Above: Zhuang Zedong and Glenn Cowan with the gifts they exchanged.
NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD Glenn Cowan looked nothing like a diplomat when he unwittingly boarded a bus transporting the Chinese table tennis team in Nagoya, Japan, on this date in 1971. Competing for the U.S. at the table tennis world championships, Cowan had shoulder-length hair when most of his teammates and opponents favored buzz cuts, and capped off his hippie look with a wide-brimmed floppy hat. At the time, the U.S. and Communist China were Cold War enemies, resulting in a tense bus ride. “Our team had been advised not to speak to Americans, not to shake their hands, and not to exchange gifts with them,” Chinese champion Zhuang Zedong told CNN in 2008.
After ten minutes of strained silence, the twenty-eight-year-old Zhuang chose hospitality over Cold War policy and approached Cowan. Speaking through an interpreter, he presented the American with a silk-screen portrait of the Hanchow Mountains. One day later, Cowan gave Zhuang a red, white, and blue shirt with the words “Let It Be” written on it. A friendship was forged, and Chairman Mao, leader of the People’s Republic of China, approved. “Zhuang Zedong is not only good at ping-pong, he is good at
diplomacy too,” Mao remarked. He then ordered the Foreign Ministry to invite the American team to China.
The exchange of table tennis teams between China and the U.S., known as “ping pong diplomacy,” has been credited with thawing relations between the two nations. “Probably never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy,” wrote TIME magazine. Although Zhuang broke the ice, Cowan’s presence on that bus full of Chinese players also played a key role in the nations mending their differences.