Sidney Rittenberg

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Rittenberg looking away from the camera
Sidney Rittenberg, 2012
Sidney Rittenberg

Sidney Rittenberg (Chinese: 李敦白; pinyin: Lǐ Dūnbái; born August 14, 1921) is an American journalist, scholar, and Chinese linguist who lived in China from 1944 to 1980.[citation needed] He worked closely with Mao Zedong, Zhu De, Zhou Enlai, and other leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during the Chinese Communist Revolution, and was with these central Communist leaders at Yan'an.[citation needed] He witnessed first-hand much of what occurred at upper levels of the CCP and knew many of its leaders personally.[citation needed] Later, he was imprisoned in solitary confinement, twice, for a total of 16 years.[1] He was the first American citizen to join the CCP.[2]

Rittenberg's connections and experience have enabled him to run a consultancy business representing some of the world's biggest brands, such as Intel, Levi Strauss, Microsoft, Hughes Aircraft and Teledesic.[citation needed]

Early life[edit]

Rittenberg was born into a Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina, and lived there until his college studies.[citation needed] After attending Porter Military Academy, he turned down a full scholarship to Princeton University and instead attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in philosophy.[citation needed] While attending Chapel Hill, he became a member of the Dialectic Society and the US Communist Party.[citation needed] In 1942, following the entry of the US into World War II—and after leaving the Communist Party—Rittenberg joined the Army and was sent to Stanford's Army Far Eastern Language and Area School to learn Japanese.[citation needed] Rittenberg did not wish to be assigned to study Japanese, and was able to be assigned to learn Chinese instead.[citation needed] This led to his being sent to China in 1944.[citation needed] Rittenberg said that one of the turning points in his life came shortly after he arrived in China.[citation needed] He was sent to bring a $26 check to the family of a girl who was killed by a drunken US soldier.[citation needed] Despite the family's devastation, they gave Rittenberg $6 for his help.[citation needed] It was at that point that "something inside Sidney Rittenberg shifted."[3] After the end of the war, he decided to stay in China as part of the United Nations famine relief program.[citation needed] This led to his meeting the leaders of the Communist movement at Yan'an in 1946.[citation needed]


At Yan'an, Rittenberg observed the comradeship of CCP leaders, but ran afoul of the small city's strict moral regimen.[citation needed] Rittenberg's memoirs relay his impressions as a young man seeking the acceptance not accorded to him as a leftist labor organizer in South Carolina.[citation needed] Although isolated in the loess caves of the arid northwest, Yan'an was the site of intense introspection by urban Western intellectuals like Rittenberg, whose first sustained contact with Chinese communism occurred in Yan'an's uniquely isolated setting.[citation needed] Yan'an was also the site of the ongoing Yan'an Rectification Movement, launched by Mao Zedong in the previous year.[citation needed] Artists—cartoonists and novelists in particular—were falling under the influence of Mao, whose nascent personality cult Rittenberg soon began to observe.[citation needed] A young female cadre soon lured Rittenberg into a romantic liaison, which was immediately exposed and nearly resulted in his expulsion from Yan'an.[citation needed]

Interpreting for Mao[edit]

Twice, Rittenberg interpreted a message for the United States from Mao Zedong.[citation needed] The message was the same both times. Mao said that after the war was over in China, and after Mao became the leader of the country, he wanted to maintain a good relationship with the United States.[citation needed] This was for two reasons: first, because the United States was the only country that could supply him with the money he needed to rebuild the country;[citation needed] second, because Mao did not wish to depend on the Soviets.[citation needed] Both times this message was delivered, it was rejected by President Truman.[citation needed] Rittenberg believes that had Truman decided to talk to Mao, both the Korean War and the Vietnam War could possibly have been averted.[citation needed]

The Communist Party leadership sought Rittenberg's assistance in translating their messages into English, including the writings of Mao.[citation needed] Rittenberg also worked for the Xinhua News Agency and Radio Peking.[2]

First imprisonment[edit]

In 1949, Rittenberg was placed in solitary confinement for supposedly being a member of a local spy network connected with an international spy network "uncovered" in the Soviet Union.[citation needed] For one year, he was kept in a completely dark room, and was detained for five years after that before being released.[citation needed] Rittenberg attributes his survival in solitary confinement to a poem by Edwin Markham:[4]

They drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout
But love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took them in.

