HONG KONG (CNN) — Chinese table tennis player Zhuang Zedong, a key figure in what became known as the "ping pong diplomacy" that helped thaw frosty Cold War relations between the United States and China, has died aged 73, state-run news agency Xinhua reported.
Zhuang's chance meeting with a U.S. player was instrumental in Beijing's decision to invite the American table tennis team for an exhibition match in 1971.
That match laid the groundwork for the visit of U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1972 and ultimately paved the way for the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1979, ending China's isolation from the outside world.
Xinhua said that Zhuang, who was considered one of the best players in the world in the 1960s, had met U.S. table tennis player Glenn Cowan at a tournament in Japan.
Cowan, a long-haired teenager, had jumped on the Chinese team's bus after missing his own and Zhuang struck up a conversation through a translator -- a brave act given the constraints of China's Cultural Revolution-era politics.
"We were all tense," Zhuang told CNN in 2008. "Our team had been advised not to speak to Americans, not to shake their hands, and not to exchange gifts with them.
"I looked at him, thinking, 'he is not the one who makes national policies, he is just an athlete, an ordinary American'," he recalled.
Zhuang gave the hippie-looking American a silk brocade as a gift. The next day, Cowan gave him a T-shirt emblazoned with a peace sign and the words "LET IT BE."
Pictures of their encounter spread around the world, and, under the orders of Chinese leader Mao Zedong, the U.S. team was invited to visit China.
During their visit, the U.S. announced the end of a 20-year trade embargo against the People's Republic. Their journey turned out to be the first public move in a rapprochement between the two bitter enemies.
Zhuang said he never thought his simple gesture of friendship would coin the phrase "ping-pong diplomacy."
"I had no idea what was going on," he said. "I didn't know what Chairman Mao was thinking. I was merely a ping-pong player."
Zhuang won three world championships and was a hero in table-tennis mad China. An innovative "pen-hold" style propelled him to the top of his sport.
He became China's sports minister but fell victim to the power struggles that followed Mao's death in 1976 and was detained for four years before being exiled to the provinces.
Zhuang later returned to Beijing, where he coached table tennis to teenagers.
According to Xinhua, Zhuang had been suffering from colon cancer since 2008 and died in a Beijing hospital on Sunday after developing liver and lung complications.
CNN's Jaime FlorCruz in Beijing contributed to this report
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