Zhuang Zedong in 2007 (photo: Tom Nguyen)
August 25, 1940|
Yangzhou, Jiangsu, China
|Died||February 10, 2013
Zhuang Zedong (August 25, 1940 – February 10, 2013) was a Chinese table tennis player, three-time world men's singles champion and champion at numerous other table tennis events and a well-known political personality during the tumult of the Cultural Revolution. His chance meeting with American table tennis player, Glenn Cowan, during the 31st World Table Tennis Championship, later referred to as Ping Pong Diplomacy, triggered the first thawing of the ice in Sino-American relations since 1949. Zhuang was once married to the pianist Bao Huiqiao, and his second wife was the Chinese-born Japanese Atsuko Sasaki (佐々木敦子?).
Table tennis career
Zhuang was born in August 1940 and he joined the Chinese National Table Tennis team as a teenager. His coach was Fu Qifang. In 1961, at the 26th World Table Tennis Championship, he won his first men's singles championship, and at the next two World Table Tennis Championships, the 27th and 28th in 1963 and 1965 respectively, he again won the men's singles championship.
On January 20, 1968, two years into the Cultural Revolution, he married Bao Huiqiao in her dormitory room at the National Music Conservatory in Beijing. During the Cultural Revolution which began in 1966, Zhuang was not able to pursue his career as a table tennis player as usual, nor was Bao hers as a pianist.
Unique style among penholders
Influenced by a veteran national team member and national champion Wang Chuanyao (王传耀), and encouraged by his coach, Zhuang picked up the "Dual-sided Offense" style in the 1950s when he was a teenager.
During the 50s to 60s, the majority of the pen-holding style players lack attacking or counter-attack capabilities on the backhand side, and rely solely on push-blocking. Wang is believed to be among the pioneers of the "Penholding Dual-sided Offense" style that emphasize on offensive backhand strokes and drives.
Zhuang adopted but modified Wang's style by:
- Shortening the strokes of backhand drives – sometimes even by simply using wrist or finger actions to flick the racket (referred to by himself in his book as to "knock" or "snap" the ball).
- Standing closer to the table than Wang – but still two to three feet away from the table, which is farther away from the table than most push-blocking penholders who are normally within two feet.
He did so as a result of his meticulous analysis of the physical differences between him and Wang – Wang was much taller and had a longer arm-coverage which enabled bigger, more powerful swings and strokes.
He won and dominated three World Championships with this unique style, and encountered almost no competition from the Japanese, European and his fellow Chinese players. Table tennis observers generally believe that he could have won one to two more world championships if the Cultural Revolution had not occurred. (It was evidenced by the fact the next two champions both had lopsided losing records against Zhuang when the Chinese team did not participate during the Cultural Revolution.)
Ping Pong Diplomacy
In late 1969, the training of the National Table Tennis Team resumed as a result of the intervention of Premier Zhou Enlai, and in 1971, Zhuang Zedong and the Chinese team attended the 31st World Table Tennis Championship. One day during the championship in Nagoya, Japan, American team member Glenn Cowan missed his own bus and in his haste got onto the bus of the Chinese team. Unlike his team mates, who ignored Cowan, Zhuang Zedong greeted him and presented him with a silk-screen portrait of the Huangshan Mountains, thus starting the so-called Ping Pong Diplomacy. Ten months after Zhuang's chance meeting with Cowan, Richard Nixon, then the president of the United States, visited China in February, 1972. Only two months later, Zhuang led the Chinese table tennis delegation to the United States from April 18 to 30, as part of an 18-day trip including Canada, Mexico and Peru. The so-called Ping Pong Diplomacy eventually led to the normalization of Sino-American relationships in 1979.
Cultural Revolution and consequences
In 1973, Zhuang Zedong became a favorite of Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong and leader of the Cultural Revolution. After the downfall in October, 1976 of the Gang of Four of which Jiang Qing was a member, Zhuang Zedong was jailed and investigated. In 1980, the investigation ended and he was sent to Taiyuan, Shanxi to work as a coach of the provincial table tennis team.
Bao and Zhuang had one daughter before their divorce.
New life in Beijing
In 1985, Zhuang was allowed to return to Beijing again, and it was arranged that he would coach the young table tennis players at the Palace of Youth in Beijing. Zhuang's relationship with Bao Huiqiao had been reportedly deteriorating during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution and was not to be repaired. On February 2, 1985, he and Bao Huiqiao were officially divorced.
Marriage to Atsuko Sasaki
Later in 1985, the Chinese-born Japanese Atsuko Sasaki met Zhuang in Beijing. Sasaki was born in 1944 in Zhangye, Gansu, China to Japanese parents. Her family did not move back to Japan until 1976. By this time, Sasaki had finished her high-school education in China and her father had died of cancer in Lanzhou. Sasaki Atsuko had met Zhuang Zedong previously in Japan in 1971 and 1972 and was a fan of Zhuang.
When Zhuang and Sasaki decided to get married, both had to go through a difficult political process due to the political environment in China. Zhuang had to write to Li Ruihuan and Deng Xiaoping about the matter, and Sasaki had to give up her Japanese citizenship and apply for Chinese citizenship. Eventually, Zhuang and Sasaki got married in 1987.
Zhuang and Sasaki lived together for 26 years. Zhuang wrote a book about their story, entitled Deng Xiaoping approved our marriage. Zhuang opened an international table tennis club in Beijing. He visited the United States in 2007, speaking at USC and other universities about his role in fostering better relations between China and the United States.
Cancer and death
Zhuang Zedong was diagnosed of late-stage colon cancer in 2008. Although he sought treatment in various hospitals around China, the tumour metastasized to his liver and lungs. Five months before his death, he only had one eighth of his liver left. He requested euthanasia, but was denied by his doctors. On 10 February 2013, the first day of the Chinese New Year, Zhuang died at You'an Hospital in Beijing, at the age of 72. Within a day there were 300,000 messages about this death on Chinese microblogging sites.
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- Chuang yu chuang. 1985.
- Ping-pong melts Cold War rifts
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- Zhuang Zedong 10 Feb 2013 Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/sport-obituaries/9861200/Zhuang-Zedong.html
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- South China Morning Post Briefs, February 12, 2013 http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1148265/briefs-february-12-2013
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- "Zhuang Zedong, athlete and key figure in 1971 China-US ‘pingpong diplomacy,’ dies at 72". Washington Post. Retrieved 10 February 2013.[dead link]