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This excerpt appears in the book Ping Pong Diplomacy by Nicholas Griffin. The author spoke with Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. (Listen to our interview with Wilson and read Bill's book review.)
The world champions were dead. As the best players gathered at the 1969 World Table Tennis Championships, the rumor circulated that the Chinese men’s team, which had total dominance in the sport, had been paraded in front of tens of thousands of Chairman Mao’s Red Guards. They had been screamed at, spat at, locked up, and tortured. They had been shot as spies. They had been strung up on trees by a vast teenage mob. As their dead bodies twirled back and forth at the ends of ropes, the cadavers came to rest with their bulbous eyes turned toward Taiwan or Hong Kong—a sure sign that they weren’t faithful followers of Chairman Mao but traitors to Chinese Communism. It was nearly impossible to believe, yet the rumor was rooted in truth.
Why should a sports team be put through such hell? The only answer was that table tennis in China wasn’t considered a sport at all. In the West, sports were mere entertainment. In China, all forms of culture had become political. Sports were “a form of war waged for world revolution,” explained a member of the country’s table tennis squad.
When the surviving team members reconvened at the 1971 World Championships in Japan, the political implications became clear. The Americans, a team of odds and ends, were also present in Nagoya. At a diplomatic level, a meeting between the two coun- tries was considered impossible. Mao would have been torn down by the leftist radicals of his party for approaching the Americans directly, just as Richard Nixon would have been accused of treason
by the Republican right for holding out an olive branch to the Chi- nese. But the first steps between the two distant nations weren’t car- ried out by politicians; they were conducted by Ping-Pong players.
That April, one of America’s better players, a long-haired hip- pie, accidentally wandered onto the Chinese table tennis team’s bus. He shook hands with the best player in the world. They swapped gifts. An invitation was extended, casually from team to team, and within forty-eight hours, a group made up entirely of table tennis players was touching down in Beijing—the first offi- cial American delegation since Mao had taken power in 1949. To the Americans it was a serendipitous moment. To the Chinese it was a carefully managed conclusion to years of work. It was the sport’s finest moment, the initial step in what would be known as Ping-Pong diplomacy.
But Ping-Pong, that seemingly innocuous game of fraternity houses and suburban basements, had a much deeper history than many Westerners assume. It was never simply a game to the man who first wrote down its rules, the Honorable Ivor Montagu. Mon- tagu, son of an English baron, was the forgotten architect of Ping- Pong diplomacy. As an eighteen-year-old student at Cambridge in the 1920s, before he joined the Communist Party against his father’s wishes, Montagu codified Ping-Pong. Convinced that the sport could spread Communism throughout the world, he founded the International Table Tennis Federation, eventually engineering its path to Mao’s China. He is the reason—the only reason—that 300 million Chinese play table tennis every week.
Montagu also had a secondary job: spying for the Soviet Union. The real history of table tennis is a bizarre tale of espionage, aggravation, and reconciliation, of murder, revenge, and exqui- site diplomacy. 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.
CHAPTER 1 Not-So-Humble Beginnings
At four years old, the future Communist agent Ivor Montagu stared out of his nursery window in Kensington Court, London, await- ing the Princess of Wales. He expected a gilded carriage, a woman wrapped in ermine and lit by jewels. He was brushed and combed by his nanny, then “dragged downstairs and set astride a footstool.” The Princess of Wales wore a plain gray suit and arrived by car. Years later, the Princess, by then the Queen of England, would write to Montagu’s mother to commiserate about her son’s scandalous marriage. For now, it was Montagu who suffered the deep disap- pointment. His only recollection on leaving the drawing room was that of having “felt thoroughly cheated.”
That one of his mother’s closest friends was May, Princess of Wales, wasn’t particularly surprising in the Montagu household. The Montagus were among the wealthiest families in England, raised to the nobility thanks to generous contributions to political parties by Samuel Montagu, the family patriarch.
