All Chinese people know that China’s table tennis is a superpower and holds an invincible position in world rankings. However, many people may not be aware of the tragic life and sudden disappearance of Rong Guotuan, the first table tennis world championship winner and the first world championship winner in sports after the takeover of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Glory days of Rong Guotuan
Born in Hong Kong, Rong Guotuan won the championship in the Hong Kong Table Tennis Port Tournament at the age of 17. He defeated Japan’s player in the 23rd World Table Tennis Championship at the age of 19, and he became a celebrity. The quick strokes he developed broke the fancy playing methods that dominated European and Japanese table tennis at the time.
In 1957, at 20, Rong Guotuan was persuaded by He Long, the director of the China Sports Commission, to move to mainland China to develop his career. He first entered the Guangzhou Institute of Physical Education and vowed to win the world championship in three years.
In 1958, he was selected for the Guangdong Provincial Table Tennis Team. He won the men’s singles championship at the National Table Tennis tournament that year and was subsequently chosen as a member of the national training team.
In April 1959, at the 25th World Table Tennis Championship in Dortmund, Germany, Rong Guotuan defeated Hungary’s Sido 3:1, winning the first table tennis men’s singles world championship for China and the first world championship after the takeover of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Received hero’s welcome, honors, and accolades
At a time when the Western world rejected the CCP, Rong Guotuan’s winning this championship was of great significance to the CCP. For a while, not only did he receive all kinds of honors and accolades, but he also received the special treatment of the Vice Premier of the People’s Republic of China, He Long, who personally picked him up at the airport. Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai also received Rong Guotuan many times, and every time foreign guests visited China, Rong Guotuan was also invited as a guest.
With his outstanding appearance, he became an idol for young Chinese people. Rong Guotuan later fell in love and married Guangdong track and field athlete Huang Xiuzhen.
In 1961, at the 26th World Table Tennis Championship held in Beijing, Rong Guotuan significantly contributed to the Chinese team winning the men’s team championship for the first time. The whole country went off on a table tennis craze. Rong Guotuan was appointed as the coach of the women’s table tennis team and led the team to win the women’s team championship at the 28th World Table Tennis Championship.
Suddenly, a target of the Party
However, the happy days did not last long. After the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the table tennis team was betrayed by the Party. In December of that year, when Rong Guotuan returned from a competition abroad, he was shocked to find that the table tennis training hall had been plastered with big-character posters by the Red Guards.
These posters claimed that the national table tennis team was the sprout of revisionism and that the seven world championship trophies won by the national table tennis team were all bourgeois titles.
Due to the takedown of He Long and Rong Guotuan’s experiences growing up in Hong Kong, he was arrested and censored together with Fu Qifang, the head coach of the national team (who also came from Hong Kong), and Jiang Yongning, the head coach of the Beijing team.
He was publicly humiliated and severely beaten by the Red Guards. Several members of the team were branded as a “counter-revolutionary spy clique” because they often dined together.
See Part 2 here.