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

Photogallery Pistorius Sentenced, Taken to Prison

Pistorius, convicted of culpable homicide in shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, will likely serve about 10 months of five-year sentence, before completing it under house arrest More

UN to Aid Central Africa in Polio Vaccinations

Synchronized vaccinations will be conducted after Cameroon reports a fifth case of the wild polio virus in its territory More

WHO: Ebola Vaccine May Be in Use by Jan.

WHO assistant director Dr. Marie Paule Kieny says clinical trials of Ebola vaccines are underway or planned in Europe, US and Africa More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid