This is an excerpt from Eric Nusbaum’s new weekly Substack newsletter Sports Stories, where he’ll be writing about sports, history, and sports history. He hopes you will subscribe here, and share these stories with your friends, families, and table tennis practice partners. The version of this in the newsletter has some stuff about different table tennis grips in it, if that helps at all.
In 1959, a 21-year-old named Rong Guotuan entered the field at the World Table Tennis Championship in Dortmund, Germany with low expectations. Rong was a tall, skinny kid, with a parted haircut. His day job before becoming a full-time ping-pong player was as the librarian at a union hall in Hong Kong. The outlines of his life are well-recorded, but the details are hard to chase down—especially for a person (like me) who does not speak Chinese. I know that like his comrades on the Chinese National Team, he played with a traditional penhold grip. I know he had a crisp, accurate forehand and an acrobatic backhand block that flickered like a light. I know that before Dortmund, Rong had never even played in an international tournament. He was an unknown commodity. To most of the world, he remains unknown. But his life and death would become a parable for the historical moment he was born into.
The tournament in Dortmund was being held in a massive warehouse-like hall, full of tables. The sounds of footsteps on the wooden floor, and ping-pong balls on the wooden tables filled the air. When Rong leaped around the table, his bangs flipped up and down off his forehead. As the field narrowed, the tables slowly were removed from the hall until finally, in the championship match, there was only one table left at the center of the cavernous space. On one side of the table stood Rong Guotuan. This would not be the last time Rong Guotuan seemed to be at the center of everything, and yet very much alone and isolated.
The very presence of Rong Guotuan in Dortmund was something of a miracle. For one, he had been born and raised in Hong Kong, not on the mainland. Before Rong was born, his parents had fled across the water from the coastal Chinese city of Zuhai, searching for stability and opportunity. Over the course of Rong’s life, his family’s fortunes had sunk steadily. The onset of World War II had cost his father a good job at a bank. Instead he became a cook in the galley of a fishing boat.
Rong was a quiet, introspective person. Gangly and slightly awkward, he did not give off the appearance of a serious competitor, let alone a great athlete. But he was both. As a teenager, he contracted tuberculosis only to come back stronger than ever. He spent hours in the union hall in Hong Kong, practicing his serve across an empty ping pong table. The sport has evolved in the decades since Rong played, but he was ahead of his time; many of those evolutions owe themselves to Rong’s own inventiveness, especially with the serve. He had a way of hiding his spin on a backhand serve that drove opponents crazy.
Just before he turned 20 years old, Rong became Hong Kong’s men’s singles champion. Soon after that, he defeated the Japanese champion Ichiro Ogimura in an exhibition match. This, he hoped, would be the springboard to a great international career. But when the roster was announced for Hong Kong’s national team for the upcoming Asian Championship in 1957, Rong’s name was left off the list. The reason for this is not exactly clear. But it would not be unreasonable to consider that his parents’ mainland roots were a part of it. The Chinese Revolution had ended less than a decade earlier; Hong Kong, under British colonial rule, remained an anti-Communist outpost.
Throughout the 1950s, hundreds of thousands of mainland Chinese left for Hong Kong each year. Rong did the opposite. Chinese officials scouted him and wooed him. Two other Hong Kong table tennis players had made the journey back to the mainland in the years prior: Fu Qifang and Jiang Yongning. Now, Rong would too.
Just before he left Hong Kong, Rong met up with one of his close friends and playing partners. Steven Cheung. As Rong left to try his fortunes in China, Cheung was on his way to make a life in Canada. Rong taught Cheung a serve he had developed, and gave him some words of encouragement. According to a story Cheung wrote years later, the serve and the encouragement would stay with Cheung forever. (Cheung would go on to become a well-known economist studying under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. In his retirement, he would be charged with tax fraud in Seattle, and like Rong had before him, Cheung would wind up in China.)
The China that Rong’s parents had fled two decades earlier was a very different place from the China Rong came to in 1957. Now it was the People’s Republic, and Rong saw only the best of this new nation. He was feted by Chairman Mao’s trusted lieutenants. According to Nicholas Griffin’s book Ping-Pong Diplomacy, Rong was even put up in a home that had once been occupied by former Chairman Chiang Kai-shek. When Rong had a tuberculosis relapse, he was sent to recover for six months in a sanitarium.
When Rong Guotuan walked into the Guanghzou Institute of Physical Education for the first time in November of 1957, he declared that within three years he would become a world champion. There was little reason for anybody to believe him. China was not yet the global table tennis power it is today. And Rong, while obviously talented, had yet to demonstrate that he could execute consistently at a high level. He was just a quiet, gangly stranger. World champion in three years? The truth is, it would not even take him two.
In 1958, there was no World Table Tennis Championships held. So 1959, would be Rong’s first attempt at fulfilling his declaration. The tournament in Dortmund was held in the early Spring in a cavernous hall. As the tournament progressed, and Rong ran through one opponent after another, tables were slowly removed from the floor until finally, Rong found himself in the final against the Hungarian Ferenc Sido. In the remaining video of their match, Rong looks almost casual. He stands flatfooted. He wears long pants and a polo shirt:
Rong came back to China a hero. The hours he had spent alone serving across the ping-pong table in the break room at work had paid off. By defeating Sido, he became the first Chinese world champion in any sport. As such, he became a walking piece of propaganda. He was greeted by Mao Zedong and became a zealous communist. China’s first table tennis supply company opened after his victory and called itself Double Happiness. The first Happiness was Rong’s victory in Dortmund, which coincided with the second Happiness: the tenth anniversary of Mao’s 1949 establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
Table tennis flourished in China after Rong’s victory. Rong was named coach of the women’s national team. He got married and had a daughter. It seemed as if his decision to leave Hong Kong behind had paid off. His teammate Zhuang Zedong won the next three men’s singles titles. Zhuang would go on to international renown as the Chinese face of Ping Pong Diplomacy after striking up a friendship with American player Glenn Cowan at the 1971 World Championships in Japan.
Rong did not become famous like Zhuang Zedong, though. He also did not live to see China’s global dominance in table tennis come to fruition. Nor did he live to see the techniques he himself had developed while serving alone in the union hall evolve into fundamentals used by millions of players around the world.
In the mid-60s, some table tennis players became targets of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The national team was disbanded. “At the time I worried about him,” wrote Rong’s childhood friend Steven Cheung. “...I understood how the Red Guards felt about property. Table tennis skill is a kind of property, and I wondered what would happen to Rong.”
In 1968, three members of the national team were placed under house arrest: all three men had come to China from Hong Kong. Together, the trio had helped build the People’s Republic into a superpower in the sport. In April, Fu Qifang hanged himself in the national team locker room. Fu was the head coach of the men’s national team. A month later, Jiang Yongning hanged himself in his dorm room. Both men had been accused of spying by Mao’s Red Guard.
Rong was also accused. On June 20, 1968, only nine years after Dortmund, he strung a jump rope over the branches of an elm tree. The writer Keane Shum compiled a list of his alleged crimes. “That he loved reading Western novels, that he enjoyed listening to classical music, and that he missed Hong Kong.”
Rong Guotuan was found dead with a note in his pocket. He was 30 years old.
I am not a spy; please do not suspect me. I have let you down. I treasure my reputation more than my life.
Eric Nusbaum is a writer and former editor at VICE, and the author of the Sports Stories newsletter, which you can subscribe to here. His work has appeared in Deadspin, ESPN the Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and the Best American Sports Writing anthology, among other publications.