Larger than life, stranger than fiction, hard to believe: three-word phrases so overused that they’ve been rendered, well, null and void. Until I read about Ivor Montagu, a rich British Jewish Communist and sometimes zoologist who happened to be a Russian spy, a producer of Alfred Hitchcock films, brother to a World War II hero, and husband to a woman named Hell.
During his lifetime, Montagu (1904-1984) received the Lenin Peace Prize, formerly known as the even more oxymoronic International Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples, kudos from the Soviet Union (1922-1991). Though an unskilled player himself, Montagu was also the father of modern ping-pong, which he rechristened “table tennis.”
“He would use it to connect Communist countries to the West and to promote his political agenda,” writes Nicholas Griffin in Ping Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World (Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster; $26, excerpted here). “It would also be the perfect cover for an agent like Montagu to visit the centers of the Communist world.”
Table tennis is as intrinsically related to Mao Zedong as theis to Adolf Hitler.
While I miss my ignorance of the true ills of the game, Ping Pong Diplomacy is terrific from first line to last. Griffin has divided 52 slender chapters into four parts: The West, The East, East Meets West, and Aftermath. Montagu, despite being both a muse and a jackpot of eccentricities, is the protagonist through only part one. Eventually Griffin had to move on to people who were actually good at table tennis.
The decades-old term “Ping Pong Diplomacy” is synonymous with interactions between the United States and China from 1971-1972. A few crucial years in the lead-up were 1947, which saw resumption of the International Table Tennis Foundation (ITTF) World Championships after WWII, in which the United States participated; 1953, which marked China’s first time attending World Championships; 1959, when Rong Guotuan won the men’s singles title, making him the first Chinese world champion in any sport; and 1961, when China hosted the first World Championships and United States opted not to send a team.
The year of Guotuan’s victory, China accepted Montagu’s invitation to host the 1961 contest. However, the agricultural policies of Zedong’s nightmarish Great Leap Forward caused the Great Chinese Famine, which was in the process of killing between 15 million and 45 million individuals. Hence the title of another Ping Pong Diplomacy excerpt, this one published by The Daily Beast: “How to Hide a Famine with Ping-Pong.” With that dogged Tiger mentality that still fuels so much debate, China resolved to welcome international delegations and journalists, a chance to advertise prosperity in a detrimental reality. Organizers were semi-successful.
Hoping to halt trade restrictions put in place by the United States, following the 1971 World Championships in Japan, China asked the American team to break a taboo and visit the Middle Kingdom before departing Asia. The U.S. government acquiesced.
Three months later, after National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger returned from China, President Richard Nixon announced that he too would make the trip. In February 1972, he had an iconic photo-op with Zedong. Afterwards, Nixon wrote in his journal:
"Not only we but all the people of the world will have to make our best effort if we are going to match the enormous ability, drive and discipline of the Chinese people. Otherwise we will one day be confronted with the most formidable enemy that has ever existed in the history of the world."
China’s table tennis team journeyed to the United States in April 1972; it was uncomfortable for all, as the United States was still bombing the Chinese ally of Vietnam.
That plus much more make Ping Pong Diplomacy a very dark and often distressing read. Zedong’s regime brutally punished Chinese citizens as part of the Cultural Revolution and the Destruction of the Four Olds—once cherished customs, culture, habits and ideas. Former military leader He Long, a septuagenarian diabetic, “received glucose injections” instead of prescribed insulin.
The differences between the United States and China are heightened by Griffin’s ever-present lens of athletics. In the '60s and '70s, many Chinese table tennis matches were fixed, and the home team often missed easy points as a sign of respect to the visitors. Although the event is never mentioned, I spent much of the book thinking about the 1919 Chicago White Sox and the bribery scandal that earned eight players lifelong bans from baseball.
A 2012 article in The New Yorker began with a summation of everything I knew about the sport before reading Ping Pong Diplomacy: “Table tennis may be the only Olympic sport that’s been played concurrently in frat parties and nursing homes.” (Apparently there is some distinction between ping-pong and table tennis, but Griffin uses the terms interchangeably).
To me, ping pong is no longer the game of Forrest Gump or Chris Christie. I was impressed by the combination of research, interviews and storytelling in the chapters. Here’s a rare statement from this reviewer: I wish I’d had much more time to spend with the book.
Editor's Note: The parent company of the Scribner publishing organization is CBS, which is also the parent of the SmartPlanet Web site.
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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com