In the movie "Forrest Gump," the main character is a man with an IQ of 70 or so who manages to be involved with almost every major political event in the US during the 1950's, 60's and 70's. Gump is wounded in Viet Nam and takes up ping pong while he is recuperating. He becomes so good at it that he puts on traveling ping pong exhibitions and is eventually invited to Red China to perform. As with other events in the movie, this is based on an actual event.

The U.S. Table Tennis team was in Nagoya, Japan on April 6, 1971 for the 31st World Table Tennis Championship when they received an invitation to visit China. The US had broken-off relations with Red China in 1949 when the Communists came to power, and there had been little interaction between the two countries for over two decades. The ping pong invitation from the Chinese would lead one year later, in 1972, to then President Richard Nixon visiting China and reopening relations between the two countries.

The events leading up to the invitation of the U.S. Table Tennis visit to China are characterized as "Ping Pong Diplomacy."

One afternoon, Glenn Cowan, a member of the U.S. Table Tennis team, missed his team bus after his practice in Nagoya. Cowan had been practicing for 15 minutes with the Chinese player, Liang Geliang, when a Japanese official came and wanted to close the training area. As Cowan looked in vain for his team bus, a Chinese player, Zhuang Zedong, waved to him to get on his Chinese team bus. During Cowan's casual conversation through an interpreter with the Chinese players, Zhuang Zedong came up from his back seat to greet him and presented him with a silk-screen portrait of Huangshan Mountains, a famous product from Hangzhou. Cowan wanted to give something back, but all he could find from his bag was a comb. The American hesitantly replied, "I can't give you a comb. I wish I could give you something, but I can't." When it was time for them to get off the bus, hordes of photographers and journalists were waiting for them.

When a journalist asked Cowan, "Mr. Cowan, would you like to visit China?", he answered, "Well, I'd like to see any country I haven't seen before--Argentina, Australia, China, ... Any country I haven't seen before." "But what about China in particular? Would you like to go there?" "Of course," said Glenn Cowan.

When the Chinese Department of Foreign Affairs received a report that the U.S. Table Tennis Team hoped to get invited to visit China, as usual, the Department declined. Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong initially agreed with the decision, but when Mao Zedong saw the news in Dacankao, a newspaper accessible only to high-ranking government officials, he decided to invite the U.S. Table Tennis Team. It was reported that Mao Zedong said, "This Zhuang Zedong not only plays table tennis well, but is good at foreign affairs, and he has a mind for politics." On April 10, 1971, nine American players, four officials, and two spouses stepped across a bridge from Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland and then spent their time from April 11–17 playing fun ping pong matches.

I was in Santa Monica College in 1971 on the G.I. bill. Glenn Cowan was also a student at Santa Monica College in 1971 and I was in some classes with him, although I did not know him very well. Cowan was a tall, lanky, long-hair who liked his recreational drugs. He looked more like a dufuss than a professional sportsman. In 1971, nobody in the U.S. knew anything about professional ping pong and even less about Red China, which was just an obscure enigma to most people at that time.

Glen Cowan died April 6, 2004, 33 years to the day from the event that led to the reopening of Red China. He had been hospitalized for psychiatric treatment and underwent a bypass surgery. During the surgery, he went into a coma and died of a heart attack.

More like this:


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!