The Secrets Of Chinese Table Tennis

Well-Known Member
Mar 2011
This was an article originally written by Larry Hodges and Cheng Yinghua for USATT Magazine which I think would be nice to be shared with everyone here.


The Chinese National Team

The Chinese team has more depth than any other team in the world. The primary training center is in Beijing. The team is made up of 96 players – 24 men, 24 women, 24 boys and 24 girls.

Players are given “tryouts” early on, usually with trips to major tournaments in Europe or elsewhere, to see how they do internationally. From this, the Chinese judge if this player has the potential to become a star.

A huge advantage China has comes from their depth. If a player on the national team isn’t working hard, doesn’t do well internationally, or has technical flaws hurting their progress, there is always another “hungry” player with potential on the outside waiting to get in.

National Team Selection

In many countries (including USA), the national team is selected in a Team Trials. This may be the fairest way of choosing a team, but it may not the best way to develop a dominating team. According to Cheng, in most countries – including USA – 90% of the training and team funding goes to “flawed players” who have no chance of ever winning medals.

This is a true problem as a Team Trials fits most people’s notion of fairness. Yet the players who make the team in such Trials usually do not match the players with the greatest potential for winning medals. Often players in their 40s make the team over promising players under 22.
Exhibit “A” is the current U.S. National Team at the recent Worlds, chosen by Team Trials. Their ages were 46, 41, 41, 38, 37, 36, 34, 30, 19 and 18. (This is not to disparage the accomplishments of those who made the team in the Team Trials, who earned their positions.) Many of the top youth players in the U.S. just missed making the team. Ironically, the youngest player to make the team, Han Xiao, age 18, finished fifth, and only the top four spots are funded – so he had to pay his own way, even though he was the top player of his age in the country. The funding went instead to older players, mostly in their 30s and 40s. Players such as Mark Hazinski (20, U.S. #1 under 22), Adam Hugh (17, U.S. #1 under 18 boy), and Judy Hugh (15, U.S. #1 under 18 girl), did not go.

Was this the fairest way of choosing a team? Yes. Was it the best way to choose a team with the potential to develop into medal contenders? Probably not. Unless they were top world-ranked players, Chinese coaches probably wouldn’t have selected anyone over age 22. One option is to have either a separate “youth” team made up of under 22 players who train as part of the national team. Many countries already have these, but these players, along with older players who can challenge the best players in the world, need to be the focus.


The Chinese train long and hard. Typically they do seven hours of training each day – both table play and physical training away from the table. In the mornings, they normally do physical training away from the table, and serve practice. There is a morning and an afternoon training session, usually six days a week. (Training includes both regular practice with a partner, and multiball training with a coach. This is the same for most countries.) Some players play extra practice matches at night or on off days. Players generally get 12 days off per year, although they also get rest days after major tournaments (which often are travel days).

They normally focus on training from November to April, and with more tournaments the rest of the year.

Specialized Practice Partners

One huge advantage China has over the rest of the world is their practice partners. Typically, in most countries, members of the national team train together. However, in China, much of the training is with “professional” practice partners. Instead of players always taking turns on drills, all the training focuses on the one player. (This is especially helpful for the women, who practice with male practice partners who are usually stronger then the women players.)

Even more important, practice partners mimic the styles of opposing players. The Chinese team includes practice partners who have developed their games to match those of the best foreign players – men like Schlager, Samsonov, Kreanga, Waldner, Saive, Chuan, Ryu and Oh, and women like Boros, Tie Yana, Li Jia Wei, Liu Jia, Kim Kyung Ah, and Pavlovich. These practice partners study videos of the player they are copying, and talk to players who have played them so as to better mimic them.

According to Duan Xiang, a member of the Chinese Technical Committee of the Chinese Table Tennis Association, “We have a lot of Chinese Samsonovs and Waldners. Our players play against them every day and that makes the real match day easier.”

Cheng spent much of his time on the Chinese team as a practice partner. During his early years, he was told to copy Hungary’s Tibor Klampar. Later, when Klampar retired, he was told to mimic Jan-Ove Waldner. Cheng even traveled to Europe to watch these players live in tournaments, and would speak with players who played them to get insight on their games and what made them so effective. Those who watch Cheng now can see the mixture of Klampar and Waldner in his game.

China’s Jiang Jialiang, a pips-out penholder, won the worlds in 1985. As the 1987 Worlds approached, it became apparent that his main rival would be Sweden’s Waldner. And so much of his time training was with Cheng, who could mimic everything Waldner did, from his serve and serve returns, to his forehand loops and drives, etc. As the ’87 Worlds approached, they began playing many practice matches, with the loser doing push-ups. Cheng won match after match, and after each match would stand over Jiang as he did his push-ups, asking how he’s going to win the Worlds if he can’t even beat him?!! The preparation worked; while Jiang didn’t do so well against Cheng before the Worlds, he became so used to the “Waldner” game that he was able to win the 1987 Worlds again.

Perhaps, if he’d practiced with players who mimicked the best Chinese, at the recent Worlds Maze wouldn’t have fallen behind 3-0 to Hao Shuai, and been more comfortable with Ma Lin’s game? Perhaps he was just getting used to Ma when the match ended, as he did with Hao Shuai? (He lost the match 11-7, 11-6, 11-9, 11-8, showing he was getting closer at the end.) And the same thing to the other match-ups between Chinese players and others?

