How Mighty Ping-Pong Infiltrated Visual Culture

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Table tennis has been propaganda. It has been a symbol of suburbia. And images of it have covered ... nearly everything.

A game at which both winEDIT.jpg
Ping-Pong is back in style—assuming it ever dropped out. Even Susan Sarandon is picking up where Mao left off in championing the table sport. Another advocate is Roger Bennett, born and bred in Liverpool, who after growing up on a steady diet of Starsky and Hutch and Hart to Hart was naturally drawn to America in general and New York in particular.

Bennett is one of the co-founders of ReBoot, a cultural organization for secular Jews, which sponsors publications and events. He is the co-author of And You Shall Know Usby the Trail of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told by the Records We Have Loved and Lost, Bar Mitzvah Disco: The Music May Have Stopped, but the Party's Never Over, and Everything You Know Is Pong: How Mighty Table Tennis Shapes Our World. His Ping-Pong fascination, rooted in design, is helping to trigger a new enthusiasm—and fashion—among the hipster generation. Between games I caught up with Bennett for a brief volley.

Heller: Ping-Pong? Why Ping-Pong?

Bennett: I grew up in love with the game and many of the people whose company I most enjoy (like Jonathan Safran Foer and Howard Jacobson, who both contribute essays to the book) are avid enthusiasts. I am an inveterate collector—a habit fueled mostly by my fascination with 20th-century American history, particularly the postwar period with the suburban boom, cities turned inside out, and the rise of leisure culture—and I began to build a Smithsonian-sized collection of Ping-Pong related ephemera: 1950s tobacco ads, 1960s Chinese propaganda, 1970s proto-video game materials, along with my co-author, Eli Horowitz. The pursuit was akin to entering a maze in which there were no long turns. Together we realized that Ping-Pong had its fingerprints on everything—from politics to culture, theology to pornography. And our goal was to present these tales and place the world's most popular pastime—the sleeping giant of fast-paced fun—back on the pedestal to which it belongs.

Heller: Susan Sarandon is part owner of Spin, a Ping-Pong parlor in New York City. What came first, the chicken or the Ping-Pong ball? In other words, do you believe your book launched this, or vice versa? Or, it's in the air?

Bennett: It has taken eight long years to build our collection, and during that time, we have been delighted to see Ping-Pong fire up the popular imagination, but our research revealed that, while Scientology was just a twinkle in L. Ron Hubbard's eye, Ping-Pong was always tightly connected to celebrity. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had two tables installed in their homes. One in the east wing to soak up the morning light; the second in the west to bask in the setting sun. Henry Miller would battle young starlets in the nude. And Primal Scream front man Bobby Gillespie admitted he loved to "do loads of cocaine, get 'sniffed up,' and play table tennis," explaining, "That's the way to do it. You can do those Japanese topspins and backspins right ... That's when I am at my best."

Heller: Ping-Pong returned to a certain faddish prominence when Mao Zedong opened up China to the West. I even own a vintage silk wall hanging of smiling Mao with racquet in hand ready to play (maybe with Nixon). What was the social and political significance of Ping-Pong to China?

Table tennis by Coleman ClarkEDIT.jpgBennett: The story of Ping-Pong and China transcends that of a simple tale of a people and their love of a sport. It is a prism through which one can glimpse the nation's extreme makeover from an underperforming centralized state, once known as "The Sick Man of Asia," into a regional and global economic behemoth.

Not a bad return from an activity which was originally about as Chinese as General Tso's Chicken. Ne'er did the sound of a ping or a pong ricochet around the Chinese mainland until the mid '50s, when the People's Republic of China was founded and Chairman Mao needed to define a national sport. Letting a thousand Ping-Pong balls bloom, a legion of bureaucrats swept the nation to test kindergarteners for cat-like reflexes and hand-eye coordination. Those who passed the test were removed from their parents and dispatched to Ping-Pong academies across the mainland. At the 1959 World Championships in Dortmund, Germany, Rong Guotan, a former child laborer, used a chop-counter attack to become China's first world champion in any sport. Mao declared the triumph the equivalent of a "spiritual nuclear weapon" and Ping-Pong became the prime way China expressed itself to the world. I love the poster art we collected for this chapter. Fabulous representations of 1960's Chinese political propaganda.

Heller: In the late '30s my mom was a Ping-Pong champion at her college in NYC. What was the American significance of the game?

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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