Wahoos Retracing ‘Pingpong Diplomacy,’ 52 Years Later

January 2, 2024 By Mandira Banerjee, mb2my@virginia.edu Mandira Banerjee, mb2my@virginia.edu

By the time you read this, University of Virginia student Jie Lu will be more than 7,000 miles from Grounds, reliving one of the most unlikely diplomatic breakthroughs in world history.

Lu, a fourth-year student in the McIntire School of Commerce, will join 11 other Wahoos retracing the steps of the 1971 U.S. table tennis team that became international news when one of its players boarded the wrong bus.

Back then, the U.S. team was playing in the world championships in Japan. A player, Glenn Cowan, had missed the shuttle to the arena so he hopped on another bus bound for the facility. It turned out to be the bus carrying the Chinese national team.

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At the time, the countries had no diplomatic relationship. And just two decades earlier, the U.S. and China were on opposite sides of the Korean War. But on the bus, Cowan and Chinese champion Zhuang Zedong struck up friendly conversation. When the bus parked at the arena, journalists and photographers pounced on the pair and news of the inconceivable acquaintances reached both Washington and Beijing.

China then invited the U.S. team for an exhibition tour of the country. The media sensation that followed eventually led to President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, the lifting of travel bans and the establishment of full diplomatic relations.

“It is very exciting that we are following the path of the American table tennis players and bridging two cultures of America and China,” said Lu, president of Club Table Tennis at UVA.

Group shot before abroad trip
Jie Lu, second from right, joins other UVA students at the Chinese Embassy in Washington in preparation for their trip abroad. (Contributed photo)

Lu and her fellow classmates are recreating that diplomatic trip, paddles in hand. For Lu, the trek will have additional meaning. She was born in China and raised in the United States. She’s been playing table tennis, China’s national sport, since she was 8, and even though she was born more than three decades after the international event, her family’s involvement in the sport meant she knew all about that fateful bus mix-up.

“It was how China and America kind of resolved their issues, through this diplomacy,” she said.

The 12-day trip is part of a UVA January Term course called “Game Change: Bridging the U.S.-China Divide Through Sport.” The course “will give our students their own shot at pingpong diplomacy and developing a better understanding of current issues between the United States and China,” UVA Vice Provost for Global Affairs Stephen Mull said. 

portrait of Lu

Lu, who was born in China but raised in the U.S., has been playing table tennis since she was 8. She’s president of Club Table Tennis at UVA. (Contributed photo)

Mull is teaching the course along with Justin O’Jack, director of the UVA China Office. The tour will include several destinations visited by the 1971 team, lectures, visits to cultural sites and friendly matches with Chinese university students.

To Lu, there is something about table tennis – or pingpong to occasional players – that lends itself to diplomacy. 

“A tennis court is super big, right? So, you can’t really yell across the court to talk in tennis,” Lu said. “While in table tennis, you’re probably just six feet away from each other. You can talk and play at the same time. It can be intense if you want it to be, or it can be a very casual sport as well.”

The traveling Wahoos will also meet UVA alumni and parents from China in events hosted by UVA clubs there.

“The UVA family in Greater China is eager to welcome our students and spend time with them,” O’Jack said. “Learning about the power of sports in diplomacy by participating in matches with some of the top Chinese universities is a unique opportunity for the students.”

The trip will begin in Hong Kong and end in Shanghai.

“Getting to meet students from China, talking to them, and getting to play table tennis with them is a chance of a lifetime,” Keane Tao, a first-year student in the School of Engineering, said. 

Action shot of ping pong game
At the Chinese Embassy, Lu, left, plays table tennis with a Chinese student. (Contributed photo)

“I hope to come back more open-minded from this trip,” said Emil Ivanov, a third-year student in the School of Engineering who moved to the U.S. from Bulgaria as a child. “I’m also looking forward to making new friends and playing some great table tennis.”

For Lu, she knows the trip is more than just a course credit.

“We are not just representing UVA, but also representing America,” she said. “It is a wonderful opportunity and we’re making history. Out of the whole country, we are probably the first university to have this kind of study-abroad program with China. And I hope other universities will take this kind of initiative to resolve any tensions not only with China, but also other countries as well.”

Media Contact

Mandira Banerjee

Global Affairs Communications Officer