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Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World

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Overview

THE SPRING OF 1971 heralded the greatest geopolitical realignment in a generation. After twenty-two years of antagonism, China and the United States suddenly moved toward a détente—achieved not by politicians but by Ping-Pong players. The Western press delighted in the absurdity of the moment and branded it “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” But for the Chinese, Ping-Pong was always political, a strategic cog in Mao Zedong’s foreign policy. Nicholas Griffin proves that the organized game, from its first breath, was tied to ...

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Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World

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Overview

THE SPRING OF 1971 heralded the greatest geopolitical realignment in a generation. After twenty-two years of antagonism, China and the United States suddenly moved toward a détente—achieved not by politicians but by Ping-Pong players. The Western press delighted in the absurdity of the moment and branded it “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” But for the Chinese, Ping-Pong was always political, a strategic cog in Mao Zedong’s foreign policy. Nicholas Griffin proves that the organized game, from its first breath, was tied to Communism thanks to its founder, Ivor Montagu, son of a wealthy English baron and spy for the Soviet Union.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy traces a crucial inter­section of sports and society. Griffin tells the strange and tragic story of how the game was manipulated at the highest levels; how the Chinese government helped cover up the death of 36 million peasants by holding the World Table Tennis Championships during the Great Famine; how championship players were driven to their deaths during the Cultural Revolution; and, finally, how the survivors were reconvened in 1971 and ordered to reach out to their American counterparts. Through a cast of eccentric characters, from spies to hippies and Ping-Pong-obsessed generals to atom-bomb survivors, Griffin explores how a neglected sport was used to help realign the balance of worldwide power.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Janet Maslin
Ping-Pong Diplomacy builds up to the events of 1971, when an American team was unexpectedly invited to visit China to participate in a table tennis competition…Among the many quirks that make Mr. Griffin's account so interesting is the culture clash that ensued—not between the two teams, but within the group of Americans themselves…in addition to presenting a broad diplomatic tableau and fascinating personal histories, Mr. Griffin is careful to weigh the consequences of what his book describes.
Publishers Weekly
10/21/2013
Griffin, a journalist, novelist, and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, merges sport and diplomacy in a surprising story of how, for a moment in 1971, ping pong became a key player in world affairs. He analyzes the role the game played in Chinese politics while also profiling Ivor Montagu, a Jewish-British aristocrat who, driven by his love of ping pong and more private career as a communist spy, championed the growth of the International Table Tennis Federation. The invitation the American ping pong team received from China in 1971 was an unprecedented surprise, as was the impact of the match on world affairs. Griffin makes a strong case that the success of the American team’s China trip played perfectly into President Richard Nixon’s own historic China trip and the detente that altered world politics. Throughout, Griffin balances geopolitical context with sympathetic depictions of the world-class ping pong players who competed. Among them was Zhuang Zedong, the Chinese world champion who was disgraced during the dangerous days of the Cultural Revolution, and American star Glenn Cowan, who died homeless in 2004. Griffin has found an intriguing story with which to illuminate several important political events of the later 20th century and told it well. (Jan.)
Michael Meyer
“At last, here is the fascinating story of the sport that shaped the geopolitics today. Part character-driven history, part diplomatic caper, and part investigative pilgrimage to contemporary China, Ping Pong Diplomacy makes us look again at an event that Griffin reveals is the climax of a decades-long movement. This is narrative history at its best.”
Davy Rothbart
Ping-Pong Diplomacy is a deeply absorbing, suspenseful, and hilarious behind-the-scenes peek into a riveting slice of sports and political history. Nicholas Griffin has delivered an overhead smash. I love this book!”
Richard H. Solomon
“A gripping read of the unlikely intertwining of table tennis as a sport with British and Soviet spycraft, and the high politics that broke China and the United States out of their Cold War confrontation. Anyone interested in the history of Sino-American normalization will find this literate and well documented history of “ping-pong diplomacy” filled with poignant examples of how the politics of Mao’s Cultural Revolution used and destroyed the lives of Chinese officials enamored with the play of the little white ball.”
author of A New World Order and The Idea That Is America - Anne-Marie Slaughter
Ping-Pong Diplomacy belongs in the category of ‘you can’t make this stuff up.’ It reads more like a le Carré novel than diplomatic history. But the tale it recounts actually happened, and casts a new and provocative light on the U.S. Opening to China, one of the great foreign policy breakthroughs of the 20th century.”
Janet Maslin
"Among the many quirks that make Mr. Griffin’s account so interesting is the culture clash that ensued. . . a broad diplomatic tableau with fascinating personal histories."
Grantland
“Impossible to resist…full of colorful characters.”
Boston Globe
“Off-beat and engrossing.... Griffin tells human stories as deftly as he describes the machinations of international communism…a fitting treatment of the entire overlooked episode.”
The Independent (UK)
“A stranger-than-fiction tale….Through meticulous research and an impressively-crafted narrative, Griffin gives depth to the life of the “the forgotten architect” of so-called ping-pong diplomacy.”
The London Times
"Meticulously researched and ambitiously conceived... a scrupulous meditation on how eccentricities of time and place can shape big political and social events".
The Washington Post
"An absorbing tale…this book is full of fast-paced narratives and well-crafted characters."
Wall Street Journal
"A racy account of the matches themselves and of the endless maneuvers behind them.”
Maclean's
“A jolly romp through the 20th century . . . a series of events that might bedeemed too outlandish for the sensible reader, were they not entirely true.”
SmartPlanet
"Ping Pong Diplomacy is terrific from first line to last."
Indian Express (Mumbai/Delhi)
