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.
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.