Zhuang Zedong, a triple world champion table tennis star who played a crucial role in thawing relations between China and the USA has died at the age of 73, the Chinese press reported on Sunday.
His gift of a painting of the Huangshang Mountains to American player Glen Cowan in 1971 led to a US tour of China later that year, and preceded the historic visit of president Richard Nixon to the communist country in 1972.
It led to the coining of the phrase ‘ping pong diplomacy’.
Cowan’s unplanned role in the thawing of relations occurred when he was given a ride on the Chinese team’s bus after missing his lift while competing in Nagoya, Japan, which led to China inviting the US team and Nixon becoming the first American leader to visit the country.
That breakthrough led to improved relations between the two countries which had been on ice since 1949 and eventually led to normal relations being resumed in 1979.
Zhuang became a hero in the table-tennis mad country as millions tuned into his matches on radio and his triumphs at the 1961, 1963 and 1965 world championships, where his innovative penholders style and daring offensive backhand strokes took him to the peak of the game.
Zhuang – who was also subsequently to lead a Chinese table tennis delegation to the United States – reportedly ignored criticism from teammates who advised him not to approach the Americans.
He took the unprecedented step of presenting Cowan with the painting.
“Although the US government is unfriendly to China, the American people are friends of the Chinese. I give you this to mark the friendship from Chinese people to the American people.”
The event caught the attention of Chinese leader Mao Zedong who swiftly offered an invitation to the Americans.
“Zhuang Zedong not only knows good ping-pong, he knows good diplomacy too,” were Mao’s reported remarks.
The twice-married Zhuang was later jailed after Mao’s death and the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976 before being released and going on to coach table tennis in the provinces.