Players from both sides participate in a China-US Ping-Pong friendly match during a special event in Shanghai, China, April 10, 2021. [Photo/Xinhua]

Three Americans involved in “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” 50 years ago discussed the significance of the matches then and now while expressing optimism for US-China relations.

Judy Hoarfrost was 15 years old and had to ask her parents’ permission to travel to China when her American table tennis team was invited to visit in April 1971.

The Chinese players “were vastly superior to me”, she said. “They called the matches ‘friendship first, competition second’, and that’s what we experienced over and over again while we were in China. It was warming hospitality and an amazing experience,” she said at a webinar hosted by the National Committee on US-China Relations (NCUSCR) on Wednesday.

Hoarfrost’s memorable moments included visits to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and other significant cultural and historical sites, watching the ballet Detachment of Red Women, playing matches in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and winning three out of four matches.

But she said her most memorable occasion was meeting with then-premier Zhou Enlai at the Great Hall of the People.

“”Just the experience of looking at Zhou face-to-face. He looked straight at my eyes and shook hands. That photo was sent out by The Associated Press around the world, which I didn’t know until we left China eight days later,” Hoarfrost said.

She recalled that Zhou said the American team had opened a new page in the relations of Chinese and American people. “He said it right there, the significance of our trip to China,” she said.

Hoarfrost said the first Chinese song she heard when crossing the border bridge was East Is Red. “I ended up learning the lyrics of that song, and 25 years later I sang it at our 25th anniversary trip to China when we did karaoke, which surprised all the Chinese,” she said.

Doug Spelman, a retired foreign service officer and academic who served as an interpreter for the Chinese team, said he was struck by two aspects of the Chinese ping-pong players’ visit to the US.

“The meeting with (President Richard) Nixon in the Rose Garden was significant. It was made clear that the ping-pong players were heavy political messages,” Spelman said.

The other thing was the way the Chinese ping-pong players were welcomed in the United States.

“It occurred after many years of acrimony and confrontation between the two countries. I was struck by the big crowds at the exhibition matches that turned out, and how a few people in the streets were quoted by the Newspapers about how glad they were that the Chinese were here and hopefully this will bring peace between our two people. I think those two sides captured the meaning and significance of the trip,” Spelman said.

Jan Berris, vice-president of the NCUSCR who accompanied the Chinese ping-pong delegation on its travels in the US, said the hosting organization purposely set the ticket price for matches at a few dollars to allow Americans of all walks of life to participate.

Berris said that “friendship first, competition second” became the watchwords of the Chinese team during its trip to the US. Not only the American ping-pong players but also the many media people learned that phrase in Chinese. To embody that spirit, the more superior Chinese players allowed the American players to win some matches in turn.

On the American side, there was much warmth, said Berris. “I was surprised by how invariably the question all the players were asked was, ‘What has surprised you most about being in the United States?’ Invariably the answer was the hospitality and the warmth of the friendship of the American people.”

At first Berris thought it was a political and diplomatic answer. “But as the trip went on, not only in big cities like Detroit but also in rural areas, I myself would give the same answer. What surprised me most was how warm, hospitable and how curious the Americans were about the team and about China, and it was very heartwarming to see that.”

Agreeing with the others that Ping-Pong Diplomacy was a huge success, Berris said it humanized people to the other side and led to more cultural and sports exchanges.

Despite the current chill in the relationship, Berris and Hoarfrost said that sports exchanges are continuing between the two countries, with Americans running sports camps in China, and Chinese coming to the US to get trained at various camps.

“In sports and cultural exchanges, that’s really where human connection starts,” Hoarfrost said.

“When you look at relations on the Beijing-to-Washington level, they are pretty awful. But when you get down to the subnational level, we still see, despite the problems at the top, and granted it’s not at all rosy, but there is an interest in continuing to have engagement, especially among people of the same profession whether it’s sports, agriculture or whatever. There is a desire to share and to learn,” Berris said.