Sidney Rittenberg

Sidney Rittenberg

Hank pointed me to an interesting interview with Sidney Rittenberg yesterday. There are various people which call themselves “sinologists” in the world, but I’d have to say that Sidney Rittenberg is one of the most hardcore I know of. You might thing the guy was a little nutty for joining the CPC as an American Marxist back in the 1940’s, but reading the interview he seems quite clear-headed and balanced in his views. (Maybe the clarity came during all the thinking he did in 16 years of solitary confinement in China?)

I still don’t want to be a sinologist, but Sidney Rittenberg is definitely a figure worth learning more about. I’d love to have a chat with him. Here are some more links:

Sidney Rittenberg Wikipedia entry
Remarks at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center 12th Annual Dinner (includes Q&A session)
Future in Review: short bio
– Sidney Rittenberg’s book: The Man Who Stayed Behind


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. his book is well worth reading.

  2. Interesting. I’ll have to check his book out when I have some reading time.

    Any idea as to whether or not he is still an active Marxist?

  3. I would say, given that he’s called the Bush Admin’s policy toward China “satisfactory”, that he isn’t an active Marxist anymore.

  4. Da Xiangchang Says: September 8, 2006 at 8:22 am

    I’ve never heard of the guy, but he comes across in his interviews as a funny dude who’s pretty happy with life–which, given his past, is incredible. His Asia Society speech was hilarious, though I felt he pandered a bit to his Chinese audience. Might check his book out; see if it’s as interesting as Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, another book about a common man’s relationship with a dictator.

  5. Crazy, a foreigner as a radicalized participant in the Cultural Revolution, fingering other foreigners and the chairman of the college English department!

  6. I read his book some years ago while studying modern Chinese history at my university.

    What I recall as one of the striking themes of his book was how, for many people, following a political movement can become every bit as fanatical a pursuit as any fanatical and fundamentalist religious sect or cult.

    The amazing about his story is how fervently he still believed in the idea of Mao as a super-human saviour even after years in solitary confinement. He describes years of intense self-criticism and self-examination during his imprisonment, as he tried to become a more loyal and unquestioning follower of Mao.

    What I find most amazing about the man himself is how honestly and objectively he now is able to speak about the ideological movements he was a part of in China, after having spent so many years being such a loyal follower himself.

    I read the linked Hong Kong speech, and I wasn’t happy to hear how apologetic a stance he seems to take towards the many serious problems in China today.

    Goog luck finding his book, it might be hard to find, I recall it was printed by one of the larger publishers, but only in a small volume, and for a short time.

  7. He seems a lot more clear headed than Israel Epstein, who became a stay behind in China at the same time. Rittenberg seems to have a much more pragmatic view than Epstein’s Marxist fantasies.

  8. Rusha - Papavrami Says: September 9, 2006 at 8:32 pm

    Avez vous la possibilité de passer mon adresse e-mail à M. Rittenberg ou de me passer à moi son adresse? Ma seour Donika Rusha l’a bien conu en Chine dans les année 60 et elle le croyée disparu.
    Merci Jolanda Rusha

  9. Word:

    … part of the Chinese culture that I absorbed over time by being soaked in it, I guess — and by studying — is that we all grow; our growth is a process of learning from our own experience, primarily. We examine what works, what does not work; what produces the results that we wanted, what does not produce it; and from that experience we learn, we try to learn, what our rights are, what our wrongs are; what our shortcomings, what our strengths are; and we try to use our strengths to deal with our weaknesses and to go ahead on that basis; that is a natural process. It certainly does not always work, but that is the process.

  10. What a fascinating guy. Thanks.

  11. Brendan,

    Yeah, I think it also really underscores the importance of good PR. Why is someone with as interesting and unique a history as this relatively unknown, while Dashan and Peter Hessler get the spotlight?

  12. Da Xiangchang Says: September 11, 2006 at 2:59 am

    “Why is someone with as interesting and unique a history as this relatively unknown, while Dashan and Peter Hessler get the spotlight?” Well, Dashan is completely unknown outside China, and he’s only famous in China cause he’s the token white guy, sort of like a reverse Buckwheat from the Little Rascals. Peter Hessler wrote a bestseller that was accessible to a mass audience. Maybe Westerners just aren’t interested in an ex-Marxist’s esoteric confessions. And if they wanted to read about CHina, they’d want the “real” deal–Chinese CHINESE melodramas like Jung Chang’s Wide Swans (which sold like 10 million copies). Just my thoughts.

  13. I read (some 10 years ago) a Chinese translation of his book, published by, it seemed, a Taiwan publisher with a flashy Chinese title: 在毛泽东身边的一万个日子. I liked it a lot, but apparently not enough to check out the English original also.

    Even my parent said this guy’s words were 实在! He did not seek spotlight, neither back during the war, nor after either of his two imprisonments. Not even in the cultural revolution. What impressed me the most is that he really lived a Chinese’s life: didn’t shoot a gun in the war but helped with whatever he could, sometimes suffering a severe penalty. He did not have the easy illusion of a westerner in China or a white guy among Chinese. In Kunming, Shanghai, Hubei, Yan’an, Shanxi, or Beijing he looked around and did what any Chinese would do, be it joining the Communist Party or letting go of the wife (or was she the fiancée?) when he was imprisoned. This applies to his actions and sufferings in the cultural revolution as well. It is easy to criticize in absence of ever having been there in that age. He wasn’t going to leave China, but when he looked around and realized that (1) his being here is no longer a useful thing (the country now had money and the foreigner pool to hire any English speaker that they want) and (2) his returning to the States would mean a good future to his kids; that’s when he made the decision — exactly the same way the majority of us Chinese emigrants made a decision. He walked to the US consulate to apply for a replacement US passport, a Prince Roy inside the window saw his reason being “lost the passport” some 40 years earlier and asked “you never looked for it,” his answer was a proud “never.” After a little cultural adjustment in the States, he figured out that he needed money to support the family and he could make a good buck with his China connection, he did just that with Computer Associates, which to me was also a very Chinese thing to do.

    The story I have enjoyed citing time and again was that he (probably paid well as a foreign expert) in the 1950’s collected lots of Ming dynasty fine furniture on a friend’s prompt and then, by a whim (鬼使神差), he went with the calling of getting rid of all material luxuries and donated almost all his collection to the forbidden city museum right before the cultural revolution. Had he not done that in time, the fate of those furniture treasures and of himself and his family could have been a completely different book.

  14. Correction: a good future FOR his kids. (this was in the 1980’s)

  15. Sidney Rittenberg, Sr Says: September 11, 2006 at 2:46 pm

    Could you please send me Jolanda Rusha’s e-mailk address, or send mine to him? In a comment above he mentions that his sister, Donika, would like to get in touch. My wife and I would love to contact our old friend from Albania.
    Thank you!

  16. Gin,
    well in my own defense, I’d like to think I’d have some more interesting questions/comments for Mr. Rittenberg, a guy I’ve always rather admired.

  17. John,

    You might be able to have a chat with him. The latest email from the Beijing Bookworm store has him down as an upcoming attraction.

  18. Mark Cooper Says: September 22, 2007 at 2:53 am

    Mr Rittenberg.
    If you are reading this, and I hope you are, then I would like to thank you for taking the time and the effort to get your book written and published. Having recently married a Chinese Woman, (from Dalian and later Beijing) reading about your relationship with Yulin is an encouragment to both of us. We recently named our daughter Yulan.
    While I could never understand China the way you do, I now have a better understanding and a greater appreciation of this great and sometimes troubled nation.
    xie xie
    Mark Cooper

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