Sidney Rittenberg

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Sidney Rittenberg
Sidney Rittenberg in 2012

Sidney Rittenberg (Chinese: 李敦白; pinyin: Lǐ Dūnbái; August 14, 1921 – August 24, 2019) was 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] Later, he was imprisoned in solitary confinement, twice.[1] In his book "The Man Who Stayed Behind", Rittenberg stated that he was the second American citizen to join the CCP, the first being the Lebanese-American Doctor Ma Haide (born Shafick George Hatem.)

Early life[edit]

Rittenberg was born into a Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina and he lived there until his college studies.[2][3] He was the son of Muriel (Sluth) and Sidney Rittenberg,[citation needed] who was president of the Charleston City Council. 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.[4] When he arrived in China, 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."[5]

Interpreting for Mao[edit]

Rittenberg befriended the communist leader in the Yan'an caves, which resulted in a lasting relationship with Mao until early days of the Cultural Revolution. He later worked for the Xinhua News Agency and Central Broadcast Administration.[6]

First imprisonment[edit]

In 1949, immediately before the formal surrender of Beijing to the Communists, Rittenberg said he was summoned to the capital and he went, expecting to play a role in promoting the Communist takeover to the rest of the world. In fact Rittenberg was arrested and placed in solitary confinement, because Stalin had denounced him as a US spy. Rittenberg attributes his survival in solitary confinement to a poem by Edwin Markham:[7]

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.

Cultural Revolution[edit]

On his release in 1955 Rittenberg remained a strong supporter of Mao and actively and enthusiastically supported the Great Leap Forward. Later he was a supporter of the Cultural Revolution and briefly associated with Mao's inner circle, leading a group of rebels to take over the state broadcasting institution. On April 8, 1967, the People's Daily published a long article written by him.[8]

Rittenberg said, though, that after he objected to the excesses of the period he was arrested and placed back in solitary confinement, from 1967 to 1977. On his release he emigrated to the United States.

Career as business advisor[edit]

In the United States after his release, he used his extensive knowledge and contacts in China to advise corporate leaders on how to benefit from China's vast, growing economy. Still welcome in China, he took entrepreneurs on guided tours, introducing them to the country's movers and shakers. [9][10]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Michael Bristow, 'Sidney Rittenberg: Chairman Mao's Favourite American', BBC, 30 June 2011.
  2. ^ McFadden, Robert D. (August 24, 2019). "Sidney Rittenberg, Idealistic American Aide to Mao Who Evolved to Counsel Capitalists, Dies at 98". The New York Times.
  3. ^ "Sidney Rittenberg". Wilson Center. Dec 16, 2016. Retrieved Aug 26, 2019.
  4. ^ Hooper, Beverley (July 1, 2016). Foreigners under Mao: Western Lives in China, 1949–1976. Hong Kong University Press.
  5. ^ Grierson, Bruce (2008). U-Turn: What If You Woke Up One Morning and Realized You Were Living the Wrong Life?. Bloomsbury USA. ISBN 9781582345871.
  6. ^ MARK MCDONALD (2012-07-10). "The Man Who Stayed Behind in China Comes Into Focus". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-07-10.
  7. ^ Bennis, Warren G.; Thomas, Robert J. (2002). Geeks & Geezers - How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders. Harvard Business School Press. ISBN 9781578515820.
  8. ^ Chinese: 中国文化大革命打开了通向共产主义的航道
  9. ^ McFadden, Robert D. (25 August 2019). "Sidney Rittenberg, Idealistic American Aide to Mao Who Evolved to Counsel Capitalists, Dies at 98". The New York Times.
  10. ^ Michael Donohue, "The expatriate", The National (Abu Dhabi), 14 August 2008. Retrieved 27 March 2022.


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