Earlier this week a former world champion Ping-Pong player named Zhuang Zedong died in Beijing at the age of 72. Never heard of Zhuang Zedong? Don’t worry, most Americans probably haven’t.
But many Chinese consider Zhuang a hero for his role in reviving relations between the U.S. and communist China. (Others, meanwhile, remain critical of Zhuang for his close association with the communist dictator Mao Zedong.)
It started on April 4, 1971 at the World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, when Glenn Cowan, a 19-year-old American player, flagged down a bus to the main stadium. When he got on the bus, Cowan immediately realized he had made a mistake — it was filled with Chinese athletes.
At that time, China was in the midst of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and relations between China and the U.S. were tense.
After an awkward silence, writes Sports Illustrated, Zhuang, 31-years-old at the time and a three-time world singles champion, stood up and walked to Cowan with a smile. He gave the American a gift, a silk-screen portrait of the Huangshan Mountains that he happened to have on hand. With the help of interpreters, the two athletes had a short but friendly conversation.
When they stepped out of the bus, they were surrounded by curious Japanese journalists. The next day, Japanese newspapers ran a photo of the two men, Cowan with the brocade and Zhuang at his side.
In return, Cowan gave Zhuang a T-shirt with a peace symbol above the words “LET IT BE.”
“The exchanges with Cowan was really out of instinct,” Zhuang later recalled on his blog. “I think the history just gave me the chance.”
This unexpected episode helped thawed a 22-year frost in Sino-U.S. relations and became the prelude to the normalization of relations. In February 1972, then President Nixon visited China. In April of the same year, the Chinese and American teams toured the U.S. in a display of “Ping-Pong diplomacy.”
In April 1972, Zhuang led the Chinese table tennis team for its first-ever visit to the U.S.
“This Zhuang Zedong not only plays table tennis well, but is good at foreign affairs,” The New York Times once quoted Mao Zedong as saying.
Last Sunday, Zhuang, who was called “the hero in ‘Ping-Pong Diplomacy’” by Xinhua, China’s official press agency, and “the key figure in ‘Ping-Pong diplomacy’” by The Washington Post, died after a long battle with cancer.
The years after
Though Zhuang and Cowan never got another chance to see each other after the short exchange on the bus, the media and government in China and America always connected Zhuang and Cowan.
“Over the years, I have been deeply missing Mr. Cowan, who lives on the other side of the ocean,” Zhuang wrote in a blog post. “I hoped that one day I would be able to meet him again and we could continue writing the legend between us. However, it has now become an irreparable lifelong regret!”
In 2006, two years after Cowan’s death, his mother Fran Cowan visited China and met Zhuang. Zhuang took her on a tour of Beijing, calling her “my American mom.” One year later, Zhuang visited Cowan’s grave in Los Angeles.
China’s netizens and traditional media mourned Zhuang’s death after the news broke. Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, created a trending topic about Zhuang, which received nearly 350,000 comments.
Yang Lu, a commentator at Sina Sports, said on Weibo, “in China’s sports history, Zhuang is the only one that definitely can be called ‘unparalleled’. It is hard to imagine there could be someone like him who could not only reach the pinnacle of [athletic] competition, but also play a key catalytic role in major historical events as an athlete. The times produce their heroes. There is only one Zhuang Zedong.”
On the other hand, some Chinese thought the rest of Zhuang’s life had a tragic quality. Zhuang, who had befriended Mao’s wife, Qing Jiang, helped bring the mores of the Cultural Revolution to sports after his rise to fame. When Mao died in 1976 and China’s government repudiated his often-brutal reforms, Zhuang was imprisoned for four years. But in 1984 he was rehabilitated, becoming a Ping-Pong coach for talented Chinese children and returning to normal life.
One Weibo user commented: “Zhuang Zedong, a witness to history, has left us. His life got mixed reviews. Sometimes the line between black and white is not clear. However, we do not want the unscrupulous profiteers, shameless politicians and irresponsible insiders to create a fog of history in the form of deception.”
Cowan also suffered after the Ping-Pong détente. His mother, Fran, told Sports Illustrated that her son “had an addictive nature. He was addicted to Ping-Pong, he was addicted to drugs.”
According to the story, Cowan was diagnosed with mental health problems shortly after his return to the U.S. in 1971. He ended up impoverished and begged for money at Venice Beach in Los Angeles. “He’d be barefoot and borrow someone’s racket and still win,” one of Cowan’s former bosses at a head-hunting firm told Sports Illustrated. “Even when he was homeless, he always had a backpack with that Ping-Pong book he wrote.”