In 1971, Americans made two historic visits to China that would transform relations between the two countries. One was by US official Henry Kissinger; the other, earlier, visit was by the US table tennis team. Historians have mulled over the transcripts of Kissinger's negotiations with Chinese leaders. However, they have overlooked how, alongside these diplomatic talks, a rich program of travel and exchange had begun with ping-pong diplomacy.
Improbable Diplomats: How Ping-Pong Players, Musicians, and Scientists Remade US-China Relations (Cambridge UP, 2022) reveals how a diverse cast of Chinese and Americans – athletes and physicists, performing artists and seismologists – played a critical, but to date overlooked, role in remaking US-China relations. Based on new sources from more than a dozen archives in China and the United States, Pete Millwood argues that the significance of cultural and scientific exchanges went beyond reacquainting the Chinese and American people after two decades of minimal contact; exchanges also powerfully influenced Sino-American diplomatic relations and helped transform post-Mao China.
Grant Golub is an Ernest May Fellow in History and Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a PhD candidate in the Department of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research focuses on the politics of American grand strategy during World War II.