Nicholas Griffin’s Ping-Pong Diplomacy makes the case that table tennis did more for China-US relations than Kissinger ever could.
I could never wrap my mind around the appeal of table tennis. To me, it’s the Arby’s of recreational activities. If you’re playing table tennis, I assume that there is nothing else available. In basements and rec rooms across America, it’s the last bastion for bored teenagers. Yet in Nicholas Griffin’s book, Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World, he argues that the game’s inception had much loftier goals. As the book states, many viewed the simple game of table tennis as “the perfect instrument for communist propaganda.”
Yes, lofty goals indeed.
The term “ping-pong diplomacy” comes from the famous meeting that happened back in the early 1970’s between the US and Chinese table tennis teams. With each team visiting their rival’s country, it marked a thawing between US-China relations which many say was the catalysis for President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China back in 1972.
Even though the book is named after this historic cultural exchange, Ping-Pong Diplomacy is less about the thawing of US-China relations and more about how that came to be. Whether it’s the story of how Ivor Montagu (British nobleman, film connoisseur, Russian spy, and general international man of mystery) introduced table tennis to communist states or how Asian countries like Japan and China used the game to showcase their country’s Post-World War II resurgence, Griffin uses these various stories and events as pieces of a larger puzzle to show how table tennis was used as a tool for international diplomacy back in the Cold War.
Nothing showcases that fact more than his account of that faithful meeting between Glenn Cowen, the habitual pot smoking hippie of the amateurish US team, and Zhuang Zedong, three time world champion for the People’s Republic of China, in the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships. Griffin’s description of this meeting is less of a biographical one and more akin to a 1960’s spy novel, with Zedong masterfully manufacturing an “authentic” moment between the two individuals. During pivotal points, Griffin does use a fair amount of hyperbole in describing these events. But to be fair, the areas when this does surface are used to drive home the book’s overall thesis. That if it weren’t for the proliferation of table tennis, the world would be a very different place.
To Griffin, the story of “Nixon to China” itself is less interesting, than of how it all came to head. More than two-thirds of the book is spent in various areas, meeting a litany of individuals and detailing countless events. Using all of those elements, Griffin presents a serendipitous framework for “ping-pong diplomacy” to flourish. While this does create an interesting historical narrative leading up to “Nixon to China”, I can see how this could leave a sour taste in people’s mouths. Asking people to believe that “ping-pong diplomacy” helped bring down the Soviet Union can come off as a bit obtuse.
With that said, I don’t know if Montagu bringing table tennis to communist countries was the initial domino that lead to the thawing between US and China, but the idea of table tennis being an allegory for US-China relations in the early 1970’s is one that works fairly well within the book’s confines. Much like how many historians use the Space Race as a backdrop for the US and Soviet Union’s competition for technological supremacy, Griffin framing table tennis as the backdrop for bringing US and China together is an equally convincing one. Even if at times he overreaches on that basic truth.
Reviewer’s Take: Ping-Pong Diplomacy acts as a good primer for someone who wants to understand the bigger picture that surrounded the US-China dynamic in the 1970’s. If you are looking for a book that gets into the nitty-gritty between US and China, this is not that book. But if you want to better understand the players involved in making “Nixon to China” a reality, with table tennis as an elaborate backdrop, then you can do no better.