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China's Ping-pong Diplomat Zhuang Zedong
    2009-07-21 19:21:09     CRIENGLISH.com

Back in the 1960s, with three world table tennis championships and three team championships under his belt, Zhuang Zedong's name was bigger than Liu Xiang and Yao Ming are today. His encounter with American athlete Glenn Cowan in 1971 marked the beginning of the end of decades of hostility between China and the United States, which was acclaimed by the late chairman Mao Zedong as 'ping-pong diplomacy.' Next year, Zhuang Zedong will turn 70, and New China will celebrate its 60th founding anniversary this October. Having experienced the ups and downs of life along with his country, how will he describe the story of New China over the past 60 years?

Zhuang Zedong [Photo: news.yninfo.com]


For today's young people in China, the name 'Zhuang Zedong' may not ring a bell.

"No, never heard of the name."

"I've heard that name, but I can't recall who he is right now."

"Not sure, was he the first Chinese person to win a world championship?"

But there was a time, when he was even bigger than athlete Liu Xiang or basketball player Yao Ming are today.

"He was a well-known national table tennis player in the 1960s or 70s. He was a national hero and a young icon. When he had matches, everyone would wait beside the radio and track the proceedings and result."

"He started the renowned 'Ping-pong Diplomacy'. He exchanged gifts with an American athlete when China didn't really have a good relationship with the US. I heard that there was a time that he was coaching kids playing table tennis. I also heard that he suffered from cancer. Is that true?"

On a July morning in Beijing, Zhuang Zedong and his wife Sasaki Astuko received me in their home. It is located in a high-end community in the prosperous eastern part of Beijing.

In the early 1960's, Zhuang Zedong won three world table tennis championships for his country and three team championships. The good news cheered up the whole nation and made Zhuang the hero of his people.

In 1970s, when China and the United States tried to approach each other again after decades of hostility, Zhuang unwittingly gave a brocade scarf to American athlete Glenn Cowan. It was this first act of 'Ping-pong Diplomacy' which paved the way for President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972.

He was once the sports minister of China.

In black sportswear, Zhuang looks smart and high-spirited. He talks passionately and moves quite agilely. For me, he looks too young to be a 70 year old, and too healthy to be a patient sentenced to 'a bit more than a year' by a doctor, about one year ago.

He tells me he wanted to do more things after he learnt about his illness.

"I didn't choose to rest. I would rather use the time travelling, sharing my stories with more people. I give speeches, to officials or primary school students. And I update my blog as often as possible to share my encounters and thoughts on life."

The day before our interview, Zhuang has just put a new article on his blog, about his feelings about a trip to Jinggangshan, in east China's Jiangxi province. The place is known as the 'birthplace of the Chinese Red Army' and the 'cradle of the Chinese revolution'. In 1927, after the ruling Kuomintang party turned against the Communist Party of China, Mao Zedong led his 1,000 remaining men to this place, where they mapped their later successful return.

Zhuang Zedong says he chose to visit the very place just to 'educate' himself.

"I hear China's Olympic heroes today always express their gratitude to their coach or parents, after they won championships. They were not wrong. But look at the bigger picture. If it was not for New China, we won't be able to host the Olympics. Athletes of my generation were always grateful to our country. I visited Jinggangshan, because that's where new China set out from. Can you imagine in a place as desolate as that, our predecessors dared to dream of founding a brand-new China and actually made it. I was there to see, think and learn."

Born in 1940, Zhuang Zedong knew many of China's first generation state leaders. It was easy to detect his admiration of late Chairman Mao Zedong or general Zhu De. He quotes their words from time to time and many of these words have become his life-long mottos.

"I'm absolutely lucky to have grown with my country. There were ups and downs for the country, and I myself experienced exactly the same. If it was not the times and the country, I couldn't be who I am and have achieved what I have. Now, the whole country is thriving, and I'm also seeking to contribute my talent more. One of the most rewarding parts of my life is coaching little kids to play Ping-pong."

Too short for basketball and too slight for soccer, Zhuang was built for table tennis. He started to play table tennis when he was very little. He became a part of the Beijing table tennis team at the age of 17. Not until 1960, had he established himself as the best player in China.

He says playing table tennis is an art that requires innovation.

"I founded my own playing style, namely 'the short court dual offensive'. I always believe that there is a better way to play more aggressively. There were very few players who used the style. But today, it's widely adopted by Ping-pong players all around the world."

Zhuang Zedong is obviously proud of the 'dual offensive' playing style which he founded himself. He says it is especially the case as it was a powerful weapon to win, at a time when the whole nation was waiting behind him for good news.

"At that time, new China had only been founded some ten years before. That was a hard era. In the international sports arena, China only had Ping-pong to rely on. People looked to me and my team for good news. If I won, the whole country won. If I lost, China lost. For me, the great pressure turned into powerful momentum for me to win. "

Zhuang Zedong didn't let his people down. As history recorded, he won world champions in 1961, 1963 and 1965.

According to Zhuang, the bravery and pioneering spirit also led him to contribute to the Ping-pong diplomacy in April 1971, when American player Glenn Cowan missed his own transport and was offered a lift on China's bus. By then, China and the United States had already suffered a 22 year long mutual hostility.

"10 minutes passed, but nobody dared pay any attention to him. But I thought he was only an athlete, he was not a politician. I should go and greet him. "

As the story went, Zhuang pulled a brocade scarf from his bag, as a gift to Cowan, and spoke to him through a translator. Pictures of the pleasant meeting were all over newspapers the next day and the news quickly got back to Chairman Mao in Beijing.

Later, China invited the American team to China, the first delegation from the United States to visit, ever since the founding of new China in 1949. In 1979, President Nixon visited China and relations between the two countries were normalized.

"As Kissinger put it, Ping Pong diplomacy was the first step of the march towards good relations between the two countries. It was nice because my encounter with Cowan was natural and sincere. It was accidental, but as well inevitable, because it's the general trend that China and United States would re-join hands. I was just lucky to have taken part in that historic moment."

For Zhuang Zedong, Ping-pang diplomacy is the pride of his life. But talking about the lost days during the Cultural Revolution, he never shuns away either.

"To protect myself, I made mistakes during the Cultural Revolution. I treated some people unfairly. I never deny that. I'm grateful that people gave me their understanding and compassion. That's why though I was later removed from my position of the sports minister and put into a four year detention, I never blamed life. I used my time reading and practicing calligraphy. Calligraphy is not only about handwriting, it's more about cultivating your mind."

Today, a treadmill, which is placed in a corner of the sitting room where we had the interview, is all over covered with Zhuang's calligraphy works. He says, when he is not occupied with social activities, he would get up around five in the morning, to practice calligraphy. He also tries to do some reading or take some exercise. He still sings Peking Opera, a hobby he has developed since his youth.

He tells me that he is now working on a memoir about his life and the past 60 years of his country, which is hopefully be published next year.

"I want history to remember me as an athlete, not a minister, not anything else. My career was always about playing table tennis: How can I play it better? How to adjust myself to win? And how should I explain these in my books to more Ping-pong players? Ping-pong has always been my life-long love. "

"I'm so proud to see cities thriving all across China and that the young generation is breaking new ground. I have every reason to believe China has a great future."




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