I had never seen ping pong look so good. In fact, before this Saturday, when the Princeton Table Tennis Club played Peking University’s team, I had never even seen competitive ping pong played before – excepting a few scenes in Forrest Gump, when Gump ‘played’ the Chinese national team as a part of the Ping Pong Diplomacy of 1971. Like its predecessors, this Chinese team also played against American competitors to enhance relations. This time, though, the Chinese players were going on a tour of the U.S. to spread goodwill about the 2008 Beijing Olympics and to raise money for the ping pong stadium that will be built on its campus.

The game that took place this past Saturday didn’t carry the significance of the higher profile ones between the two countries in the early ’70s (this was labeled a friendly match, and it lived up to its name), and it wasn’t as well-scripted as Forrest Gump (Princeton’s team lost five of seven matches), but it was something to behold: the game was as much a cultural event as an athletic one, and it showed just how much relations have changed between the two countries.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Ping Pong Diplomacy, one of the rare sporting events – along with Jesse Owens defying Hitler at the 1936 Munich Olympics and John Carlos and Tommie Smith promoting Black Power at the 1968 Games in Mexico City – that had some sort of influence on politics. And, while the point of the Chinese tour was to raise money for the Olympics, it also commemorates the anniversary of Ping Pong Diplomacy.

The story behind the Diplomacy goes something like this: in 1971, Glenn Cowan, an American table tennis player participating in a Japanese tournament, missed the U.S. team bus. He was then invited by the Chinese players onto their bus, no small deal since China, as a Communist country, was one of America’s biggest adversaries.

Shortly thereafter, likely due to the positive press that both countries generated from that chance encounter, the Chinese government invited the U.S. table tennis team to play in Beijing. A year later, the Chinese team played in the United States, and President Richard Nixon visited China. “The ping pong tours,” Princeton Professor Perry Link, who attended this Saturday’s matches, wrote in an email, “were conceived at the level of Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger as symbols of the geopolitical change the two sides were engineering.” Link, professor of East Asian Studies and former translator for the Chinese team during their visit to America in 1972, wrote that each country had different reasons for beginning a dialogue; ping pong was “a mere symbol.”

Much has changed since some ping pong players broke the deafening silence between the two countries in the early ’70’s. Almost everyone in the Dillon Gym Multipurpose room – including some of the players on Princeton’s own table tennis team – was Chinese, while the formal announcements and random player and fan outbursts were in Mandarin. The fans, eager to see the matches, started off merely enthusiastic; by the end, the near-capacity crowd of 160 was incredibly engaged in the action, freely interacting with the players. After the matches, several Princeton supporters had their pictures taken with Chinese players, and some Chinese players spoke with Princeton’s coach, Professor Volker Schroder, about the possibility of attending graduate school here. A match between these two countries still produces bragging rights, but it seems that it can now also produce scholarships.

The event also presented a sort of past-meets-present match-up between the two countries. Princeton’s best player, Adam Hugh, who plays for the U.S. Men’s Table Tennis team, played four games against Liang Geliang, one of China’s best from the 1970’s and a player on the Chinese team involved in the Diplomacy matches – a kind of “Chinese Jimmy Connors or Martina Navratilova,” said Schroder. The significance of the match in general, said Schroder, who is also the head of the French & Italian Department here, was that of “a true sports treat – equivalent perhaps to having the Duke Basketball team with Coach K and Bill Bradley in Dillon for a friendly scrimmage.”

But probably the most notable difference between the Diplomacy matches of the ’70’s and the university-run friendly this past Saturday manifested itself at the beginning of the program, when a Chinese representative made an appeal for donations for a ping pong stadium at PKU in the 2008 Olympics. Coach/Prof. Schroder wrote in an email that, while this tour was “mainly a University initiative, not a top-down government propaganda operation, it was actually unabashedly ‘capitalistic.’” Founder Group, one of China’s largest personal computer vendors, became PKU’s official sponsor in 2003, while the match was sponsored by two companies, Linyi Shansong Biological Products and Li-ning Sports Goods Company. Founder’s site boasts that the team has developed “a model of stockholder organizational system, entrepreneur management, [and] standardized operation,” a far cry from the way Chinese sports teams were run and supported in the 1970’s.

It turned out that the first ping pong competition I had ever seen featured matches between two of the best players in the world, one current and one of a past generation; it showed how much China had changed since its initial matches on U.S. soil; it provided all viewers a true cultural experience; and it commemorated the 35th anniversary of Ping Pong Diplomacy. As one famous – if fictional – ping pong player might have said: you never know what you’re gonna get.