Long before his emergence as a high-dollar consultant for companies seeking business in China, Sidney Rittenberg was something else altogether—an American at the heart of the Chinese Communist Party. Rittenberg, who became famous to millions of Chinese as Li Dunbai, was an adviser to Mao Zedong who fell in and out of the leader's favor as the 20th century unfurled.
It was an unlikely destiny for a son of the American South, even one with a zeal for social causes. Rittenberg—the subject of a new documentary, The Revolutionary—grew up in a prominent Jewish family in Charleston, S.C., and developed a passion for labor justice and civil rights. He waived admission at Princeton to organize protests and pickets closer to home. Asia never crossed his mind—except in the joke often told about the supposed kinship between Charlestonians and the Chinese: Both, it was said, ate rice every day, worshipped their ancestors and didn't speak English.
World War II changed everything. Rittenberg, who had majored in philosophy at the University of North Carolina, was drafted into the Army, sent to Stanford for intensive study in language and deployed to China. He would not return for 35 years.
Enamored by the Communists' vision for equality, Rittenberg remained in China after his military discharge, making his way to the revolutionaries' guerrilla base, befriending Mao and Zhou Enlai, and beginning a rise as translator, party member and broadcaster.
His place in history, however, came at tremendous cost. Twice the loyal Rittenberg plunged from grace, spending a total of 16 years in solitary confinement. In 1949, Joseph Stalin fingered him as a spy; Rittenberg was jailed so abruptly that his first wife eventually divorced him without ever learning where he was. He spent six years in prison telling himself he could endure by studying as if he were a monk.
The second fall, from a height of privilege in the triumphant Communist Party, came after he ran afoul of Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. During this second sentence, his wife Wang Yulin, with whom he has four children, was sent to labor camp. Rittenberg disappeared into Beijing's notorious Qincheng prison for political prisoners. "Every day, you're sitting there with your own potential madness sitting across from you," he says in The Revolutionary. "And you know it's either you or him."
His release was assured only after Mao's death, in 1976. Rittenberg and Wang, who came to the United States in 1980, now live on Fox Island near Seattle.
The Revolutionary—produced by husband-and-wife filmmakers Lucy Ostrander, MA '85, and Don Sellers, MA '88, and journalist Irv Drasnin—debuted at the Seattle International Film Festival in May to solid reviews. "I wondered if a film made up almost exclusively of excerpts from conversations with one person could hold my attention," wrote an Asia Society commentator. "It could and it emphatically did."
The film marks a second bite at the apple for Ostrander, who unwittingly glossed over Rittenberg's story when she met him nearly three decades ago while working on a student documentary about foreign correspondent Anna Louise Strong.
Delighted to meet someone who had known Strong, Ostrander flew to New York to interview Rittenberg, who had returned from China virtually penniless only a few years prior. But as a grad student with limited means to buy 35mm film, she kept her focus on Strong.
It was only 20 years later when her husband saw an article in the New York Times that she learned more about Rittenberg's unlikely life. Under the headline "A Long March From Maoism to Microsoft," the Times laid out Rittenberg's journey from revolutionary to refugee to his most recent incarnation—highly sought go-between for companies like Microsoft and Intel seeking business in China. Ostrander reached out to Rittenberg, and the stage was soon set for another movie, this time about him.
In The Revolutionary, Drasnin, a journalist with decades of experience covering China (and Ostrander's adviser at Stanford), questions Rittenberg about his experiences and his beliefs. Drasnin was initially dubious, expecting Rittenberg to be as doctrinaire as many of the foreigners he'd known who had gone to China in that era.
Instead, during 26 hours of interviews recorded over five years, Drasnin found Rittenberg, still sharp at 92, to be funny, thoughtful and candid about the failures that wracked China in the decades after the Revolution—events that Drasnin says China's modern leaders have done their best to whitewash from history.
"It's all been removed from textbooks and history and museums," Drasnin says. "Rittenberg bears witness to those events and they are extraordinary events."
Rittenberg doesn't spare himself, ruing ever getting involved in Chinese politics and saying he became deluded by his desire to be part of history. Neither does he spare Mao, who he says came to power hoping to demonstrate that the Chinese brand of Communism could be more civilized than the Soviet Union's, before resorting to brutal tactics to maintain control. "He was a great hero and a great criminal all rolled up in one," Rittenberg says with a firsthand knowledge few can match.
Sam Scott is a senior writer for Stanford.