TIME History

Nixon in China: A First Taste of Modern U.S.-Chinese Relations

Richard Nixon's historic trip to communist China in 1972 continues to provide food for thought four decades later.

To some degree, the rapprochement was a dinner party. In 1972, for the first time in 25 years, American and Chinese leaders convened to discuss normalizing diplomatic relations. Although high-level political discussions went on behind closed doors, people around the world were able to witness cultural events between the two countries — like the banquet depicted in the photo above.

Large, round tables filled the hall where Americans and Chinese sat side-by-side with their counterparts. The press was also there, but very few American photographers were allowed to document the historic trip — just six total, including LIFE’s John Dominis. When not shooting photos he, too, was seated near his Chinese media colleagues.

At the Feb. 1972 banquet, President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Chou En-lai clinked glasses in celebratory toasts. Incidentally, Nixon had a known low tolerance for alcohol, and was advised by fellow U.S. official Alexander Haig to abstain from actually drinking the potent Chinese liquor, Maotai. In an unheralded political and cultural compromise, the president took small sips.

Back in the States, these dinners were — and continue to be — an endless source of fascination. They have been replicated at a New York restaurant and recreated on stage, while one of the menus has been studied by students in U.S. history classrooms.

More than 40 years later, Nixon’s landmark trip to the People’s Republic continues to provide food for thought.

Paulina Hartono is a student in the History Department at the University of California, Berkeley

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