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From Mao’s thrall to south Puget Sound freedom

Mao Zedong and Sidney Rittenberg Credit: Photo courtesy personal collection of Sidney Rittenberg

When Sidney Rittenberg, now age 90, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942, he was shipped off to China to work as a translator. As with many educated Yanks deployed in World War II China, the South Carolinian became an enthusiastic sinophile.

Rittenberg, however, by adopting Chinese Communist Party orthodoxy, went a step farther: he went native.

Not until 35 years later — having been imprisoned for 16 of them — did he finally return with his family from China to the United States. He and his wife, Yulin, now live on Fox Island, in south Puget Sound.

Rittenberg’s story is a life of exoticism, inextricably linked to the greatest revolution of the 20th century, the Chinese Communist Revolution. Restless, intellectually driven and consummately contemplative, Rittenberg thrives today as a consultant, advising Fortune 500 companies on the navigation of Chinese shoals. Having been acquainted with every Chinese leader from Mao Zedong onward, his connections, his deep understanding of Chinese culture, and his recognition of interpersonal nuances are invaluable to U.S, companies negotiating in China.

Rittenberg's remarkable story has been captured in a new documentary, The Revolutionary, that will premier this Sunday, May 27, at the Seattle International Film Festival. Co-produced by veterarn Seattle documentarian Lucy Ostrander, “The Revolutionary” presents the odyssey of Rittenberg's complex, poignant life.

Brought up in a bourgeois Charleston family — his father was a prominent lawyer — Rittenberg was a precocious ideologue whose exposure to injustice in the South fostered reformist leanings. Having learned Latin, French, and German, all were subsumed when Uncle Sam sent him to Stanford to learn Chinese. A sinologist was born.

In 1945 with the Japanese occupiers having been vanquished, the honorably discharged Rittenberg sought an opportunity to remain in China. Hired by a relief organization, his mission was to observe the humanitarian distribution of U.S.-provided grain in Hunan Province. Instead, he saw the collusion of profiteers hoarding that relief in the war-torn, famine-stricken region. Emaciated corpses littered the sides of roads while the grain was redirected to the open market in Hong Kong.

By contrast, Rittenberg saw that peasants in the Communist-held north were the beneficiaries of polices directed to the better good of all. By then a proposed coalition government run by Nationalists and Communists had been abandoned. Rittenberg wasn’t merely a witness to the final stages of the revolution that began to rage, he became intimately involved — living in Yanan in the guerilla-base caves with Mao, Zhou Enlai and other key figures as they cleverly strategized their victory over Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists.

For Rittenberg, known in China as Li Dunbai, the glory of the revolution was short-lived. Although the only American member of the Chinese Communist Party, in 1949 he was falsely branded a foreign spy. (Incidentally, that charge was related to Stalin’s arrest of one-time Seattle-based radical writer Anna Louise Strong.) He was sentenced to a term of then-unknown length.

Stuck in solitary confinement, he was fed mysterious white pills thrice daily — not far off the mark of anti-communist propaganda in the West, presented in 1950s books such as Brain-Washing in Red China. Having been transferred in darkness from one prison to another, it was years before Rittenberg knew his location, a prison in the heart of Beijing. He served six years.

Upon his release with an apology for mistaken imprisonment, party authorities gave Rittenberg the chance to return to the U.S. His response? To double-down on his commitment to the communist cause. According to his autobiography, The Man Who Stayed Behind (Simon & Schuster, 1993), his chief aim was “unquestioning fealty to the party.” For Rittenberg, the Bamboo Curtain remained willfully unparted.

Indeed, he pursued enthusiastic roles in Mao’s massive experiments: Let 100 Flowers Bloom, the Great Leap Forward, and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. As a foreign expert at Radio Beijing, Rittenberg was increasingly utilized as a bridge between China and the English-speaking world, translating news copy, propaganda, and even Mao’s collected works. He became an insider.

Nonetheless, in a culture historically suspicious of outsiders, the stigma of “foreign devil” loomed overhead. “Mao didn’t really like me,” Rittenberg says.

Amid the chaos and confusion of the Cultural Revolution, Rittenberg rose to renown, demanded as a speaker throughout China. He was one of the few Yanan old-timers who gave his blessings to the revolutionary ideals of the Red Guard, comparing their spirit and actions to those of Patrick Henry.

At the same time, he recognized the failings of the movement. As he stresses in The Revolutionary, four suicides in his office alone, all within the first week of the Cultural Revolution, attested to the brutality of that nebulous movement. It was a battle against the bureaucracy, stagnation, and hierarchy manifested by the old revolution.

The mantra? Smash the Four Olds: Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, Old Habits.

With wings attached with wax, he flew with the top echelon of the party. In 1968, under direction from Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife and a member of the Gang of Four, Rittenberg was sent back to prison, not emerging until Comrade Jiang herself was jailed in 1977.

His detention order was signed by all 16 members of the Proletarian Headquarters, including Mao, Zhou Enlai and Jiang — acquaintances on whose behalf he thought he was agitating. Thus, the dedicated party member served a total of 16 years solitary imprisonment.

In the The Revolutionary we learn that Rittenberg is filled with regret. Belatedly, he recognized the Great Leap Forward was a colossal failure — he was duped, for instance, by the Potemkin Villages with which he and his journalist colleagues were presented. Regarding the Cultural Revolution, the human toll of which remains uncalculated, Rittenberg says “it was catastrophe of historic proportions … the damage enormous.” Mao, he says, was “a great hero and a great criminal all rolled into one.”

Rittenberg says, “Once I got out of prison [for the second time] I saw that some of the basic tenets of what was called Marxism-Leninism were wrong. Then I restored my ability to criticize my own basic premises and I felt like a free man.”

That revelation is buoyed by knowledge of the parallel successes experienced by China’s economic expansion, and Rittenberg’s entrepreneurial achievements in the West. In 1980 he returned to the U.S. with his wife and four children.

To view the 63-year span of the People's Republic of China is to see the life of Sidney Rittenberg writ large: the utopian vision troubled by tragic missteps followed by capitalist redemption.

The Revolutionary is an austere production, utilizing only still photography and footage of Rittenberg filmed in his comfortable Fox Island house, with narration and occasional off-camera questions from interviewer Irv Drasnin. Coupled with Joel Goodman’s rueful, at times driving, score, the documentary conveys a sobering overview of an anti-hero whose idealism, founded on best intentions, failed along with the massive travesties that beset China in the PRC’s first 40 years.

Rittenberg will attend both screenings of The Revolutionary, with after-screening question-and-answer sessions. Inevitably, applause will erupt, in part because our celebrity culture demands it. But at its core, that recognition will be a tribute to a man’s indomitable spirit — the triumph of the human condition over cruel adversity.

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