A less insular and more worldly China may be turning away from the sport of Mao Zedong's ping pong diplomacy, once a source of tremendous national pride and obsession.
The memory lives in every grown-up Chinese: huddling in front of the television with family and friends, the snacks and beer on the table, all eyes glued to a tiny bouncing ball on the screen as the rhythmic ka-donk, ka-dink, ka-donk, ka-dink fills the otherwise silent room. Table tennis, China's unofficial national sport since the 1950s, has given millions of Chinese a taste of national glory and prestige long before their country's more recent rise. Olympic table tennis, in which China has won 23 of 27 gold medals, stirs a national craze that can make it feel like China's Superbowl. But this year, though Chinese state media has covered and re-covered the London matches just as obsessively as before, somehow table tennis failed to evoke the same breath-holding and fist-waving of previous years. Even before the London games, the sport's waning popularity in China had become evident. But, just as table tennis in China was always about much more than just table tennis, so too is its decline a sign of something bigger. As the nationalism that once fueled this sport's popularity recedes, and as China focuses less within and more on the outside world, its increasingly globally minded citizens are shifting their attention to Western sports. China isn't a marginal country anymore, their thinking seems to go, so why should Chinese athletics focus on such a marginal sport?
The history of table tennis in China has long symbolized, and at moments played a direct role in, the fate of the nation. First invented by Victorian English in the 1880s, its early popularity was confined mostly to European intellectuals and aristocrats. Then, in the wake of World War II, as China just rose up from its century of humiliation, it absorbed this parlor game from the imperial power and made it China's own. In the early 1950s, when the International Table Tennis Federation recognized the Communist Chinese government in Beijing over the exile leadership in Taiwan (something the U.S. wouldn't do until 1979), Mao Zedong decreed table tennis the national sport, and invested heavily in cultivating competitive players. China won its first world champion in 1959, defeating Japan on an international stage, a symbolic repudiation of Imperial Japan's brutal 1930s invasion of China. "We listened [to the table tennis match] on the radio with such anxiety and expectation," recalled He Fuming, a retired journalist, of a much-celebrated 1965 match against Japan. "When Zhuang [Zedong] defeated the Japanese, he's all everyone talked about on the street and on the buses."