The air in Beijing was so thick with pollution that John Tannehill could barely breathe. The citizens all appeared to be suffering from bronchitis. Just crossing the street was a life-threatening endeavor. The city was monstrous, different than he remembered.
He ate dinner with a man he’d played table tennis against in Shanghai four decades earlier, in 1971. They were young then,competing in a sport they loved, and taking part in a ping pong tour of China with political implications beyond anything they fathomed. His former opponent had aged to the extent that Tannehill didn’t even recognize him anymore.The world around them had changed so much in 40 years.
China wasn’t always the imposing economic and political force it is today, though the massive country has always inhabited a curious place in the minds of Americans. As David Halberstam reported in his book The Coldest Winter, in the first half of the 20th century, millions of U.S. citizens believed that China was filled with hardworking peasants who longed to be more like Americans. Halberstam quotes Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska: “With God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up until it is just like Kansas City.”
This belief was fueled by the popularity of U.S. missionary visits starting in the 1830s, and it was sponsored by powerful, politically connected men like Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated. Luce was born to missionary parents in China, and after returning there as an adult and meeting its wealthiest family, the Soongs, he vowed to help transform the country from its “cruel, heathen past” into a sophisticated, Christian, capitalist nation, according to Halberstam. His media empire allowed him to become the foremost promoter of the notion that China sought to become America.
But this perception wasn’t reality. The real China, Halberstam wrote, was a feudal, fragmented country of unimaginable poverty governed by a weak, corrupt national administration and run by brutal regional warlords. Until 1949, the nation was led by Chiang Kai-shek, whose wife Mayling was a Wellesley-educated Christian and the youngest Soong daughter. In 1932, the couple sold Luce on the myth of an American China that never actually existed.
Even with significant support from the U.S., Chiang and his Nationalist army were defeated in 1949 by Mao Zedong (aka Mao Tse-tung) and the Chinese Communist Party after a two-decade civil war. The U.S.-backed government was exiled to Taiwan, and Mao established the People’s Republic of China, a communist state and ally of the Soviet Union. The U.S. didn’t officially recognize Red China, and not long after, no Americans remained.
Three years after Mao came to power, John Tannehill was born in the tiny town of Middleport on the Ohio River. His fascination with table tennis began when his brother bought a ping pong table, and fueled by sibling rivalry, Tannehill learned the game. By the time he was 16 or 17, he was good enough to pursue the sport competitively, and he moved 100 miles to Columbus to practice under Dal-joon Lee, a South Korean immigrant and the best player in the U.S.
Tannehill played at the Columbus Table Tennis Club, a local nonprofit dedicated to the sport since the 1940s that now operates on Olentangy River Road. Soon he was second in the nation only to Lee.
As a member of the U.S. national team at age 18, Tannehill traveled to Nagoya, Japan, for the World Table Tennis Championships. During the course of the team’s stay, an American player named Glenn Cowan became friends with three-time world champion Zhuang Zedong of China. According to “Ping Pong Diplomacy Revisited” in The New York Times, Chinese officials had already been using back-channel negotiations to attempt to bring an American emissary to Beijing. When word of the budding ping pong friendship made its way to Mao, he invited the team and its small entourage instead.
“When the invitation came we were amazed. It was just out of the blue,” Tannehill said. “We had no idea that we were gonna be pawns in the international game.”
Days later, on April 10, 1971, Tannehill and his teammates became the first American delegation to step foot in Red China in 22 years. They visited Canton, Beijing, and Shanghai, playing matches against the Chinese team in the latter two cities. The Chinese mantra was “friendship first, competition second.” In the stadiums, the Chinese Red Guards sat motionless and silent anytime their team scored but clapped energetically for all the American points. The Chinese were clearly more skilled, but they tanked several matches as a gesture of hospitality, including one between Tannehill and the man he ate dinner with 40 years later.
As the Americans made their way through the cities, Tannehill observed the impoverished state of the people. Mao’s Cultural Revolution—his mobilization of the Red Guard youth to reassert his power over the government—was still underway, and the rich and educated were often shunned or persecuted. Despite the poverty and communist zealotry roiling around them, Tannehill and the others felt the first vibrations of a very different China rumbling under the surface.
“They wanted more material possessions. Even then, we sensed that everybody had their minds on getting richer,” Tannehill explained. “‘Being rich is glorious,’ as one of their leaders later on said.”
Mao was sick during the trip, but the U.S. ping pong team met with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who was largely responsible for international relations. “Mao was still absolute in his belief that poverty and the Communist Revolution would be the be-all and end-all of existence,” Tannehill said. “But Zhou Enlai knew something had to change, and that’s why he was the real person who opened up to us more than anybody else.”
The team members weren’t immune to the political overtones. Reporters followed them around the country, and they were often portrayed as international pariahs for their fraternization with the enemy. Tannehill in particular was criticized for his controversial comments.
“We had no idea that we were gonna be pawns in the international game.”
“I said that Mao and his system were no better or worse than McDonald’s and the system that we have here, of capitalism,” he explained. “One attacks your body with hamburgers and the other attacks your mind with ideology.”
After a little more than a week of ping pong, sightseeing, and diplomatic gamesmanship, the U.S. team returned to Japan before heading stateside. Upon their homecoming, they were greeted by their own smiling faces on the cover of Luce’s Time magazine, under the headline “China: A Whole New Game.”
After arriving back in the U.S., the Americans realized it wasn’t just the Chinese who used the trip as a litmus test. “We were the canaries in the coalmine,” Tannehill said. “Nixon was testing out how the Chinese were treating us on whether he would go or not.” Less than a year after their visit, President Nixon traveled to China and met with Mao and Zhou, commencing the official reopening of the People’s Republic to the West.
In 2011, Tannehill and the Americans returned to China for a five-city tour to commemorate the 40th anniversary of their historic trip, which became known as Ping Pong Diplomacy. They were greeted like rock stars; entire towns of 50,000 came out to welcome them, and they signed hundreds of autographs a day. They were celebrated as harbingers of modern China, the superpower.
“I said that Mao and his system were no better or worse than McDonald’s and the system that we have here, of capitalism. One attacks your body with hamburgers and the other attacks your mind with ideology.”
The lifestyle and wealth of the contemporary Chinese are dependent on the restored diplomatic and economic ties, Tannehill said, and the nation’s subsequent change over four decades was stark. The industrial and commercial megacities that greeted him were a far cry from the impoverished urban centers of the Cultural Revolution. “It was like coming from a town that knew nothing about capitalism to New York City, except Beijing is 100 times more capitalistic than even New York City,” Tannehill said. “Beijing and Shanghai are just horrible, horrible places to live ‘cause everybody in the cities has bronchitis or breathing problems from the air. It’s causing a lot of protests, too.”
The anniversary tour also allowed them the opportunity to meet the newest set of Chinese leaders, including Xi Jingping, China’s current president. “He wants to return to the same discipline—with capitalism, though—that he had in the past with Mao Tse-tung,” Tannehill said. “He’s persecuting a lot of people in China at this time just because they don’t believe in the communist system enough.”
And so, 44 years later, a funhouse-mirror version of the phantom American China has risen, replacing an imaginary nation with a very real and powerful one—it’s capitalistic to its marrow, as Luce wanted, but still hell-bent on a godless communism.
The U.S. and China now share an uneasy partnership as the world’s only true superpowers, with two immense economies tied intrinsically together, their ability to stare each other down across a negotiating table made possible by a few friendly games of ping pong.