Last updated at: (Beijing Time) Friday, November 14, 2003

A 15-year-old American girl and Ping Pong Diplomacy

Thirty-two years ago, China and the United States started their engagement in a unique way -- by playing table tennis. The "Ping Pong Diplomacy," as it is widely known today, led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States in 1979 and a profound change in the world situation.


Thirty-two years ago, China and the United States started their engagement in a unique way -- by playing table tennis. The "Ping Pong Diplomacy," as it is widely known today, led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States in 1979 and a profound change in the world situation.

Judy Hoarfrost, the youngest member of the then US Ping Pong team and an eyewitness of one of the pivotal moments in the Sino-US ties, had not idea at all about what was going on at that time.

"When I left the USA in March of 1971, the destination was Nagoya, Japan, for the World Championships," she told reporters.

"I was just 15 years old. I didn't know that I would end up in China..that a photo of me shaking hands with Chinese Premier Chou En Lai would be sent out over the AP wire to appear on the cover of newspapers around the world," she said at the Texas A&M University at College Station, Texas, last week.

Hoarfrost flied in from Portland, Oregon for a lecture on her story 32 years ago as part of the "China Week" activities organized by Texas's A&M's International Center. The activities on Nov.3-8 coincided with a conference on China-US relations on the campus sponsored by former US President George Bush.

Hoarfrost said she was lucky enough to be on the US team because she, not yet at the peak of her game, was only made the 2nd alternate spot in the US Team Trials. She took the place of one of the female members who dropped off because the team was poorly funded.

"My father and I went to the bank to secure a 900-dollar loan that would enable me to go," she said. "This investment certainly made a huge impact on my life."

Hoarfrost said she remembered distinctly the scene when she first saw the Chinese team in Nagoya. "Teams from around the world were practicing at the Aichi Stadium playing hall. It was very noisy with people talking. All of a sudden a hush came over the whole stadium. I looked up and saw the Chinese Team marching in. Everyone stood in awe, because they were the gods of table tennis for us."

After receiving an invitation from the Chinese team for a visit to China, the American team quickly had a team meeting to decide if they would go or for how long. One of the male team members declined because he was concerned about his safety, Hoarfrost said. One of the female members also declined, because she had already had plans to go to Hawaii after the competition.

"As an open-minded, possibly naive 15-year-old, for me, it was a great adventure into the unknown," Hoarfrost said, adding that she was often surprised later when people asked whether she was concerned about her safety. "I was never concerned about this," she said.

On April 10th, 1971, four male members and three female members, together with coaches and officials from the team, flew into Hong Kong and took a train to the border, starting a historic eight-day visit to China.

"We walked across the Luo Hu Border Bridge to China, accompanied by blaring music, 'The East Is Red,'-- a hymn to Chairman Mao. A large red sign proclaimed, 'Long Live the Great Unity of the People of the World,'" she said.

"I felt like we were in a movie, it was all so surreal," she said, smiling.

The American team visited Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and played matches in each of these cities. "The Chinese players generously played to make us look good," Hoarfrost said, describing her three wins in her four matches as a result of "Friendship First, Competition Second," the spoken theme throughout the trip.

One of the highest points of the visit was surely the meeting with Premier Chou in the Great Hall of the People. "The US delegation sat in a conference room with delegations from other countries who had also been invited to China after the World Championship..Chou En Lai spoke with each delegation member in turn," Hoarfrost said.

"Upon entering the hall, we each shook hands with the premier," she said.

Hoarfrost was the first of the group to be back to the US. Upon arriving at the San Francisco airport alone, she recalled, she was unexpectedly led into a room for a news conference. "There were thousands of microphones and a million people there," she joked.

After bombarding her with questions, the reporters accompanied her on the rest of her trip home to Eugene, Oregon. At the local airport, she found people from her hometown were excited to see her, "the girl who visited China," and her high school band played music for her.

"The experience was not over," she said. "I made zillions of speeches, appeared on many television shows, wrote lots of articles, and did many table tennis exhibitions." The state of Oregon proclaimed a "Judy Bochenski Day" and she spoke before both houses of the legislature.

Hoarfrost made the US table tennis team for four consecutive world championships since 1973. She did not play much often after getting married in 1980. But starting at age 40, she managed to secure three titles at the annual US Senior Women Championship.

Since 1992, Hoarfrost took over a table tennis company from her father. The Paddle Palace Table Tennis, based in Portland, claims to be "the US company with everything for the table tennis player." It even sold one ping pong table to the moviemaker of "Forest Gump."

In 1997, Hoarfrost, accompanied by her family, went to China again with several members from the 1971 American team for an anniversary celebration. During the 10-day stay in China, "what struck me the most was the incredible changes from 26 years earlier," she said.

In 1971, Hoarfrost said, it seemed that everybody in China dressed alike; Red Guards in green uniforms were all around; There were bicycles everywhere; There were lots of crowded buses and very few automobiles. Also, "it seemed that average people knew little about events going on in the outside world," she said.

The biggest change that struck her in China was its communications sector, which has developed so well that "if something important happens anywhere in the world, there is no way the information will not make it to the average people in China," Hoarfrost said.

Hoarfrost stressed she felt very lucky that she "happened to be in the right place at the right time" 32 years ago. "I was a vehicle for a message the world was ready to hear," she added.

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