An American Joins China's Communist Party

While the documentary, The Revolutionary, is a film about Sidney Rittenberg’s experience of living in China during the time of Mao Zedong, the film provides viewers with a deeper understanding of China during the period of the Communist Revolution. The film was screened by ASNC at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and was organized in partnership with UC Berkeley’s Center for Chinese Studies.

The film centers on Rittenberg, an American from North Carolina who went to China immediately after World War II to serve as a Chinese-language specialist in the Army. As an interpreter, Rittenberg found himself building relationships with members of the burgeoning Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which was in the midst of a civil war with the Nationalist Guomindang. Sympathetic to the CCP’s vision of a new China, Rittenberg later joined the CCP and began working shoulder-to-shoulder with some of Communist China’s founding fathers, including Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, and of course, Mao Zedong.

Following the fall of General Chiang Kai-shek and his Guomindang forces and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Rittenberg was accused by the CCP of serving as a Western spy in the aftermath of the revolution. Although he was sentenced to six years of solitary confinement, his release in 1955 did not change his dedication to China or the revolution. He was subsequently rewarded with a highly influential position within the party-run Beijing Radio, where he served as the CCP’s English mouthpiece.

Rittenberg eventually became part of China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Emboldened by what he saw as a true proletariat revolution, he became a nationally recognized speaker who believed that he had a paramount role in what would be an enormously historic event. In short, Rittenberg believed he was a revolutionary.

But as the divisions in China deepened from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, he began to challenge the movement, arguing that the Cultural Revolution was not about the people, but more about individual ambition and political power in the CCP’s top ranks. In 1968, he was once again put into solitary confinement. It was only after Mao’s death that he was released in 1977. In all, Rittenberg spent 15 years, 11 months, and 12 days in solitary confinement in service to the Chinese revolution. He returned to the U.S. in 1980.

“China’s experience in the Cultural Revolution is an objective study of the human race,” Rittenberg said following the screening of the film in a discussion with one of the film's producers, Irv Drasnin. He noted that when a society is given the chance to determine the course of a country, this is what can happen. There is a risk of another cultural revolution as a result of political instability.  

Click here to read an interview with Sidney Rittenberg. Rittenberg was also an honoree at Asia Society Northern California's 10th Annual Dinner in May 2013.