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

Turkey: No Ransom Paid for Release of Hostages Held by IS Militants

President Erdogan hails release of hostages as diplomatic success but declines to be drawn on whether their release freed Ankara's hand to take more active stance against insurgents More

Audio Sierra Leone Ends Ebola Lockdown

Health ministry says it has reached 75 percent of its target of visiting 1.5 million homes to locate infected, educate population about virus More

US Pivot to Asia Demands Delicate Balancing Act

As tumult in Middle East distracts Obama administration, efforts to shift American focus eastward appear threatened More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Towni
X
Deborah Block
September 21, 2014 2:12 PM
A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Alibaba Shares Soar in First Day of Trading

China's biggest online retailer hit the market Friday -- with its share price soaring on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares were priced at $68, but trading stalled at the opening, as sellers held onto their shares, waiting for buyers to bid up the price. More on the world's biggest initial public offering from VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid