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The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World

Combining the insight of Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World and the intrigue of Ben Affleck’s Argo, Ping Pong Diplomacy traces the story of how an aristocratic British spy used the game of table tennis to propel a Communist strategy that changed the shape of the world.

The spring of 1971 brought the greatest realignment in a generation. After twenty-two years of antagonism, China and the United States suddenly moved towards a détente—achieved not by politicians but by ping pong players. The western press digested the moment as an absurd and happy catalyst for reconciliation and branded it ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy.’ But for the Chinese, ping pong was always political, a strategic cog in Mao Zedong’s foreign policy. Griffin proves that the organized game, from its first breath, was tied to Communism thanks to its founder, Ivor Montagu, the son of a wealthy English baron who also happened to be a spy for the Soviet Union.

Ping Pong Diplomacy tells the strange and tragic story of how the game was manipulated at the highest levels; how the Chinese government helped cover up the death of 36 million by holding the World Table Tennis Championships during the Great Famine; how championship players were condemned, tortured, and murdered during the Cultural Revolution; and, finally, how the survivors were reconvened in 1971 and ordered to reach out to their American counterparts. Through a cast of eccentric characters, from spies to hippies, ping pong-obsessed generals to atom-bomb survivors, Griffin explores how a neglected sport incited a realignment of world super powers.


An ‘Best Book of the Month’, a New York Post ‘Must-Read Book of the Week’, The Daily Telegraph’s Book of the Week and NPR’s ‘Only a Game’ featured book of the week.

“An absorbing tale … full of fast-paced narratives and well-crafted characters”
The Washington Post

“Off-beat and engrossing … Griffin’s book is a fitting treatment of the entire overlooked episode”
The Boston Globe

“Above all, it is a scrupulous meditation on how eccentricities of time and place can shape big political and social events … meticulously researched and ambitiously conceived … a fascinating, eclectic cast-list of characters. Griffin’s achievement is that he has captured the big picture without losing the fine detail … This book deserves a wide audience.”
The Times (UK)

“A fascinating account … revealing and well-researched … It is to Griffin’s credit that in this book he has finally nailed … the crucial event that initiated Ping-Pong diplomacy.”
The New York Review of Books

“Engaging … Griffin tells a curious, compelling story: one that reminds us sharply of the close embrace of politics and sport. Griffin has a keen eye for the febrile absurdities of the Cold War (and) also maintains a powerful human dimension throughout the book.”
The Daily Telegraph (UK)

“A racy account”
The Wall Street Journal

“Among the many quirks that make Mr. Griffin’s account so interesting is the culture clash that ensued … But in addition to presenting a broad diplomatic tableau and fascinating personal histories, Mr. Griffin is careful to weigh the consequences of what his book describes.”
–The New York Times

“An informative and entertaining book … Griffin shows that the Chinese were controlling the game all along. In both ping-pong and diplomacy, the Americans were woefully outmatched”
The LA Review of Books

“A stranger-than-fiction tale….Through meticulous research and an impressively-crafted narrative, Griffin gives depth to the life of the “the forgotten architect” of so-called ping-pong diplomacy.”
The Independent (UK)

“A jolly romp through the 20th century … a series of events that might be deemed too outlandish for the sensible reader, were they not entirely true”
Macleans (Canada)

“Impossible to resist…full of colorful characters”

“Fascinating … (with) startling descriptions”
NPR’s All Things Considered

“Deft … Nicholas Griffin interweaves personal histories with the strategic story of ping-pong diplomacy, one of history’s more bizarre, world-changing episodes.”
The Guardian (UK)

“Fascinating … tales of grit and tenacity, manipulation and deception. In his deeply-researched and fast-paced narrative, reading in parts almost like fiction, Griffin brings to life the redoubtable Ivor Montagu and others who transformed the innocuous game with the little bouncy white ball into a potent instrument of international politics.”
The Hindu (India)

“… reads so much like a thriller that you have to keep reminding yourself that it is all fact … a book of meticulous archival research and reportage.”
The Indian Express (Delhi/Mumbai)

“Fantastically fun … Griffin, a journalist, has a fiction writer’s sense of character development, mining his subjects for rich details that humanize them and make the reader care … We often hesitate to recommend historical books on China to friends, but found ourselves enthusiastically telling our coworkers we’d give them our copy of Ping Pong Diplomacy when we were done.”
City Weekend (China)

“Ping-Pong Diplomacy presents a compelling and largely untold account of the individuals responsible for the sport’s rise in prominence.”
That’s Shanghai (China)

Time Out Beijing (China)

Ping-Pong Diplomacy belongs in the category of ‘you can’t make this stuff up.’ It reads more like a le Carré novel than diplomatic history. But the tale it recounts actually happened, and casts a new and provocative light on the U.S. Opening to China, one of the great foreign policy breakthroughs of the 20th century.”
—Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of A New World Order and The Idea That Is America

“This is the amazing drama of how Ping-Pong changed the world. With great research and narrative skills, Griffin brings us behind the scenes of the historic trip by the American team to China in 1971 to tell what really happened and why. Plus he puts it into the context of Ping-Pong’s fascinating history of being more than just a game.”
—Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs

Ping-Pong Diplomacy is a deeply absorbing, suspenseful, and hilarious behind-the-scenes peek into a riveting slice of sports and political history. Nicholas Griffin has delivered an overhead smash. I love this book!”
—Davy Rothbart, author of My Heart is an Idiot and creator of Found Magazine

“A gripping read of the unlikely intertwining of table tennis as a sport with British and Soviet spycraft, and the high politics that broke China and the United States out of their Cold War confrontation. Anyone interested in the history of Sino-American normalization will find this literate and well documented history of ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ filled with poignant examples of how the politics of Mao’s Cultural Revolution used and destroyed the lives of Chinese officials enamored with the play of the little white ball.”
—Richard H. Solomon, formerly a member of Henry Kissinger’s NSC staff, Assistant Secretary of State for Asia, and President of the US Institute of Peace

“At last, here is the fascinating story of the sport that shaped the geopolitics today. Part character-driven history, part diplomatic caper, and part investigative pilgrimage to contemporary China, Ping-Pong Diplomacy makes us look again at an event that Griffin reveals is the climax of a decades-long movement. This is narrative history at its best.”
—Michael Meyer, author of The Last Days of Old Beijing

“Alfred Hitchcock would grab this book for a spy thriller. He himself makes an entry into the melodrama superbly plotted by Nick Griffin. The MacGuffin in this case are table tennis balls by the hundred, which mislead British intelligence in its surveillance of an apparently rather daffy British aristocrat. I happen to have known the aristo, Ivor Montagu, when I played in table tennis tournaments he organized in Europe. He fooled me, too. But then until Ping-Pong Diplomacy came along, who’d guessed what he was up to as he moved among the marquee names—Trotsky and Charlie Chaplin, President Roosevelt and Sam Goldwyn, Mao and the Queen of England?”
—Sir Harold Evans author of My Paper Chase 

“Ping-Pong as a vehicle for international espionage? It’s an idea so outlandish that, if it weren’t true, some novelist would have to invent it. A remarkable story, well documented and excitingly told.”
Booklist, starred review

“Griffin has found an intriguing story with which to illuminate several important political events of the later 20th century and told it well.”
–Publishers Weekly

“Griffin bites off a huge story … a quirky, thoroughly enjoyable trek.”
–Kirkus Reviews

Ping Pong Diplomacy is terrific from first line to last …. I was impressed by the combination of research, interviews and storytelling in the chapters. Here’s a rare statement from this reviewer: I wish I’d had much more time to spend with the book.”