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

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

Syrian Rebels Poised for Anti-Russia Collaboration

Forty-one insurgent groups issue joint statement vowing retaliation for Russian air offensives More

Political Maneuver Revives Export-Import Bank's Chances

Parliamentary tactic gets bill out of committee, but it faces opposition in the Senate More

Beijing Warns US on S. China Sea Patrols

Warning follows news reports Thursday that US military is planning to sail warships close to artificial islands Beijing has been aggressively building More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs