News / Asia

Q&A with Lucy Ostrander: Sidney Rittenberg, ‘The Revolutionary’

Sidney Rittenberg, known in China as Li Dunbai, is the only American to become a member of the Chinese Communist Party.
Sidney Rittenberg, known in China as Li Dunbai, is the only American to become a member of the Chinese Communist Party.
Ray Kouguell

Sidney Rittenberg, known in China as Li Dunbai, is a man with a unique history: he is the only American to become a member of the Chinese Communist Party. Rittenberg was a prominent member of China’s inner circle during the country’s revolution and was a close friend of Chairman Mao Zedong.

Rittenberg spent 35 years in China. In 1949, he was sentenced to six years of solitary confinement in Beijing Prison Number Two on charges he was a part of an international spy ring. He was released in 1955 with an official apology. Rittenberg became a foreign expert at Radio Beijing, the official international radio station in China, to advise English radio broadcast issues, a job that provided him with privileged housing, entertainment, and a driver. He was jailed again in 1968 for 10 more years of solitary at the notorious Qin Cheng Prison because of his involvement in the Cultural Revolution.

The feature length documentary called The Revolutionary is a series of interviews with Rittenberg over a five year period starting in 2005. It explains in riveting detail how Rittenberg achieved such prominence in China, the role he played in the party elite, initially as a translator, and how it all began for a man who was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1921 and who later became a student activist and union organizer in the American South. Through Rittenberg’s words and vivid descriptions there was an irony to his training as a linguist by the U.S. military that helped him fulfill his desires for social justice and support of China’s communist revolution. He returned to the United States in 1980 with a wife and family having survived major personal disruption, yet able to go on as a valuable resource for U.S.-China dialogue and consultant on the global economy.

Lucy Ostrander is producer of The Revolutionary. VOA’s Ray Kouguell spoke with her about Rittenberg’s story and what made him so enamored with China in the first place.

Q&A with Lucy Ostrander: Sidney Rittenberg, 'The Revolutionary'
Q&A with Lucy Ostrander: Sidney Rittenberg, 'The Revolutionary'i
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

OSTRANDER: I think he fell in love with the language because he fell in love with the people and he believed in what the Chinese Communists were embarking on. This is what he wanted to do. He was originally sent when he was drafted to the U.S. army, the army sent him to their language school which was at Stanford [University] and they originally wanted him to study Japanese. And he felt that if he was going to learn Japanese, he would end up in Japan during the occupation. He didn’t want to do that. So he went to the Chinese professor and asked if he could study Chinese. And they let him and after about a year he was almost fluent. And then was sent to China just as the war ended. He was soon completely fluent.

KOUGUELL: Rittenberg said that he loved to argue. Is that an overriding factor in his life to be always so contrary?

OSTRANDER: Not the Sid I know. No. He’s got a great sense of humor but he feels strongly in what he believes in but I don’t think he does it just to be contrary. I think he tries to stand up for what he believes in and educate people about what happened in China.

KOUGUELL: He was in prison twice, for almost 16 years. Didn’t his years in solitary confinement convince him that China is not the place for him or did he dislike the U.S. so much?

OSTRANDER: After the first year in prison, the Chinese were willing to let him go back. They realized that they had made a mistake and they offered to let him go back but Sid didn’t want to go back. He didn’t realize it was going to take another five years for them to figure out his case. But he also didn’t want to go back to the United States. He really believed in what the Chinese were doing. He wanted to stay there and even after being in prison for six years he wanted to stay on and he wanted to continue to work with the Party. I think he really loved doing that. He was in his element and rose up through the ranks and eventually became the head of the Broadcast Administration.

KOUGUELL: Rittenberg said he never thought of giving up yet he did say in the film that he saw with his own eyes the tragic results of the social experiments like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution with untold millions of lives lost while he was there. What was he thinking?

OSTRANDER: I think he didn’t really want to believe that. He was an idealist and I think he didn’t really believe what was happening until much later.

KOUGUELL: Does he have any regrets?

OSTRANDER: Yes, I think he has some regrets. I think he feels if he hadn’t gotten involved with internal struggles within the Party he could have done more.

KOUGUELL: Has the film played in China?

OSTRANDER: This would not be allowed to be shown in China. It was screened at the foreign correspondents’ club in Beijing and Shanghai but those are not considered public places.

KOUGUELL: What’s been the audience reaction here in the United States to the film?

OSTRANDER: I think people either really love it or they hate it because the bulk of the film is an interview with Sid Rittenberg who is an extraordinary raconteur. But we didn’t use any archival footage. We used revolutionary Chinese posters as our visual motif and still photographs, and a lot of people want eye candy, they want more visual stimulation. And we felt that Rittenberg was such an incredible storyteller that we wanted to have him on as much as possible.

KOUGUELL: Rittenberg is a living part of history and The Revolutionary provides a firsthand view of one of the world’s major geo-political upheavals of the 20th century. The film is a memorable account of a man with a mission whose ideology may not be for everyone but certainly one worth hearing and thinking about. This is a valuable primer on China’s history, so important to understand now as the 21st century unfolds. 

You May Like

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

Russia’s Prosecutor General to Review Legality of Baltics Independence

Move, announced Tuesday, has alarmed Baltic States and strained even further their increasingly tense ties with Moscow More

US Urged to Keep Up Pressure on Cuba Rights

Communist government continues to hold dozens of political prisoners, tightly restricts freedom of expression, uses threats, intimidation to discourage critics, according to activist groups More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Interneti
X
Mike O'Sullivan
June 30, 2015 8:20 PM
Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.

VOA Blogs