Ping pong Pa­tri­o­tism

Vet­eran ta­ble ten­nis pad­dle maker be­hind many of China’s world cham­pi­ons

Global Times - Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Xu Ming

Cao Lixi, 81, still spends a lot of time in­no­vat­ing on ping pong pad­dles (ta­ble ten­nis rack­ets) in his small work­shop in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, where his pad­dles hang on the walls and tools clutter his ta­ble.

Pre­vi­ously a bench worker in the Chi­nese army, Cao has spent more than 60 years re­pair­ing and mak­ing ta­ble ten­nis rack­ets, win­ning many thumbs-up from world cup cham­pi­ons. In this time, Cao has re­paired over 800 pad­dles.

Orig­i­nally this was just a hobby for Cao, who has played the pop­u­lar Chi­nese sport since he was a teenager. Now, the man is the owner of two patents and his per­sis­tence has made him well-known, par­tic­u­larly in a mod­ern era where tra­di­tional crafts­man­ship is rare and cher­ished.

But it is not only a hobby. See­ing that play­ers for Chi­nese na­tional teams mostly use for­eign brands, Cao has en­deav­ored to make the best Made-in-China ping pong pad­dles ex­clu­sively for Chi­nese play­ers. This pa­tri­o­tism is the big­gest drive be­hind his ef­forts to­day.

“I hope that our play­ers will use my pad­dles, as weapons with do­mes­tic patent, when they fight for­eign play­ers,” Cao told the Global Times. He calls it “win­ning an honor” for the Chi­nese peo­ple.

Self-taught tal­ent

Cao pur­chased his first ta­ble ten­nis racket in 1953 at age 16, right af­ter grad­u­at­ing from mid­dle school and join­ing the army. He used five out of his six-yuan sub­sidy to buy it.

A bench worker in the de­part­ment in charge of re­pair­ing guns and firearms, Cao was very skill­ful with his hands and liked to study the struc­ture of things. Com­bined with his af­fec­tion for ta­ble ten­nis, he started to in­ves­ti­gate ping pong pad­dles and tried a num­ber of ways to make them more player-friendly.

In 1956 he was sent to a field unit. See­ing that the in­ner tiers of aban­doned can­nons were elas­tic, he pasted a piece of elas­tic on a pad­dle and found it worked well. In the be­gin­ning, he only re­paired his own rack­ets, but grad­u­ally re­paired rack­ets for oth­ers.

Later, Cao grew dis­sat­is­fied with the qual­ity of rack­ets be­ing mass-pro­duced in fac­to­ries, so he started to buy tools to make rack­ets him­self. It was a job that needed ex­treme con­cen­tra­tion and pre­ci­sion, in­volv­ing ac­cu­rate pa­ram­e­ters for ev­ery pro­ce­dure.

Thanks to his years of study, Cao man­aged to have two of his in­ven­tions win patents: a tram­po­line-style bam­boo fiber pad­dle and a re­puted

Mei­huazhuang pad­dle that con­sists of 274 rice-size wood grains to sup­port the board.

A pad­dle has three pa­ram­e­ters in its elas­tic­ity, speed and con­trol­la­bil­ity, and a good pad­dle aims to find a per­fect bal­ance be­tween the three. Cao’s rack­ets are thick and light and re­silient at the same time, find­ing in­spi­ra­tion from a va­ri­ety of wood and fibers, sim­i­lar to Edi­son’s search for lamp fil­a­ment. His pad­dles are branded Xi, named af­ter the last char­ac­ter of his name.

Meet­ing a de­mand

Even though Cao’s pad­dles con­tinue to sell well both on­line and off­line, he con­tin­ues to re­pair other peo­ple’s pad­dles, a ser­vice he has pro­vided for the past 60 years.

Among his cus­tomers are many big names in the world of ta­ble ten­nis, in­clud­ing Xiao Zhan, coach for the women’s team of the na­tional ta­ble ten­nis team, Zhu Yul­ing, cham­pion at the ITTF Women’s World Cup, and Qiu Yike and Wang Manyu, who are also cham­pi­ons in in­ter­na­tional con­tests.

“When re­pair­ing rack­ets, we have a chance to know the in­ner struc­ture and ma­te­ri­als for rack­ets of all brands around the world, which helps us get big data about the rack­ets and can im­prove our tech­niques in the end,” said Wu Wei, a se­nior en­gi­neer born in 1976 who works as Cao’s part­ner.

Cao charges only around 40 yuan ($6.27) for his re­pair ser­vice even though it may re­quire even more tech­nique and time than pro­duc­ing a new pad­dle.

A ta­ble ten­nis player him­self, he knows that peo­ple de­velop per­sonal re­la­tion­ships with their pad­dles. “Peo­ple al­ways say ‘a player and a pad­dle are one.’ Some peo­ple feel un­com­fort­able with a new pad­dle,” said Cao.

Top play­ers in par­tic­u­lar, who are very sen­si­tive to the weight, thick­ness and re­silience of their racket, and whose per­for­mance could be greatly af­fected by it, pre­fer to re­pair their old pad­dles than buy new ones.

Car­ry­ing Car on the spirit sp

Vig­or­ous de­spite his age, Cao keeps up with the times, up­dat­ing his WeChat posts daily to share news and ac­tiv­i­ties re­lated to ta­ble ten­nis and his pad­dle busi­ness. He is never shy about his grand am­bi­tions. “Chi­nese play­ers are the best in the world, but the pad­dles they use are mostly orig­i­nated from Ja­pan, Swe­den or Ger­many,” said Cao.

Wu spends all his spare time learn­ing from Cao how to make and re­pair ping pong pad­dles.

A ta­ble ten­nis lover, he first met Cao in 2015 while search­ing for a good racket. The two joined forces, and Wu now also helps Cao sell his pad­dles on Taobao and WeChat, where many play­ers, in­clud­ing for­eign­ers, are at­tracted by his rep­u­ta­tion.

As a tra­di­tional crafts­man, how­ever, Cao is wor­ried that many old-fash­ioned skills are dis­ap­pear­ing from Chi­nese so­ci­ety. Per­son­ally, he fears that such high-qual­ity crafts­man­ship will die with him.

Cao is cur­rently search­ing for full­time ap­pren­tices who will carry on his craft.

To­gether with Wu, the duo is ac­tively en­gaged in lo­cal com­mu­nity ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing demon­strat­ing to young stu­dents the crafts­man­ship spirit in the process of mak­ing pad­dles, which they think can help strengthen the younger gen­er­a­tion’s aware­ness of the importance of man­ual dex­ter­ity.

“I hope that our play­ers will use my pad­dles, as weapons with do­mes­tic patent, when they fight for­eign play­ers.” Cao Lixi a se­nior vet­eran who owns a work­shop in Chengdu mak­ing ta­ble ten­nis pad­dles

Pho­tos: Cour­tesy of Wu Wei

Cao Lixi holds a pad­dle pro­duced in his work­shop. In­set: A Mei­huazhuang pad­dle

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