Zhuang's perfect stroke

Zhuang's perfect stroke

Champion paddler played a key role in establishing China-US diplomatic ties

In 1971, at the World table tennis championships in Japan, a US player mistakenly boarded a bus carrying the Chinese team. The team had been told not to talk to Westerners, and an awkward silence descended. Ten minutes elapsed. Then the best player in China stood, greeted the American and offered him a gift, a scarf.

An interpreter asked the American Glenn Cowan, if he knew the man’s identity. “Yes, the world champion, Zhuang Zedong,” Cowan replied. “And I hope your team does well.”
At the time, the Chinese leader Mao Zedong had been looking to improve relations with the United States, though the countries were on opposing sides in the Vietnam War and had been fierce adversaries since the Communist takeover of China in 1949. Both nations were eager to find a geopolitical counterweight to the Soviet Union, and a rapprochement, the thinking went, might provide that.

Writing about the two players, Sports Illustrated told of a report in which Mao, lying in bed looking at press photographs of the encounter between Cowan and Zhuang, exclaimed, “My Lord, Zhuang!”

Mao promptly invited the US team to visit China after the world tournament — a signal to Washington of Beijing’s openness to a thaw in US-Chinese relations. Ten months later President Richard M Nixon made his historic visit to China, and by 1979 the two countries had established diplomatic ties.

For Zhuang, who died last week in Beijing at 72, the encounter on the bus was a more benign moment in a life buffeted by the gales of modern Chinese history. During the Cultural Revolution — the violent mass movement Mao started in 1966 to purge China of any taint of capitalism — he was denounced as having put too much emphasis on winning and disappeared from public view. But he regained his stature by cultivating a friendship with Mao’s wife and was appointed sports minister and a member of the ruling Central Committee. When Mao’s wife fell from favour, however, his fortunes crumbled again. He was assigned to sweep streets in a spirit of “self-criticism,” and he attempted suicide.

Later, restored once more to good standing in Chinese society, he became a table tennis coach and pursued a passion for calligraphy.

In China, table tennis was more than a game. In the early 1950s, Mao had decreed it the national sport, in part because it was a low-cost game peasants could play. Moreover, the International Table Tennis Federation became one of the few governing bodies in sports to recognise the People’s Republic, rather than the Republic of China on Taiwan, as its Chinese member nation.

Zhuang had become a national hero by winning three world championships — in 1961, 1963 and 1965. “It was amazing,” he said of his first crown. “We needed a spiritual nuclear weapon, and I was like a newborn tiger, afraid of nothing. Mao Zedong watched my matches on television. Later they told me he kept saying, ‘Please win, Mr Zhuang.”’
Zhuang said it was impossible to separate table tennis from politics and history, a point Mao made even more emphatically.
“Regard a Ping-Pong ball as the head of your capitalist enemy,” the chairman was quoted as saying. “Hit it with your socialist bat, and you have won the point for the fatherland.”
Xinhua, the official Chinese press agency, announced Zhuang’s death, saying the cause was rectal cancer.
Zhuang Zedong was born in Yangzhou on August 25, 1940, and joined the Chinese national table tennis team as a teenager. He developed a much-imitated technique for hitting a strong backhand to accompany his powerful forehand. Dick Miles, a 10-time US champion, called the technique “the most perfectly executed stroke in the game.”

In the 1960s, Zhuang and Li Furong, also Chinese, dominated the international game.
But table tennis was banned as bourgeois during the Cultural Revolution. Several top players killed themselves, and many feared that Zhuang, who had dropped out of sight, was dead. But he surfaced in 1971 for an exhibition match, and then led his team to the world championship in Japan. Mao seemed to give Zhuang at least some credit for the diplomatic breakthrough.

“This Zhuang Zedong not only plays table tennis well, but is good at foreign affairs,” The ‘New York Times’ once quoted him as saying.

When Zhuang became a favourite of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, there were rumors of an affair. He denied the gossip, characterising the relationship as motherly. Under Jiang’s tutelage, he rose to sports minister and a member of the Central Committee in 1975. He organised mass meetings at which denunciations, beatings and self-criticism were common. “I did many dreadful things that I now regret,” he said in 2007.

After Mao died in 1976 and Jiang and her allies, collectively called the Gang of Four, fell from power, he found himself under house arrest for two-and-a-half years. He then spent five years in internal exile in Shanxi province before returning to Beijing.  His first marriage, to Bao Huiqiao, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Sasaki Atsuko, and a daughter.

When he presented Cowan with the scarf, Zhuang once said, politics was the last thing on his mind. “I only know how to play Ping-Pong, how to hit the ball from this side of the table to the other,” he said. “Sometimes the ball drops. Sometimes it goes out of bounds.”

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