Ping pong team's visit renews a special friendship
To rekindle Ping Pong Diplomacy and renew youth friendship between China and the United States, a group of 12 undergraduate students from the University of Virginia had a special table tennis game with their counterparts from two universities in Shanghai on Tuesday.
The students are on a 9-day trip in China, following in the footsteps of the first US table tennis team to visit the People's Republic of China. They embarked on their journey in Hong Kong, where the first US team landed in 1971, and went to Beijing, where they played ping pong with students from Tshinghua University and visited landmarks such as the Great Wall and the Palace Museum, before taking a high-speed train to their last stop – Shanghai – on Monday.
Stephen Mull, vice provost for global affairs at the UVA, said the university initiated bringing its students to China to play ping pong to help create a better atmosphere between the US and China.
"In recent years, the relationship between our two countries has had some tensions and some disagreements and I think back in diplomatic history when China and the United States did not have relations in the past. That changed when the American ping pong team came to China at the invitation of Chairman Mao back in 1971. That was a major event and that resulted over the next few years in establishing formal relations between our two countries. So if it worked 53 years ago to improve relations, I thought it would work again," he said.
"When two countries have disagreements, it's important to solve those disagreements by getting to understand each other better, and you can't understand each other better just by reading the newspaper or looking on the Internet. You have to go to the other country, and get to learn about how people see the world, what their life is like, what their dreams are, and what their expectations are. I think if we do a better job of our young people getting to know and understand each other, they'll do a much better job at managing the relationship between our two countries than we did.
"So far, we've been here for about a week and our students are having a magnificent time and are falling in love with China."
The competition took place at the International Table Tennis Federation Museum and China Table Tennis Museum in Shanghai in mixed doubles, with each UVA student paired with a student from Fudan University or the Shanghai University of Sport.
Margaux Reppert, a fourth-year student at the UVA double majoring in global public health and Chinese, and Liu Wanying from the Shanghai University of Sport were one of the pairs.
As Reppert has only been playing ping pong for a few months, Liu taught her a lot of tips.
"We had two very hard games today, but I have a great partner and she really helped a lot," said Reppert. "It's really fun to get taught throughout the game. We had an amazing time."
"We've talked a lot about ping pong at this time because we have a competition today," said Liu. "But we have WeChat and hopefully we will be able to have more talks on more topics in the future."
The event was witnessed by two special guests – Yao Zhenxu, a Chinese ping pong player who received the US ping pong team in 1971 in Shanghai, and UVA Professor Emeritus Bruce Reynolds, who greeted the Chinese ping pong team when they made a return visit to the US in 1972.
Yao, now honorary lifetime member of the ITTF and consultant of the ITTF Museum, said he played against Glenn Cowan in Shanghai in 1971.
Cowan occasionally got onboard the shuttle bus for the Chinese team during the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, and interacted with Chinese player Zhuang Zedong, which triggered Ping Pong Diplomacy.
"Though I won over him, he thanked me and said he enjoyed the game very much," said Yao. "We were unaware at that time that we were doing something of historical importance, but we were glad that ping pong had helped improved the relations between our two countries and played a lifelong influence on us. Now the torch has been passed on to the younger generation, and I hope they will make our countries better."
Reynolds was a graduate student of Alexander Eckstein, cofounder and then chairman of the National Committee on US-China Relations, which sponsored the Chinese ping pong team's visit to the US in 1972.
Eckstein, a professor focusing on Chinese economy at the University of Michigan, called on all his students to help with reception and Reynolds was one of those who were at the airport when the Chinese team landed in Detroit.
"I was there and when they got off the plane, I shook their hands. It's very exciting that I think I shook Zhuang Zedong's hand," said Reynolds.
"And then for their stay in Michigan, we went to dinner together and I helped them find their hotel rooms, just being helpful and talking as we were so excited, the other graduate students also so excited."
He said he had thought the Chinese athletes would be very formal and careful.
"But in fact they were warm and we were warm. It was so easy to be friends and talk. That was great."
He said the visit of the UVA ping pong team also had a strong symbolic function.
"These young people can go back to the US, talk to friends and family, tell them that China is just another ordinary country with which we should get along. And they can write to their government and write letters to the editors of the newspapers, and try to nudge, nudge and nudge.
"They will bring back their sweet memories and they will remind people that person-to-person relationships are important in building country-to-country relationship. I'm optimistic that this visit will really help us."