Book of the Week

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Title: Ping-Pong Diplomacy
Author: Nicholas Griffin

Ping-Pong Diplomacy is an eye-opener. The action of the book is like a thriller. The narrative highlights the feeling of terror generated in the course of history. That a sport could be used to bring a country to the fore and to manipulate a whole generation of people is amazing. That a number of countries and politicians, like Nixon and Kissinger, were party  to helping a communist China reintegrate and move forward in history is absolutely astounding. In the author’s own words:

“The real history of table tennis is a bizarre tale of espionage, aggravation, and reconciliation, of murder, of revenge, and exquisite diplomacy.”

The story starts in England with Ivor Montagu, an aristocrat with communist leanings. Griffins writes:

“This is the story of how Ivor Montagu molded the game, and how the Chinese came to embrace it and then shaped it into a subtle instrument of foreign policy. Chairman Mao was fond of quoting ‘Let foreign things serve China.’ Little has served China as effectively as Montagu’s very British game of table tennis.”

Most of the book is located in Mao’s China. One gets a close-up glimpse of what the regime did for the population and the country. Now, after fifty years, the only traces one gets to see of the regime in China are the ‘restored’ monuments and artefacts that had been destroyed by the Red Army. Also, there is an interesting museum in Shanghai that has Red Army books, artefacts and posters.

Table tennis was a part of the ‘cultural history’ of Mao’s China. That sports, like culture, are treated with extreme importance by the country is very well projected in the book. Griffin brings out that winning for the country and not for personal glory is important.

The violence and horror of mob violence is highlighted in the actions of the Red Army. It is truly frightening. The bleakness and violence reminded me of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. The suffering of the people for propagating an ideology and an ‘image’ is portrayed in amazing details. It is like a surreal depiction of what goes into making an ideological nation materialise. One also gets to see how China became a major player in world politics over a period of time, how communism and capitalism combined to the benefit of the power brokers of the world and to push nationalism to the fore.

What does come across to me after reading the book is that the politicians worldwide craved for power for the ‘benefit’ of their respective countries. You have China, USA , UK, Pakistan and USSR involved in the politics that pushed world economics and politics into it’s current state. The book is a behind the scenes glimpse into China’s meteoric rise in today’s world.

I love the concluding sentences of the Epilogue.

“Other sports have evolved in China over the decades. A richer country has a boundless horizon to explore, but table tennis remains the nation’s one perfect specimen.”

It seems to sum up the spirit of the whole book. That sports is used for reasons other than fun, sportsmanship and character building is clearly spelt out by Griffin.

At the end of the book, I am left wondering what is more important, a human being or patriotism?

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