In this 1961 photo from China's Xinhua News Agency, Zhuang Zedong, right, competes in the men's team finals of the 26th World Table Tennis Championship in Beijing. (Zhang Hesong/AP)

The date: April 5, 1971. The setting: the world table tennis championships in Nagoya, Japan. A young American player, Glenn Cowan, needs a ride. The Chinese say Cowan accidentally “stumbled up the steps” of their bus. Cowan gave a different version: “I was invited actually to board the Chinese bus with the team, which shocked me of course.”

In his book, “Ping-Pong Diplomacy,” Nicholas Griffin writes that China’s greatest table tennis player, Zhuang Zedong, got up, walked forward, shook Cowan’s hand and gave him a lavish gift, a silk-screen picture of a Chinese mountain scene. “Even now,” Zhuang recalled 35 years later, “I can’t forget the naive smile on [Cowen’s] face.”

But there was nothing naive about Zhuang’s gesture. It was a direct result of a determined campaign by China’s top leaders to deploy Ping-Pong as the “perfect instrument of Communist propaganda.” Cowan, concludes Griffin, “was more like a mark in a con game than an accidental diplomat.” Still, the impact of that “con game” was very real. The American team was then invited to tour China, producing “the biggest story of the year.” Chinese premier Zhou Enlai “played another subtle card,” granting visas to foreign journalists and guaranteeing breathless coverage.

So the whole world heard Zhou tell the team that they had “opened a new page in the relations of the Chinese and American people.” Two of the most ardent listeners were President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, who had good reasons of their own to grasp the hand Zhou was offering. The president desperately wanted to end the war in Vietnam, and Russian leaders were refusing to play peacemaker. “China was the only other player with influence in Hanoi,” Griffin writes. “Nixon would be standing for re-election in 1972. Vietnam and a declining relationship with Russia had ground down Johnson’s presidency, but an olive branch to China could turn the world on its head.”

Three months later, Kissinger secretly visited Beijing. In February 1972 Nixon made his own journey and created a new metaphor for a leader who departs from his past, defies old allies and embraces an idea he once criticized.

"Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World" by Nicholas Griffin Scribner. (Simon & Schuster)

Today many people use the phrase “Nixon to China” without fully understanding its origins. Griffin, a British-born journalist and novelist, fills in those blanks with an absorbing tale that really begins decades before Cowan boarded that bus. One key figure was a British banker named Ivor Montagu, a devoted communist who codified the rules of Ping-Pong in the 1920s and created the International Table Tennis Federation. He was “convinced that the sport could spread communism throughout the word,” because the toiling masses could play it during the workday. Griffin points out that the “balls were so light they flew best in windowless rooms,” making Ping-Pong a sport that could be played without ever leaving the factory.

The game was brought to Japan in 1902 by a university student who had learned to play in England. It eventually spread to China, where revolutionary leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai would often play against each other during their long years of political exile.

After the communists seized power in 1949, Montagu decided that table tennis could help reconnect China to the rest of the world. In 1951, 20 years before Beijing claimed China’s seat at the United Nations, Montagu invited the communist regime to join his international federation and enter the world championships. His strategy, Griffin writes, was that this simple and “faintly ridiculous” sport could provide a “human face to give Beijing the appearance of warmth no matter how cold or calculating the Chinese government intended to be.” After a Chinese player won the world championship in 1959, Mao congratulated him personally and called Ping-Pong China’s new “spiritual nuclear weapon.” Twelve years later, Cowan walked right into that weapon’s field of fire.

At its best, this book is full of fast-paced narratives and well-crafted characters. Cowan, for example, was a shaggy-haired hippie-type who once told a news conference, “I think I could mediate between Zhou En-lai and Nixon quite easily.” What he couldn’t do was handle fame. A book and a TV pilot flamed out. Drugs and depression flared up. When he died in 2004, a friend said, “After China everything seemed to be useless.”

As an analyst, however, Griffin can fall short. Oddly, he doesn’t really explain table tennis — how it’s played, what makes a top competitor, why Asians dominate the sport. (China won all four gold medals at the 2012 Olympics, and every member of the U.S. women’s team had Chinese origins.) And while his book is subtitled “the game that changed the world,” Griffin doesn’t explore what that change means today. He does, however, quote a prescient diary entry Nixon jotted down during his second night in China. If we don’t “make our best effort,” the president wrote, “we will one day be confronted with the most formidable enemy that has ever existed in the history of the world.”

All true. But kids in China today don’t swat Ping-Pong balls — they shoot hoops. They don’t wear Red Guard scarves but Houston Rockets jerseys. They don’t glorify Mao Zedong the revolutionary but Yao Ming the basketball player. Table tennis is now a “living fossil,” a sport “your dad plays.” So who’s winning after all?

Steven V. Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University and is writing a book about immigrant athletes.


The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World

By Nicholas Griffin

Scribner. 336 pp. $26