Sidney Rittenberg

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Sidney Rittenberg
Chinese 李敦白

Sidney Rittenberg (Chinese: 李敦白. ..pinyin]]: Lǐ Dūnbái; born August 14, 1921) is an American journalist, Chinese-English interpreter, and scholar who lived in China from 1944 to 1979. He worked closely with People's Republic of China (PRC) founder Mao Zedong, military leader Zhu De, statesman Zhou Enlai, and other leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during the war, and was with these central Communist leaders at Yan'an. He witnessed first-hand much of what occurred at upper levels of the CCP and knew many of its leaders personally. 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 successful consultancy business representing some of the world’s biggest brands, such as Intel, Levi Strauss, Microsoft, Hughes Aircraft and Teledesic.

Early life

Rittenberg was born into a Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina, and lived there until his college studies. 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. While attending Chapel Hill, he became a member of the US Communist Party. In 1942, following the entry of the US into World War II — and after his leaving the Communist Party — Rittenberg joined the Army and was sent to Stanford's Army Far Eastern Language and Area School to learn Japanese. Rittenberg did not wish to be assigned to study Japanese, and was able to be assigned to learn Chinese instead. This led to his being sent to China in 1944. Rittenberg said that one of the turning points in his life came shortly after he arrived in China. He was sent to bring a $26 check to the family of a woman who was killed by a drunken US soldier. Despite the family's devastation, they gave Rittenberg $6 for his help. 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. This led to his meeting the leaders of the Communist movement at Yan'an in 1946.


At Yan'an, Rittenberg observed the comradeship of CCP leaders, but ran afoul of the small city's strict moral regimen. 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. Though isolated in the loess caves of the arid northwest, Yan'an was the site of intense introspection by urban intellectuals like Rittenberg, whose first sustained contact with Chinese communism occurred in Yan'an's uniquely isolated setting. Yan'an was also the site of an ongoing Yan'an Rectification Movement launched by Mao Zedong in the previous year. Artists — cartoonists and novelists in particular — were falling under the influence of Chairman Mao, whose nascent personality cult Rittenberg soon began to observe. More immediately than Chairman Mao, however, a young female cadre soon lured Rittenberg into a romantic liaison which was immediately exposed and nearly resulted in his expulsion from the communist Mecca.[citation needed] With the slow but inexorable march toward civil war in 1946, Rittenberg would be drawn out, and into the next painful phase of his involvement with the Chinese Communist Party.

Interpreting for Mao

Twice, Rittenberg interpreted a message for the United States from Mao Zedong. 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 still have a good relationship with the United States. This was for two reasons. First, because the United States was the only one that could supply him with the money he needed to rebuild the country. Second, because Mao didn't want to depend on the Soviets. Both times this message was delivered, it was rejected by President Truman. Sidney believes that had Truman decided to talk to Mao, both the Korean War and the Vietnam War could possibly have been averted.

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

First imprisonment

In 1949, Rittenberg was imprisoned in solitary confinement for supposedly being a member of a spy network in connection with an international spy network "uncovered" in the Soviet Union. For one year, he was kept in a completely dark room, and was kept for five years after that before he was finally released. 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 and managed to convince them to provide him with books and a candle to read.

In 1955, he was released, which he claims he owes to Joseph Stalin's death.

Cultural Revolution

During the Cultural Revolution, Rittenberg was radicalised and in the summer of 1967 headed the "Dr. Norman Bethune - Yan'an rebel group",[5] which had about seventy members. He led political struggles at China Radio International. Han Suyin at that time said that Rittenberg was in complete control of the radio station. On April 8, 1967, the People's Daily published a long article written by him.[6] On April 10, he represented a faction of foreigners in struggle session against Wang Guangmei at Tsinghua University. He also attacked other foreigners who were living in Beijing at that time, including Dr. Ma Haide (George Hatem). Ma Haide had advised Rittenberg not to interfere in Chinese political affairs.

Second imprisonment

After several people were labelled as "516 elements" (五一六分子) in September 1967, foreigners also became targets of that campaign and were labelled "516 elements" and foreign spies. A poster with the title "How an American seized red power at Radio China International" was put up at the radio station, and Rittenberg was also criticised in a poster at the Friendship Hotel, where many foreigners were living.

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

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 by that time. 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."

In November 1977, Rittenberg was released and rehabilitated — probably as the last of all the foreigners. In March 1980, he moved back to the United States.

Present day

Rittenberg is a faculty member in the Chinese Studies Program at Pacific Lutheran University. He is married to Yulin, and has four children. In 1993, he wrote a book entitled The Man Who Stayed Behind, with the aid of Amanda Bennett.

Rittenberg and his wife operate Rittenberg & Associates, a consulting firm that provides assistance to businesses who work with Chinese companies. Some of their best-known clients include Billy Graham and Mike Wallace. Rittenberg frequently speaks about his experiences in China, and is currently living on Fox Island, Washington. In an interview in 2008, he criticized the neoconservative and the Bush administration's view of China as a threat.

See also


  1. Michael Bristow, 'Sidney Rittenberg: Chairman Mao's Favourite American', BBC, 30 June 2011.
  2. 2.0 2.1 MARK MCDONALD (2012-7-10). "The Man Who Stayed Behind in China Comes Into Focus". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-7-10. 
  3. U-Turn: What If You Woke Up One Morning and Realized You Were Living the Wrong Life, by Bruce Grierson
  4. Geeks & geezers: how era, values, and defining moments shape leaders, by Warren G. Bennis, Robert J. Thomas
  5. Chinese: 白求恩-延安造反团
  6. Chinese: 中国文化大革命打开了通向共产主义的航道

General sources

External links