The 1971 World Championships, staged in the Japanese city of Nagoya, marked the return of China to the tournament after a six year absence owing to the Cultural Revolution.
Prior to play starting, Glenn Cowan, a member of the United States team had been practising with Liang Geliang, a member of the Chinese national team and one of the most versatile players that ever lived, the local official wanted to close the premises. Cowan boarded the bus carrying the Chinese team.
Most looked at the American with great suspicion; however, Zhuang Zedong, who had won the men’s singles title at the World Championships on three consecutive occasions commencing in 1961 in Beijing, shook hands with Cowan.
Speaking through an interpreter, he handed Cowan a silk-screen portrait of the Huangshan Mountains, a famous product from Hangzhou.
Cowan wanted to give something back, but all he could find from his bag was a comb.
“I can’t give you a comb. I wish I could give you something, but I can’t.” Glenn Cowan
The political climate in the 1960s was such the sight of Chinese and United States athletes together was headline news. Journalists were present in numbers when the bus arrived at the hotel.
It was also the era of wearing flowers in the hair, one of peace and understanding, the Hippie culture of which Cowan was a self-confessed member, at its height.
Eager to return the complement, the following day, Cowan presented Zhuang Zedong with a red, white and blue training shirt on which the words were written “Let It Be,” lyrics from a song by the Beatles.
During a television interview in 2002, Zhuang Zedong related the events.
“The trip on the bus took 15 minutes and I hesitated for 10 minutes. I grew up with the slogan “Down with American imperialism!” During the Cultural Revolution, the string of class struggle was tightened unprecedentedly, and I was asking myself, Is it okay to have anything to do with your number one enemy?” Zhuang Zedong.
Following the sensational news, Mao Zedong, Chair of the Communist Party of China, decided to invite the United States table tennis team to Beijing.
On Saturday 10th April 1971, nine American players, four officials alongside two wives crossed the bridge from Hong Kong to the China, they remained in the country’s capital city from Sunday 11th to Sunday 17th April. They played exhibition matches, visited the Great Wall and attended the ballet.
The event marked a thaw in Sino-American relations and paved the way for Richard Nixon, the President of the United States, to officially visit China in 1972; table tennis opened the door.
Cowan died in 2004. He had been in hospital for psychiatric treatment, he underwent a bypass surgery, during the surgery he went into a coma and died of a heart attack.
Zhuang Zedong called from Beijing to express his sympathy, and in 2007 visited the United States where he met Cowan’s mother. He recounted that never seeing Cowan again the greatest “regret of my life”.