The Day I met Mao’s Friend

An American who was a Friend of Mao

Rittenburg with Mao

Lǐ Dūnbái 李敦白
I met Sidney Rittenburg at Pacific Lutheran University. He was in the presence of Paul Ingram, professor emeritus of Religion. I knew Dr. Ingram from participation with him on a committee for Inter-religious studies through the American Academy of Religion. He was one of the peer review readers for papers I had presented at three previous regional conferences at the University of British Columbia, Seattle University, and the University of Idaho.

Sitting with him was Sidney Rittenburg who was a faculty member is the China Studies Pacific University. I did not realize at the time how significant and important was Ritterburg in contemporary Chinese history. He knew Chairman Mao, played Rummy with him in the caves of Yan’an in 1949, and later was jailed for 6 years because Stalin convinced Mao the Ritterburg was and American spy. He got out of jail in 1955 only to be thrown back in prison 12 years later caught up in the cultural revolution. He spent 10 years in jail that time.

I remember thinking while talking to him for about a half an hour that this was a man he knew himself, had nothing to prove, and was very centered, peaceful but broken. At the time I was more interested in talking to Paul Ingram and about his new book called Wrestling with the Ox. I regret that I did not give more attention to Sidney Ritterburg.

Rittenburg first met Chairman Mao in 1946 at Yan’an at the same time George Hatem (Ma Haide), an American physician, Edgar Snow, an American journalist, and New Zealander and educator Rewi Alley first met the revolutionary leader. They had traveled with the Dixie Mission and 8th American Army to get to Yan’an, mostly by walking. After the American Army left Sidney Rittenburg stayed behind.

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor in 2006, a year or so after I met Ritterburg,  the interviewer reports:
“Not many people can still close their eyes and recall playing cards and folk dancing with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and the young rebels in the bean-oil lit caves of Yanan. But Rittenberg can. The idealistic Jewish boy from Charleston, S.C., stayed behind when the US Army left China, dreaming of a new social order where skin color and ethnicity wouldn’t matter.

Madame Sun Yat-Sen, wife of China’s founder, got him a UN relief job. He later joined the Communist Party, became a top cadre, translated Mao, rose in the broadcast department, married twice, played politics on the far left. Twice he was thrown in prison, once by Stalin and once by Mao – getting out only when those men died.

Rittenberg left China after 35 years, in 1980, battered and bruised, sadder and wiser, but with his spirit intact – still delighting in the language and people of China.

China today is no longer the same country, of course, Rittenberg says. The days of no hot water or stoves, and of community baths are over. Chinese are proud that their rising position and voice is gaining its due respect.

Rittenberg’s own soul has been extensively searched since leaving China. He admits to mistakes, naivete, and blindness – particularly his zeal in backing the Cultural Revolution, the terror and fear between 1965 and 1975. It was a time of “insane ideology” when people “hardened their hearts and blocked out all human feeling in the name of doing good.”

Rittenberg grew up a lawyer’s son at a time when, he says, “No white man in South Carolina had ever been convicted of rape or murder of a black person – they weren’t considered human. I felt the world as it was, was not acceptable. When I came to China, I thought they had the answer…. During the Cultural Revolution, I thought, ‘Wow, this is the real real new world!’

China will develop a democracy, Rittenberg says, but probably in its own time and way. The party’s failure in delivering on its promises after 1949 – land for peasants, democracy, and fairness – was inherent in the ideology of Chinese communism.

“I feel it wasn’t just Mao, or good or bad people in charge … but in using dictatorship to achieve democracy, you turn out not to get democracy, just more dictatorship.”

Rittenberg “figures in a long line of ‘China helpers,’ ” says Roderick MacFarquhar, an authority on China at Harvard University. “He is enormously experienced in the ways of the Chinese people.”

Rittenberg turned down a scholarship to Princeton University to study philosophy at the University of North Carolina. The Army had him study Japanese for the US occupation after World War II. But, he says, he did not want to spend years in Japan. So he switched to Chinese, thinking he would come home early, and went to Stanford University. He knew French, Latin, and German. But he fell in love with Chinese. “It was magical…. I still get excited about learning a new character.”

Once in China with the Army, Rittenberg’s interest in the Communist Party thrust him into a cloak-and-dagger-world in Shanghai. He met Zhou Enlai after hearing him speak. China’s eventual No. 2 leader politely told Rittenberg he had been clapping too loudly, that Nationalist spies would see this, and it would cause harm. Rittenberg was stunned that Zhou would even have noticed.

It is a life of contradictions: He sat in prison for six years, yet decided he must forgive his jailers. His views on family changed: He used to feel personal life mattered little. But after his second jail term, he felt that if he could only make his wife happy, his life would not be wasted. Again, in the 1960s, he backed a wing of the party more extreme than the infamous “Gang of Four” – yet now is a businessman who feels “radical student movements are not the way to bring change.”

“People like Rittenberg were described by Arthur Koestler in ‘Darkness at Noon,’ ” says Jasper Becker, author of “Hungry Ghosts,” about China’s famine. “They remained heroically loyal even in jail, even falsely accused and about to be executed. Their commitment to a cause, without a wish for comfort or riches, is extraordinary. But they harbor illusions that made what they did justifiable….”

Rittenberg’s views on Mao remain complex: Mao “genuinely believed he was doing good.” Mao was “definitely a genius and a brilliant writer,” he says. Mao’s essay “On Protracted War,” for example, tells exactly how Japan’s military would crumble.

Yet Mao was despotic, “a peasant boy who grew up in a remote village, with a narrow education [who] never lost the capacity for the envy and revenge of his childhood.”

“Those who endorsed the party or Mao … are still reluctant to tell the truth,” Mr. Becker argues. “Mao was a tragedy for the Chinese people; you can’t really get around that.”

“I’ve been impressed by the ingenuity and goodness of the Chinese people. No other nation has lived so long in one place, 2,000 years, with the same language, in the same territory, without destroying itself and others. In 20 or 30 years, China will work out and develop its own new moral code, find a new way, repair its civilization.”

An American in China: Rittenberg recalls prison

“The time I did was all solitary. Solitary time is different. The first year, with no light, I stopped worrying about whether I would be shot. That was not the issue; my sanity was the issue. You ask the most basic questions: Has your life mattered? What is happiness, opposed to mere animal pleasures?

“To survive you need a clear purpose. If your life is aimless, you won’t survive solitary darkness. You have to train yourself. There are a whole series of little battles to fight and win. At one point something unusual happened which I can’t stop thinking about even 30 years later.

“Getting out seemed like a less than 50-50 chance. I wasn’t allowed to speak. I started to feel that if I ever did get out I would never be normal. I felt despair, betrayal by … the communists I had given so much to. But … a little voice startled me. It asked me when I began to feel such fear? Finally I realized there was no one point when the fear began. I felt it but could not say precisely why or when,. The minute I saw this the fear went away. I began to wonder, where does this voice come from?

“I have begun to feel there is some moral nature in man, and that at some deep level this moral element performs a kind of Google function – to find more resources inside us.

“For example, I remembered clearly a poem by Edwin Markham that my aunt and sister had me read when I was sick back in South Carolina, and that helped me:

He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

The 89 year old Rittenburg lives on Fox Island and still runs a successful consulting company in Seattle and Beijing.


About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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