"Ping-pong diplomacy" and China-US relations: Judy Hoarfrost recalls history

China Plus Published: 2020-01-01 09:26:31
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In 1971, a group of US ping-pong players visited China during a time when almost zero contact existed between the US and Chinese governments.

The picture shows the cover of Time magazine published in April 1971 which featured US ping-pong delegation visiting the Great Wall. [Photo provided by Judy Hoarfrost]

The picture shows the cover of Time magazine published in April 1971 which featured US ping-pong delegation visiting the Great Wall. [Photo provided by Judy Hoarfrost]

The visit, which became known as "Ping-pong diplomacy," is credited with having helped to break the ice between the two countries, laying the foundation for the establishment of formal diplomatic ties.

As 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of bilateral relations, our US correspondent Liu Kun spoke to Judy Hoarfrost, the youngest player on the US ping-pong team that visited China in 1971, about the historic visit and her thoughts on China-US relations.

The picture shows the coverage on US ping-pong delegation visiting the Great Wall by Life magazine published in April 1971. [Photo provided by Judy Hoarfrost]

The picture shows the coverage on US ping-pong delegation visiting the Great Wall by Life magazine published in April 1971. [Photo provided by Judy Hoarfrost]

About half-an-hour drive to the southwest from downtown Portland, Oregon, and through highways surrounded by forests, there is the ping-pong club called "Paddle Palace". The owner of the club is Judy Hoarfrost, the youngest player on the US ping-pong team that made the visit to China in 1971.

63-year-old Hoarfrost is tall and seems always swift in action. Remembering the whirlwind-like 8-day trip in China, she explains how it impacted her life.

Judy Hoarfrost was interviewed by US media at the airport upon returning to the US from visiting China. [Photo provided by Judy Hoarfrost]

Judy Hoarfrost was interviewed by US media at the airport upon returning to the US from visiting China. [Photo provided by Judy Hoarfrost]

"Definitely it's been one of the defining themes of my life. Having been on this team that went to China for ping-pong diplomacy, it's never gone away. People are always interested in it. For a long time, it's just 'oh you are the girl that went to China'. Everyone knew about it and even today I still get that a lot."

After the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, the US ping-pong team became the first US delegation to visit China since the founding of the People's Republic of China. In July the same year, Henry Kissinger, then National Security adviser to US President Richard Nixon, made a secret trip to China, paving the way for Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972.

Judy Hoarfrost in her ping-pong club “Paddle Palace”. [Photo: China Plus/Liu Kun]

Judy Hoarfrost in her ping-pong club “Paddle Palace”. [Photo: China Plus/Liu Kun]

It's widely considered that "ping-pong diplomacy" opened a brand new chapter and laid the foundation for establishing a formal diplomatic relationship in 1979. "Ping-pong diplomacy" has since maintained a special place in China-US relations.

Hoarfrost recalls how people dressed in China at the time and the Chinese's warm reception.

"I just felt I was entering a movie. Everything was just really different from my previous experience. To my eyes, it looked like everybody wore the same thing and everybody clapped at the same time. Everybody was always very kind, respectful, friendly and nice, and answered our questions. (The Chinese) players were really good players. Well I know they are better players than we are. I in fact won three matches out of four when I was in China, but not because I was a better player. They said over and over again in China 'friendship first, competition second'. So it was always in the spirit of 'friendship first, competition second'."

Judy Hoarfrost in her office. [Photo: China Plus/Liu Kun]

Judy Hoarfrost in her office. [Photo: China Plus/Liu Kun]

Being part of "ping-pong diplomacy' forever influenced Hoarfrost's life. After graduating from Stanford University, she briefly worked in education and eventually took over "Paddle Place", a business established by her father. She says she's proud to have become a "ping-pong diplomat".

"It captured everybody's imagination because it was a concept of just a sporting team, just a ping-pong team, people to people, bridging the gap where the governments had been not able to have diplomatic relations. And also, I think that US and China would've come together no matter what, whether it was ping-pong, whether it was some other sport. I really believed it would've happened with or without me, with or without table tennis. But I feel really proud that it was our sport that helped, that I got to be part of it."

During the past few decades, Hoarfrost visited China again for several times.

"I've always felt like that China was very special to me, because it was such a special time in my life that I learned so much. My eyes were opened to more things that are happening in the world than in my little world. I am a big celebrity, too, to a lot of people who know about the history of ping-pong. I do feel a connection with China, having been there then, and kind of checking in 25 years later but then every 5 or 10 years since then. And I know so many Chinese people from table tennis."

Judy Hoarfrost plays ping-pong in “Paddle Palace”. [Photo: China Plus/Liu Kun]

Judy Hoarfrost plays ping-pong in “Paddle Palace”. [Photo: China Plus/Liu Kun]

2019 marks a special year for China-US diplomatic relations. Talking about the challenges ahead, Hoarfrost says:

"It's very important for people to understand how interconnected we are. Our economy, the people who live here…we have so many connections with China. It's really important that China and the United States have good relations. There's just too much at stake in the world. With world peace, with the environment, with nuclear capability… with all the issues we have in the world we have to work together. China is a very important country in the world as is United States. We have to work together."

Observing China's rapid development over time, Hoarfrost adds that the days of bicycles all over the streets and people dressing similar clothing are long in the past and China is now a society of diversity, openness and progress.


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