Two-on-One Practice Partners

A common problem for the best players in the world is finding a strong enough practice partner. During his prime, Waldner once quipped to the Swedish coach, “When do I get to practice with someone stronger?”

China has more depth than any country, but even there, the best players are the best players. Players like Wang Liqin and Ma Lin can’t find anyone better to practice with than themselves. Or can they?

China has developed a way of doing this. Cheng was hesitant about even talking about this, as this training method has been relatively secret, even to this day. It is normally only used in closed training sessions as they prepare for major tournaments. Cheng hinted that at one time, if he’d told “outsiders” about this technique, he’d have gotten in trouble.

The technique involves having two practice partners for one player. This is a luxury that other countries can’t afford, but that China, with their playing depth, can. Two practice partners are selected, one with a very strong forehand, one with a very strong backhand (but also a good forehand), and they learn to play together as a team. Together, they do drills with the best Chinese players. With one player only playing forehand from the forehand side, and the other only playing from the backhand side (favoring backhand, but also playing forehand from backhand as top players do), suddenly they become a “stronger player” than even Wang Liqin! And so even the best Chinese players are pushed to the limit, practicing with these “stronger players.”

The Development of a Chinese Player

Chinese children are tested at a very early age for sports skills. Those that test well are often put into special sports schools. Cheng was tested at age 5, and tested highly for racket sport skills, and so was put into a special sports school. From age 5 to about 12, he was trained in both table tennis and badminton. From age 12 on, he was essentially a full-time table tennis player, dropping out of school to focus solely on table tennis. Most other top Chinese players have similar stories.

Others come from regular schools. Essentially every school in China has a table tennis team that trains regularly. In a country of 1.3 billion, that’s a huge number of teams! According to the Shanghai Daily (May 7, 2005), “10 million players play regularly. These are players who are exposed regularly to what high-level play is like, not the basement players that make up the masses in the U.S. and many other countries.”

Chinese Technique

Some say China is good at table tennis only because of sheer numbers. There is, of course, a degree of truth to this. However, as shown by Europe’s (especially Sweden’s) rise in the early 1990s, and China’s decline, numbers cannot overcome poor technique. In the late 1980’s/early 1990s, China was slow to adjust to changing technique, sticking too long with most pips-out style games while the rest of the world was changing to inverted looping, especially shakehand style. China has learned from that experience, and now leads the world in this very style. Wang Liqin was recently re-crowned as world men’s champion (he also won in 2001). On the women’s side, Zhang Yining just won the Worlds; she was preceded by Wang Nan, who won three straight. All three of these players are shakehand loopers, and are probably the most emulated players in the world.

What happens in China is that the players with the best technique, talent, and mental & physical skills tend to rise to the top. Where before some of these players might have been kept out because they didn’t play the “right” playing style (with most shakehand loopers relegated to becoming practice partners who copied the European loopers, like Cheng), now they become regular Chinese team members. Because there are so many Chinese players, they are loaded with skilled and hard-working players. And so the best Chinese players tend to be the ones with the best technique.

New techniques are regularly coming out. Probably the most noticeable is the “reverse penhold backhand,” best exemplified by Olympic Silver Medalist Wang Hao and World Men’s Singles Finalist (and recently ranked #1 in the world) Ma Lin. Historically, penholders use the same side of the racket for both forehand and backhand. In the 1990s, a number of Chinese players began using the reverse side of the racket to attack on the backhand, most prominently by Liu Guoliang (1996 Olympic Gold Medalist, 1999 World Champion), who used it mostly as a variation. Ma Lin raised it to a new level, using it as a primary shot. Wang Hao raised it to an even higher level, making it his primary backhand shot.

While Europeans pioneered backhand looping, the Chinese have developed over-the-table backhand looping to a higher degree. Europeans like Klampar developed this technique in the 1970s, but few others developed this style. China did. Now Chinese players like Wang Liqin, Kong Linghui and Zhang Yining are among the best in the world at this (along with Austria’s Werner Schlager and Korea’s Oh Sang Eun).

Above all, Chinese players dominate with serve & receive techniques. Other countries have closed the gap in serve techniques, yet most consider Ma Lin’s serves the best among world-class players, and before him, Liu Guoliang’s – both Chinese players. But it is return of serve where the Chinese really dominate. Where other countries learn to return serves to neutralize the serve, the Chinese return serves to throw opponents off and take the initiative. Ma Lin is probably best at this, tying opponents in knots with his returns, but all the Chinese players train many hours at this, and so have few peers at receive. Outside China, Waldner may be the only one who can do this at the Chinese level.

There is another “secret” strength of Chinese technique, except it’s not really a secret: they have the best basics. They spend huge amounts of time on the “boring” basics, and so are nearly machine-like in their efficiency. You rarely see a Chinese player miss an easy shot. Cheng said of his winning the USA Nationals in 2004 at age 46 that most of his opponents simply didn’t have good basics. (This is relative, of course – good basics at the world-class level are pretty advanced for most of us.)
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Sep 2011
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This was written in 2005 I think. I'm fairly sure I put a link to this article, but it's really a great read. Many people still to this day don't understand what the Chinese system offers to its players. They prefer to just work on counter looping and currently are trying to improve their footwork when all of this should have been done prior to real training regimens.