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BEIJING - Zhuang Zedong, a former Chinese table tennis player known for his participation in the historic Sino-US ping-pong diplomacy in the 1970s, died at the age of 73 on Sunday.
Zhuang, born in Yangzhou in east China's Jiangsu Province, became one of the world's best ping-pong players in the 1960s.
During a championship game held in Japan in 1971, US table tennis player Glenn Cowan rode on the Chinese team's bus and came to know Zhuang after chatting with him. China and the US were Cold War rivals at that time.
Later, the Chinese government invited the US ping-pong team to visit China. The tour, later described as "ping-pong diplomacy, " paved the way for a visit by then US President Richard Nixon to China in 1972 and eventually the establishment of Sino-US diplomatic ties in 1979.
Two months after Nixon's visit, Zhuang led a Chinese ping-pong delegation to the US and served as head of China's national sports authority until 1977.
Zhuang married Chinese pianist Bao Huiqiao in 1967, and they divorced in 1985.
In 1987, Zhuang got married with Chinese-born Japanese Sasaki Atsuko, who gave up her Japanese citizenship for the marriage, according to Zhuang's book titled "Deng Xiaoping's Approval of Our Marriage."
Before retiring in 2000, Zhuang coached teenagers in Beijing.
After his American counterpart Glenn Cowan passed away in 2004, Zhuang expressed his sympathy and visited Cowan's mother in 2007.
Zhuang was diagnosed with rectal cancer in 2008.
Zhuang's death promptly made a headline on several major news portals and hot topic on social networking services on Sunday evening, which is also the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year.
Web users mourned Zhuang's death and wished him rest in peace.
"The nation would never forget him," said "ying4703" on Sina.com.
The official People's Daily praised Zhuang's "outstanding contribution" to the country's diplomatic cause in a posting on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
Many also recalled his legendary achievements in international championships and laying the foundation for ping-pong diplomacy in his unique way.
He was "a hero of the time," said Weibo user "dazhongshenghou."