In 1971, at the world table tennis championships in Japan, a U.S. player mistakenly boarded a bus carrying the Chinese team. The team had been told not to talk to Westerners, and an awkward silence descended. Ten minutes elapsed. Then the best player in China stood, greeted the American and offered him a gift, a scarf.
An interpreter asked the American, the late Glenn Cowan, if he knew the man's identity.
"Yes, the world champion, Zhuang Zedong," Cowan, who died in 2004, replied. "And I hope your team does well."
At the time, the Chinese leader, Mao Zedong, had been looking to improve relations with the United States, though the countries were on opposing sides in the Vietnam War and had been fierce adversaries since the communist takeover of China in 1949. Both nations were eager to find a geopolitical counterweight to the Soviet Union, and a rapprochement, the thinking went, might provide that.
Mao promptly invited the U.S. team to visit China after the world tournament -- a signal to Washington of Beijing's openness to a thaw in U.S.-Chinese relations. Ten months later President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China, and by 1979 the two countries had established diplomatic ties -- thanks to what became to be called "pingpong diplomacy."
For Mr. Zhuang, who died Feb. 10 in Beijing at 72, the encounter on the bus was a more benign moment in a life buffeted by the gales of modern Chinese history. During the Cultural Revolution -- the violent mass movement Mao started in 1966 to purge China of any taint of capitalism -- Mr. Zhuang was denounced as having put too much emphasis on winning and disappeared from public view. But he regained his stature by cultivating a friendship with Mao's wife and was appointed sports minister and a member of the ruling Central Committee. When Mao's wife fell from favor, however, his fortunes crumbled again. He was assigned to sweep streets in a spirit of "self-criticism," and he attempted suicide.
Later, restored once more to good standing in Chinese society, he became a table tennis coach and pursued a passion for calligraphy.
In China, table tennis was more than a game. In the early 1950s, Mao had decreed it the national sport, in part because it was a low-cost game peasants could play. Moreover, the International Table Tennis Federation became one of the few governing bodies in sports to recognize the People's Republic, rather than the Republic of China on Taiwan, as its Chinese member nation.
Mr. Zhuang had become a national hero by winning three world championships -- in 1961, 1963 and 1965.
"It was amazing," he said of his first crown. "We needed a spiritual nuclear weapon, and I was like a newborn tiger, afraid of nothing. Mao Zedong watched my matches on television. Later, they told me he kept saying, 'Please win, Mr. Zhuang.' "
Mr. Zhuang said it was impossible to separate table tennis from politics and history, a point Mao made even more emphatically. "Regard a Ping-Pong ball as the head of your capitalist enemy," the chairman was quoted as saying. "Hit it with your socialist bat, and you have won the point for the fatherland."
Xinhua, the official Chinese press agency, announced Mr. Zhuang's death, saying the cause was rectal cancer.
Zhuang Zedong was born in Yangzhou, China, on Aug. 25, 1940, and joined the Chinese national table tennis team as a teenager. He developed a much-imitated technique for hitting a strong backhand to accompany his powerful forehand. Dick Miles, a 10-time U.S. champion, called the technique "the most perfectly executed stroke in the game." In the 1960s, Mr. Zhuang and Li Furong, also Chinese, dominated the international game.
But table tennis was banned as bourgeois during the Cultural Revolution. Several top players killed themselves, and many feared that Mr. Zhuang, who had dropped out of sight, was dead. But he surfaced in 1971 for an exhibition match, and then led his team to the world championship in Japan.
When Mr. Zhuang became a favorite of Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, there were rumors of an affair. He denied the gossip, characterizing the relationship as motherly. Under Jiang's tutelage, he rose to sports minister and a member of the Central Committee in 1975. He organized mass meetings at which denunciations, beatings and self-criticism were common.
"I did many dreadful things that I now regret," he said in 2007.
After Mao died in 1976 and Jiang and her allies, collectively called the Gang of Four, fell from power, Mr. Zhuang found himself under house arrest for 21/2 years. He then spent five years in internal exile in Shanxi province before returning to Beijing.