Ivor Montagu’s father, the eldest son, had inherited the London house. Fires burned day and night throughout the winters, “casting a warmth and amber glow that added to the sense of comfort and luxury.” Generals, admirals, royalty, and ministers all visited, pass- ing under the cut-glass chandeliers and padding across thick carpets. In turn, the family visited the great and good, including a stop at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence, where young Ivor played in the garden while his father met with the prime minister.
In the south of England, the family maintained two great houses, Townhill and South Stoneham, where Ivor Montagu would spend much of his childhood. In the summers, the houses would play a cricket match against each other. Footmen would face off between the wickets. Montagu played long stop, undisturbed in the daisies while his older brothers reaped applause at bat.
On New Year’s Eve, he would be forced to attend the Servants’ Ball at Townhill, where his mother would break the ice by leading off in dance with either the butler or the head gardener. The rest of the staff would stand awkwardly with their families around the edge of the ballroom, waiting their turn. Montagu, who professed a deep hatred of being “touched by either sex,” would still have to fill his dance card until, on one inspired New Year’s Eve morning, he picked up a large rock and “solemnly . . . dropped it from about waist high on my big toe,” earning an exemption from the ball. It was an early sign of his determination to do things the hard way.
There was no road map for Ivor Montagu. His future decisions would cross continents and political systems. From Hollywood to Hong Kong, Montagu would build bridges between radical ideas and the people ready to receive them. He’d risk his life on several occasions, share secrets with assassins, live in lies, and weave his way safely through two wars, until finally his own secret was discovered.
If Ivor Montagu’s beginnings were all velvet knee pants and frilly baby bonnets, his grandfather’s were modest. As Montagu would later put it, if you looked among the books in the family library, “the thin one was the family pedigree.” It contained a coat of arms and then his father, his grandfather, and “nothing else.” That was an exaggeration, though the Montagus’ rise to nobility was rapid. Ivor’s grandfather, Montagu Samuel, was born to an observant Jew in Liverpool in 1832. By the time he was twenty-one, he had founded his own bank, which thrived under a near-monopoly in Britain’s foreign exchange transactions. There were offices dotted around the world, within and beyond the borders of the British Empire.
His first name change took him from Montagu Samuel to Sam- uel Montagu. Thanks to hefty contributions to political parties, he next added the title of Lord Swaythling, a name borrowed from a village between the family’s two Hampshire estates. He’d have preferred Lord Montagu, but the current Lord Montagu would agree to share his name only if Lord Swaythling would share his money.
Although he’d anglicized his name, he hadn’t forgotten his Jewish roots. Lord Swaythling gave generously to Jews escaping pogroms in 1880s Russia and to numerous charities near his Hampshire home. As a member of the Houses of Parliament for fifteen years, he carried a deep love of Prime Minister Gladstone’s version of England but never forgot his own childhood, when he’d fought “with young bigots of other faiths.” Anti-Semitism was a virus that could emerge in any country. Hilaire Belloc, England’s satirist in chief, couldn’t resist a passing shot:
Lord Swaythling, whom the people knew, And loved, as Samuel Montagu,
Is known unto the fiends of hell As Mr. Moses Samuel.
There was nothing fiendish about Lord Swaythling. He built temples, poorhouses, schools for the teaching of Hebrew. On his death in 1911, the poor streamed out from the slums of London’s East End to follow in the wake of his funeral procession. Ivor Mon- tagu, almost seven, was kitted out in a black velvet suit and a cer- emonial sword but was not allowed to join the throng following the cortege. Three miles divided the last carriage from the hearse. Streets from Camden Town to Bayswater were closed as the police kept the black-coated traffic moving.
Lord Swaythling had died a millionaire, one of only a handful in England. Much of the land, money, and other interests were left to Ivor’s father—the second Baron Swaythling. Ivor had two older brothers and a baby sister, all guaranteed healthy inheritances as long as they married within their faith. There would be no title waiting for him. He was and would remain the Honorable Ivor Montagu.
The family followed an established pattern. Money made in the cities would be paraded in the countryside. Part of being a good Vic- torian was to embrace land and sport of all kinds. Father was a keen shot and a member of the famed Middlesex Cricket Club (MCC). Stuart, the oldest of the three brothers, was a rugby player obsessed with breeding cows. Ewen was good at pretty much everything.
