Cityweekend’s Review on Ping Pong Diplomacy

The world produces many books on China every year. sadly few are substantial or enjoyable

The world produces many books on China every year. sadly few are substantial or enjoyable. Nick Griffin’s Ping Pong Diplomacy – the fascinating story how the table tennis changed the world – is one of the few exceptions. It’s also beautifully crafted – Griffin is a fiction writer.

It’s a real pleasure to read the book.

Book Review: How Ping Pong Changed The World

25 March 2014

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We admit we were skeptical when we received a copy of a new book claiming to tell the history of ping pong and its effects on diplomacy and international political machinations. We aren’t big sports fans, the topic is an old one that has been explored by a bevy of other authors, and the title,Ping Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game that Changed the World read to us as tired publishing house propaganda.

But in an example of a proverb actually applying to real life, we’re glad we read Nicholas Griffin’s novel, and not just judged the cover. Ping Pong Diplomacy is a fantastically fun study of the numerous characters that surrounded the rise of the game throughout the 20th century, with a little bit of history and politics thrown in.

The book starts off with the life of one son of British aristocracy, Ivor Montagu, who led a life we previously believed to be the sole property of characters in Somerset Maugham novels. Montagu is an intellectual rebel from an early age, and grows into a left-leaning Communist as a young man in the era of the Great War. Though he frustrates his friends and family, one member of whom is his direct political opposite, none suspect that his beliefs are any more than outsized eccentricities—a useful aura to have about oneself if one is sending information to the Kremlin on the side.

Ivor Montagu

Montagu develops and obsession with ping pong, which he sees as the athletic equivalent of a social equalizer. Anyone can play, anywhere, at any time. It is Montagu that creates the first ping pong player association, writes the rules of the game, and creates the first prize—the Swaythling Cup, named after his mother and father, Lord and Lady Swaythling.

We are soon to meet a cast of characters that Griffin’s skillful prose brings to well-rounded life. We learn of future Japanese men’s table tennis champion Ichiro Ogimura’s humble beginnings playing on a ping pong table that miraculously survived bombings at a Tokyo high school, and follow him as he develops a punishing schedule for himself, including squat-jumping for a kilometer each morning and running for an hour, to reach his goal of being the best player in the country.

So determined is he to head to London for the 1954 World Championships, that he begs for money at train stations in between classes to raise the funds to go.

Griffin, a journalist, has a fiction writer’s sense of character development, mining his subjects for rich details that humanize them and make the reader care. Whether it’s Chinese ping pong hopeful Rong Guotan’s struggles with tuberculosis and uncertainty of whether to live in Hong Kong or move to the mainland at the behest of Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai, or the American, Chinese and Japanese ping pong teams’ meeting in Nagoya in the ‘70s and American Glenn Cowan buying Chinese player Zhuang Zedong a surprising present, Griffin adeptly makes these historical players into people, no mean feat when having to deal with facts and reality rather than fantasy.

His plot and pacing keep the reader involved and guessing about the ending, even though most will know it before they even begin reading the first page.

We often hesitate to recommend historical books on China to friends, but found ourselves enthusiastically telling our coworkers we’d give them our copy of Ping Pong Diplomacy when we were done. Check out the author’s appearance at the Capital M lit fest this month.

Ping Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History that Changed the World, by Nicholas Griffin, is available on Amazon.com

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