earliest days. For the Chinese, in fact, it became both the purest embodiment of Maoist doctrine and a useful tool for solidifying power.
The first third of the book follows the eccentric Ivor Montagu, the man almost single-handedly responsible for popularizing the game. Born the son of a wealthy English baron, Montagu defied his aristocratic upbringing by declaring himself a communist as a teen (and would in fact spy for the Kremlin during World War II).
While a student at Cambridge he codified the rules of the game, which had somewhat cloudy origins but enjoyed faddish popularity as an “after-dinner amusement” at the turn of the 20th century. Montagu later became the first president of the International Table Tennis Federation in 1926.
A born ideologue, the reasons that first drew him to the game “were political . . . I saw in Table Tennis a sport particularly suited to the lower paid . . . there could be little profit in it, no income to reward wide advertising . . . I plunged into the game as a crusade.”
This lack of profitability is probably why Ping-Pong never caught on in America over the decades. But in Asia, and especially China, we see how the game, with some skillful stoking by Montagu, became an obsession; Chairman Mao called it their “spiritual nuclear weapon.”
Griffin compellingly captures the glorious fervor that descended on the Chinese people when their team won gold in the 1961 World Table Tennis Championship. Later, during the nightmarish Cultural Revolution, those same heroes will be dragged in front of braying crowds by the Red Guard, under some mad Orwellian charge or another, and threatened with death.
Griffin loses the thread somewhat during long lessons on Chinese history, but he deploys enough apposite anecdotes to keep things interesting (such as the edict that all cars in China should stop on green and go on revolutionary red, or how the only table tennis balls fit for use were the ones that rolled straight out of the factory, rather than left or right in deviation from Mao’s wisdom).
The book builds slowly towards the famous Ping-Pong exchanges of 1971, when teams from China and the United States brought their paddles over to the other side of the Bamboo Curtain, helping engender the political climate necessary for Nixon’s visit in 1972. The political import here, at the height of the cold war, is massive, but Griffin tells human stories as deftly as he describes the machinations of international communism.
Most affecting is that of teenage Glen Cowan, the long-haired hippie on the US team photographed paling around with Chinese champion Zhuang Zedong. He briefly captured the attention of both nations with his idealism and far-out fashion sense, but ended up dying penniless and mentally ill in 2004.
For most Americans, Ping-Pong may have never have risen above an idle distraction in pool houses and rec rooms. We would do well to remember, though, that a silly game championed by a teenage communist played a large part in adding some much-needed warmth to the Cold War. Griffin’s book is a fitting treatment of the entire overlooked episode.
Nicholas Mancusi is a writer in New York. His criticism has appeared in many publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.