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GENTLE TIGERS OF THE TABLES
William Johnson
April 10, 1972
Spring came early to Ottawa as the Chinese Ping-Pong team, fulfilling a promise from Chou En-Lai, won laughing in Canada on the first leg of its journey through North America
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April 10, 1972

Gentle Tigers Of The Tables

Spring came early to Ottawa as the Chinese Ping-Pong team, fulfilling a promise from Chou En-Lai, won laughing in Canada on the first leg of its journey through North America

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The promise was made last spring in Peking: Premier Chou En-lai told his visitors that, yes, the peerless world champion Red Chinese table tennis team would visit North America when "the blossoms are in bloom." Last week Chou kept his promise. It was, however, a notably blossomless day in Canada, a chill and dripping March afternoon, when the Chinese team arrived at the airport in Montreal. For the first time, these mighty idols of the once forbidding Communist country were to set foot on North American soil. Here they came, a party 28 strong, filing out of an Air France 747 after 30 hours of flying from Peking, bound for a month-long tour that would send them across the wheat fields of Canada, from coast to coast in the U.S. and, finally, deep into the sunny countryside of Mexico.

What might one expect of heroes from Red China? A grim and scowling gang, led by a battering ram of security men? A gloomy crowd of automatons, polished to machinelike perfection for the greater good of Chairman Mao? But, no, it was nothing like that. They brought their own Chinese sunshine into the drab Canada afternoon.

Their dress—the egalitarian garb of the Chinese revolution—was drab, too, but despite the somberness of their fashion, they radiated warmth, charm and a kind of childlike curiosity as they debarked from the plane. There were no security men at all, only a few officials wearing benign smiles and some hard-scrambling cameramen. Male members of the team grinned and waved jauntily. At a rather low-key and disorganized airport reception, the most exalted he-rocs of the People's Republic of China contentedly sipped orange juice and nibbled homemade sugar cookies, while a friendly speech or two was reeled off. Then they flew to Ottawa for their first exhibition matches.

On the bus ride into town from the airport, the most celestial sports gods of all of 760 million people in Communist China threw back their heads at a signal from a young woman player with pigtails and burst into lusty song. It was a scene not at all unlike a crowd of kids riding home in the school bus after a winning basketball game, except that they were singing hymns of the revolution, praising the feats of Mao Tse-tung. As the bus pulled up to the hotel, the Chinese suddenly burst into laughter and, to the astonishment of their Canadian hosts, loosed a near-perfect rendition of Alouette, gentille alouette.

The arrival of the Chinese was met with almost total ennui by the Canadian population and press. No crowds greeted them and no major stories chronicled their first days in North America. Yet, in retrospect, it was actually a point of some wonderment that Chou's promise had been kept at all. For it was made during a strange and confusing period, in the bewildering days after Western trespassers had been welcomed to China for the first time in more than a generation. When Chou spoke last April, the only bridge across the chasm of fear and vituperation that had separated Red China and the West was a frail, even a foolish, sort of structure. The table tennis teams of Canada and the U.S., a remarkably unprepossessing bunch of emissaries, had been invited beyond the Chinese barricades after the world championships in Japan and it was during a reception for them in Peking that Chou first indicated the era of Ping-Pong diplomacy was upon us.

None of it seemed real then but it was, of course, and the President of the U.S. has since trod where only table tennis addicts had gone before, and the world will never be quite the same again.

The Chinese delegation is led by a pudgy, bright-eyed fellow named Chuang Tse-tung, a table tennis genius who held the world singles title from 1961 through 1967 (longer than any man) and is considered by the game's experts to be the best player ever to pick up a paddle. Chuang is also the most celebrated No. 1 hero of anyone in the People's Republic of China—except for Mao and Chou—for table tennis is a sport revered in China beyond any other. There are more than 3.2 million registered players there; the U.S. has no more than 2,800. Indeed, not since the game was invented 75 years ago and came to be known at various times as gossamer, pom-pom and whiff-whaff has it had such enormous popularity as in Red China. And because it requires no expensive facilities, it is widely considered to be the game of the masses around the world—a point which some cynics feel explains the reason that the Chinese have chosen to use this sport as a vehicle for diplomacy.

Chuang Tse-tung no longer plays except for exhibitions; he has come to be a sort of statesman-sportsman now, traveling widely. However, he was the mystery man of the table tennis world from 1966 to 1969, during the bizarre and bloody years of China's cultural revolution. In a fierce series of purges, Mao Tse-tung and the savage Red Guards tried to revitalize the nation's sense of purpose by eradicating thousands of people. All sports were suspended during this brutal period and Chuang Tse-tung was seen no more at international matches. Weird and mournful rumors began to build among table tennis buffs and at one point in 1969 the gossip was that Chuang had been a member of an anti-Mao group of ruffians called the Black Band and that he had been jailed, then released, only to be murdered—torn to bits by the Red Guards.

To see him now, murmuring niceties at teacup and cream-puff receptions and sightseeing trips in Ottawa, it is plain that Chuang was on the right side of any cultural revolution. Nevertheless, he insisted in adamant Chinese, translated by an interpreter, that sports heroics in the People's Republic profit no one but the people—certainly not the hero himself. "In China, we do not differentiate in the kind of work we do," he said. "Some is more inferior than other, but we all work to serve the people. Sports figures are treated like others. Generally, we train during our spare time from work. Always we are trying to elevate the level of sports in China so that the people will improve their health—this is conducive to socialism and to the national defense."

Whatever else the regimen in China may produce, it is definitely conducive to brilliant table tennis. Though they seemed cheery as children and friendly as good traveling salesmen, the Chinese brought ferocity to the game. John Hunnius, president of the Canadian Amateur Sports Federation, visited China early this year to make arrangements for the tour. "They play from their toes up," he said. "They condition themselves by doing things like long-distance jogging, swimming and gymnastics. We are all sissies compared to the way they play the game."

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