Zhuang Zedong, a former table tennis star known for kicking off the period of "ping pong diplomacy" between China and the United States during the 1970s, died Sunday. He was 73.

The official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that Zhuang died on Sunday but did not mention the cause of death or where he died.

The three-time world men's singles champion, who according to some publications had suffered from cancer for at least two years, was a key figure in the development of ping pong diplomacy, the trips made by U.S. table tennis players to China - which was an isolated nation at the time under the regime of Mao Zedong - that eventually led to the resumption of ties between the two countries.

The innovative diplomatic effort began at the World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, in 1971, when U.S. player Glenn Cowan got on the Chinese team's bus - some say out of curiosity, others say by mistake - where he met Zhuang.

The pair exchanged gifts, an anecdote that was reported by many newspapers and television news organizations for its great symbolic value, given that the two nations were bitter antagonists at the time.

In the chat they had, Zhuang invited Cowan to travel to China, although during that period the Asian giant was building nuclear bomb shelters in case it was attacked by Washington.

Although there seemed to be little chance for Cowan to be able to accept the invitation, the popular story goes that Mao decided to take the apparently off-handed remark seriously and invited a delegation of U.S. ping pong players to Beijing.

Nine U.S. male and female players, accompanied by some of their spouses and four officials in the sport, arrived in China a few days after the encounter on the bus in Nagoya.

Ping pong diplomacy opened the door for the thawing of U.S.-Chinese relations, including the secret visit to China three months later by then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and, the next year, the very public visit of then-President Richard Nixon more than 20 years after bilateral relations had been broken off. EFE