Rittenberg recalled hearing this poem from his sister when he was sick as a child, and, upon his imprisonment, it came back to him, and he used it to build relationships with the prison guards,managing to convince them to provide him with books and a candle to read.[citation needed]

In 1955, he was released, which he attributes to Joseph Stalin's death.[citation needed]

Cultural Revolution[edit]

During the Cultural Revolution, Rittenberg was radicalised, and in the summer of 1967 headed the "Norman Bethune - Yan'an rebel group"(Chinese: 白求恩-延安造反团), which had about 70 members.[citation needed] He led political struggles at Radio Peking.[citation needed] Han Suyin at that time said that Rittenberg was in complete control of the radio station.[citation needed] On April 8, 1967, the People's Daily published a long article written by him.[5] On April 10, he represented a faction of foreigners in struggle session against Wang Guangmei at Tsinghua University.[citation needed] He also attacked other foreigners who were living in Beijing at that time, including Ma Haide (George Hatem).[citation needed] Ma Haide had advised Rittenberg not to interfere in Chinese political affairs.[citation needed]

Second imprisonment[edit]

After several people were labelled as "516 elements" in September 1967, foreigners also became targets of that campaign and were labelled "516 elements" and foreign spies.[citation needed] A poster with the title "How an American seized red power at Radio Peking" was put up at the radio station, and Rittenberg was also criticised in a poster at the Friendship Hotel, where many foreigners were living.[citation needed]

In February 1968, several members of the "Norman Bethune - Yan'an rebel group" were arrested, among them Israel Epstein and his wife Elsie Fairfax-Cholmeley, Michael Shapiro and Rittenberg.[citation needed] This time, the reason for his arrest was supposed actions and criticisms against the dictatorship and bureaucracy. He was also charged with maintaining connections with the "Chinese Nikita Khrushchev" Liu Shaoqi, whom Rittenberg had strongly criticised in the previous campaigns.[citation needed] His wife, Wang Yulin was sent to a "May Seventh Cadre School".[citation needed] During his stay he penned a new Confucian saying: "Man who climbs out on limb should listen carefully for sound of saw."[citation needed] According to him, he did not hear the saw until it was too late.[citation needed]

On International Women's Day, March 8, 1973, there was a reception for foreign experts in the Great Hall of the People, most of whom had been released from prison by that time.[citation needed] Zhou Enlai spoke and apologised to the foreigners, but also said: "There are also some foreigners who during the Cultural Revolution participated in a certain organisation, who participated in destructive activities of bad elements. Sidney Rittenberg is one of those people; he was involved in the counterrevolutionary clique of Wang Li, Guan Feng and Qi Benyu."[citation needed]

In November 1977, Rittenberg was released and rehabilitated — probably as the last of all the foreigners.[citation needed] In March 1980, he returned to the United States.[citation needed]

Present day[edit]

Rittenberg is a faculty member in the Chinese Studies program at Pacific Lutheran University.[citation needed] He is married to Yulin, and has four children.[citation needed] In 1993, he wrote a book about his experiences in China entitled The Man Who Stayed Behind.[citation needed]

Rittenberg and his wife operate Rittenberg & Associates, a consulting firm that provides assistance to non-Chinese businesses which work with Chinese companies.[citation needed] Some of their best-known clients have included Billy Graham and Mike Wallace.[citation needed] Rittenberg frequently speaks about his experiences in China, and is currently living on Fox Island, Washington.[citation needed] In an interview in 2008, he criticized the view of the neoconservatives and the Bush administration that China is a threat.[citation needed]

In 2012, a documentary about Rittenberg was released, called The Revolutionary].[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Michael Bristow, 'Sidney Rittenberg: Chairman Mao's Favourite American', BBC, 30 June 2011.
  2. ^ a b MARK MCDONALD (2012-07-10). "The Man Who Stayed Behind in China Comes Into Focus". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-07-10.
  3. ^ Grierson, Bruce (2008). U-Turn: What If You Woke Up One Morning and Realized You Were Living the Wrong Life?. Bloomsbury USA. ISBN 9781582345871.
  4. ^ Bennis, Warren G.; Thomas, Robert J. (2002). Geeks & Geezers - How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders. Harvard Business School Press. ISBN 9781578515820.
  5. ^ Chinese: 中国文化大革命打开了通向共产主义的航道

General sources[edit]

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