"Reads so much like a thriller that you have to keep reminding yourself that it is all fact ... a book of meticulous archival research and reportage."
The New York Review of Books
“A fascinating account … revealing and well-researched … It is to Griffin’s credit that in this book he has finally nailed … the crucial event that initiated Ping-Pong diplomacy.”
The Hindu (India)
“Fascinating … tales of grit and tenacity, manipulation and deception. In his deeply-researched and fast-paced narrative, reading in parts almost like fiction, Griffin brings to life the redoubtable Ivor Montagu and others who transformed the innocuous game with the little bouncy white ball into a potent instrument of international politics.”
Los Angeles Review of Books
"An informative and entertaining book ... Griffin shows that the Chinese were controlling the game all along. In both ping-pong and diplomacy, the Americans were woefully outmatched."
Walter Isaacson
"This is the amazing drama of how Ping Pong changed the world. With great research and narrative skills, Griffin brings us behind the scenes of the historic trip by the American team to China in 1971 to tell what really happened and why. Plus he puts it into the context of Ping Pong's fascinating history of being more than just a game."
Booklist starred review
“Full of eyebrow-raising surprises…the book tells the secret history of Ping-Pong, a story of violence and intrigue and political machinations. Ping-Pong as a vehicle for international espionage? It’s an idea so outlandish that, if it weren’t true, some novelist would have to invent it. A remarkable story, well documented and excitingly told.”
Sir Harold Evans author of My Paper Chase
“Alfred Hitchcock would grab this book for a spy thriller. He himself makes an entry into the melodrama superbly plotted by Nick Griffin. The MacGuffin in this case are table tennis balls by the hundred, which mislead British intelligence in its surveillance of an apparently rather daffy British aristocrat. I happen to have known the aristo, Ivor Montagu, when I played in table tennis tournaments he organized in Europe. He fooled me, too. But then until Ping Pong Diplomacy came along, who’d guessed what he was up to as he moved among the marquee names—Trotsky and Charlie Chaplin, President Roosevelt and Sam Goldwyn, Mao and the Queen of England?”
Booklist starred review
“Full of eyebrow-raising surprises…the book tells the secret history of Ping-Pong, a story of violence and intrigue and political machinations. Ping-Pong as a vehicle for international espionage? It’s an idea so outlandish that, if it weren’t true, some novelist would have to invent it. A remarkable story, well documented and excitingly told.”
Sir Harold Evans author of My Paper Chase
“Alfred Hitchcock would grab this book for a spy thriller. He himself makes an entry into the melodrama superbly plotted by Nick Griffin. The MacGuffin in this case are table tennis balls by the hundred, which mislead British intelligence in its surveillance of an apparently rather daffy British aristocrat. I happen to have known the aristo, Ivor Montagu, when I played in table tennis tournaments he organized in Europe. He fooled me, too. But then until Ping Pong Diplomacy came along, who’d guessed what he was up to as he moved among the marquee names—Trotsky and Charlie Chaplin, President Roosevelt and Sam Goldwyn, Mao and the Queen of England?”
Kirkus Reviews
2013-11-03
A quirky, thoroughly enjoyable trek through the implausible beginnings of international table tennis and the colorful characters-cum-diplomats behind it. Griffin (Dizzy City, 2007, etc.) has the dexterity and cleverness to take on the story of British aristocrat Ivor Montagu, son of an English baron who was schooled at Cambridge, where he took up Ping-Pong at the end of World War I. An imperial British entertainment on the wane at the time, "teetering between sport and punch line," Ping-Pong would get its boost when Montagu renamed it table tennis (he discovered that Ping-Pong was trademarked by a toy manufacturer) and established its rules and regulations, organizing the Table Tennis Association and promoting championships, first across Europe, then behind the Iron Curtain and into Asia. He wrote: "I saw in Table Tennis a sport particularly suited to the lower paid," he wrote. "I plunged into the game as a crusade." Indeed, Montagu became a devoted communist; he also worked in film, importing the work of Soviet filmmakers and helping Alfred Hitchcock "weave outlandish plots into ordinary settings." Shadowed by MI5, Montagu traveled seamlessly from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War to the world tennis championship in Prague. After the war, he lobbied to include the Soviets in international competition, as well as Japan and communist China, where the sport was highly popular and political. Griffin delineates the significant championship matches held in Tokyo in 1956 and in China in 1961, at the height of Mao Zedong's catastrophic famine, which the world did not yet fathom. The same Chinese players disgraced during the Cultural Revolution were quickly rehabilitated in 1971 in order to act as convenient instruments of détente for the two frosty antagonists, Mao and Nixon. Griffin bites off a huge story but manages to maintain lively interest in the array of personalities involved.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451642773
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 1/7/2014
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 158,269
  • Product dimensions: 7.30 (w) x 11.10 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Nicholas Griffin is a journalist and author of four novels one work of non-fiction. His writing has appeared in The Times (UK), The Financial Times, Foreign Policy, and other publications on topics as disparate as sports and politics, piracy, filmmaking in the Middle East, and the natural sciences. Griffin has written for film and is a Term Member at the Council on Foreign Relations. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2014

    The best book  to start off 2014!   My new years resolution was

    The best book  to start off 2014!   My new years resolution was to read more.  This was my first book of the year and absolutely loved it.
    I’m not quite sure where to begin.  This is a story about geopolitics, espionage and table tennis.  It wanders from England to Japan, Russia to China and is bound together by the biography of a British aristocrat who produced Hitchcock’s films who happened to be a spy for Stalin.  It leads up to the events of 1971 when China and America heal their rift after 22 years of silence.  There are hippies, atom bomb survivors, ping-pong playing generals and revolutionaries dotting the pages.  Got that?  And no, even though the writer has written a lot of fiction, this one’s all true.  Definitely the most entertaining, yet serious book I’ve read in a while.  What’s it really about?  Oh, I’d say it’s really about world peace.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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