Sidney Rittenberg: An American in Mao’s China

90-year-old Sidney Rittenberg’s life story is one beyond compare. Not only did the South Carolina native witness first-hand the totality of Mao’s career as China’s supreme ruler, but he also played an active role in the oscillating political environment of revolutionary China. In 1942, The young labor organizer left the US Communist Party to become a soldier in World War II, and was stationed in China in 1944. After the war, he decided to stay in China to work for a UN famine relief program. He came into contact with CCP leaders in Yan’an, and joined the Party.

While there was no abundance of foreigners in China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, foreign members of the CCP were even less common. Soon after publishing a 1967 editorial in the People’s Daily (“中国文化大革命打开了通向共产主义的航道” [China's Great Cultural Revolution Opens the Path to Communism]) lauding the ideological foundations of the Cultural Revolution, Rittenberg was imprisoned for the remainder of the movement (his second lengthy stint in Chinese prison), and was finally released in 1977. In 1980 he moved back to the US, and has since counseled American companies on how to do business in China, taught Chinese studies at Pacific Lutheran University, and written an autobiography.

The Revolutionary, a film documenting this unique story, recently premiered at Seattle’s International Film Festival. The film’s official trailer provides a few excerpts of Rittenberg speaking about Mao, the Cultural Revolution, and his time in prison:

YouTube Preview Image

A review from People’s World describes the film and tells more of Rittenberg’s story:

“The Revolutionary” is a “talking head” documentary that doesn’t suffer from a lack of action, thanks to Rittenberg’s funny, affable, self-deprecating style, his honesty, and his ability as a storyteller to simultaneously enthrall, amuse, and educate. Rittenberg is open about mistakes he made, and “owns” his own shortcomings and bad decisions. He’s further humanized by his long abiding relationship with his wife, Yulin.

The film’s main visual appeal comes from vintage “socialist realist” propaganda posters from the Mao era, and photos of Rittenberg with Mao and other Chinese Communist Party leaders. The film’s narrative of Rittenberg’s China experience is balanced and well put together.

[...]Besides being a riveting entertainment, “The Revolutionary” is valuable for its insights on the revolutionary process, the importance of maintaining civil rights, and the prospects for progress in the current era.

The film’s website is compiling a list of reviews from the media and from China experts. Visit KUOW Seattle’s website to hear a recent interview with Rittenberg discussing his long relationship with China and his political views (he is asked what the young, leftist Rittenberg would think about Rittenberg the business consultant). Also, see prior CDT coverage of Rittenberg on China’s changes.