Ivor had the desire but not the talent to get involved. He was the boy with glasses keeping score, the umpire, the referee trotting up and down the sidelines with a whistle in his hand. But there was one game he could play: table tennis. Before he was six, he had peti- tioned his father to get a table for the house in London, and there it sat on the vast landing, overlooking the front hall. When he wasn’t playing on it, it was cleared and used for bridge by his father and his friends, the foreign secretary and the home secretary.
The year of Ivor’s birth, 1904, was also considered the year that Ping-Pong had died. For a short time, Britain had been creating and exporting games at an extraordinary rate. Soccer, rugby, cricket, tennis, hockey, billiards, and badminton spread across the British Empire and beyond. At the turn of the century, table tennis had become a full-blown fad and had sped across the world—not as an organized sport; more as an after-dinner amusement, to be mixed with a brandy or a port and flirtatious chitchat with the opposite sex. It was called gossima, whiff-whaff, table tennis, but Ping-Pong, a name trademarked by Jaques & Son, was the most popular name. Much was written about watching girls on their hands and knees searching for balls under sofas and side tables. There were Ping- Pong parties, tournaments, picnics, and even Ping-Pong poetry. “Pingpongitis” captured the happy mood:
Oh what’s this very funny game, Pray tell me, if you please, That looks like tennis, feels like golf, And sounds like
Cantonese. . . .
What, that’s the game, That’s known to fame As Ping-Pong, Ping-Pong, Ping-Pong Ping.
That’s one of the better ones. Within the same volume, you can feel the zeitgeist itching to move on. “The Ping-Pong face, too well we know it; But please, oh please, won’t some one kill, The puling, punning Ping-Pong poet.”
The game’s origins were hotly contested. It was devised by the British Army in India, Malaysia, or Asia Minor, in a mess hall, cavalry club, or pavilion. The balls were carved from champagne corks. The bats were the lids of cigar boxes. Beneath all the creation myths lurked the frivolity that would irk its adherents for the next hundred years. Ping-Pong was for boys (and girls!), it could be played sober (or drunk!), you could hit the ball with a book (or a hairbrush!), in the billiard room, or even in the kitchen.
While other sports developed teams, trophies, leagues, and stadia, Ping-Pong suffered from a lack of coherence. Arguments erupted frequently because no official rules had been written. So, as one future world champion would lament, Ping-Pong “suffered no slow lingering agonies, but burst like a soap bubble into nothing- ness from one day to the next.”
That same year of 1904, when Ping-Pong expired and Ivor Mon- tagu was born, the Russo-Japanese War began. China wasn’t yet ready to stand up; it still had another half century of humiliation ahead of it and was already deeply scarred thanks to losses to the British in the Opium Wars and to Japan in 1895. But in 1904 Japan did something considered impossible for an Asian country. It con- fronted a European power and then defeated it. Two Russian ships were crippled in Port Arthur early in the war after their crews had been surprised during a game of table tennis. “Apparently the Ping- Pong nets were up, all taut and ready: it was only the torpedo nets that had been forgotten.”
Ivor’s father, the second Baron Swaythling, was fascinated by the Japanese victory. The Financial Times would write in his obitu- ary that he, “like all great men, had no hobbies outside of his pas- sion for work.” But there was one, an obsession with Japan that would in turn prove crucial in his son’s adventures in Asia. Lord Swaythling wasn’t the only foreigner amazed by Japan’s victory. China’s future leaders, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, still young students, considered it a key moment in their development. It led them to wonder: If Japan was capable of such a victory, what could a unified China do? But few saw how quickly the repercussions of Japan’s victory would rock the world. Russia’s defeat was a fatal slash at Tsarism—it would struggle on for just a few years until the rise of Communism heralded the Russian Revolution. The moment would inspire such disparate men as Mao Zedong and Ivor Mon- tagu, though their approaches could not have been more different.