Sidney Rittenberg lives in relative obscurity in Fountain View Village for a man who, during his 98 years, attracted worldwide acclaim as a revolutionary, journalist, Chinese linguist and business consultant.
He witnessed much of what occurred at the upper levels of the Chinese Communist Party and knew many of its leaders, such as Chairman Mao Zedong.
He has shared his experiences in books and in television appearances. He was interviewed on CBS network’s “60 Minutes” more than any other individual. He called host Mike Wallace a close friend.
During his 35 years in China, beginning in the communist guerilla headquarters of Yan’an to the end of the Maoist era, Rittenberg was singled out as both a hero and victim to China’s revolutionary turmoil. He spent a total of 16 years in prison in solitary confinement.
In his autobiography, “The Man who Stayed Behind,” published in 1993, he wrote that he had no regrets for the years he spent in China. The book is available through Amazon.
He says he was motivated then, as now, to support the Chinese people’s quest to taste the responsibilities and rewards of freedom.
In an interview a week before his 98th birthday celebrated today, Aug. 14, Rittenberg talked intelligently about present U.S. relations with China, sincerely about his love for his wife, Yulin, and humorously on “discovering the new Sidney.”
“I think as far as the United States is concerned, we don’t really understand what we’re dealing with in China, and therefore it is not possible to deal intelligently with it,” Rittenberg said. “Watching the President on TV is like a comic hour. The only thing is, it ain’t funny…Intelligent people are threatening the largest country in the world with destruction.
“So suppose if they really get an opportunity to carry out those threats; would it be possible to destroy the other without destroying one’s self? How could that be possible?”
He suggested “why not give up on the idea of destruction?”
The best personal thing to come out of Rittenberg’s years in China was acquiring “the world’s best wife,” he said.
“In my 98 years of existence, I did one really smart thing on my own,” he said. He and Yulin became friends before he expressed more serious feelings.
“When I got out of prison, she was put in charge of getting me back to normal life…whatever that is. Our quarrels always end with me having the last word…Yes, dear,” he said, laughing.
His second book, “Manage Your Mind, Set Yourself Free,” was published in 2016 to answer the most asked question, “How did you survive 16 years in solitary confinement in prison?”
“How does it happen that my life was struck by a series of disasters like long-term solitary and then being stricken by some mysterious disease, and yet turns out to be an unusually happy life?
“How is that possible? I think the answer is…no matter what happens, you are in charge of your life, but you have to take charge.”
Raised by a prominent Jewish family in Charleston, S.C., Rittenberg turned down a full scholarship to Princeton University to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at the age of 15, where he majored in philosophy and became a member of the Communist Party.
In 1942, after the U.S. entered into World War II and leaving the Communist Party, Rittenberg joined the Army and was selected to learn Japanese at Stanford.
Thinking that he would be assigned to the occupation forces in Japan, he talked himself into learning Chinese. He was sent to China as the Japanese were surrendering in 1945. He stayed after the war to work with the United Nations famine relief and later as a journalist.
He became the first American citizen to become a member of the Chinese Communist Party, working side-by-side with party leadership to bring Mao to power. He was a trusted translator until 1949 when Joseph Stalin accused Rittenberg of being a spy.
He was sent to solitary confinement for six years until his release in 1955, which he attributes to Stalin’s death.
Chinese leaders promised they would do everything possible to make it up to him. He became head of Broadcast Administration (Radio Peking), a position of power never before or after held by a foreigner. He and co-worker Yulin Wang married and started a family that would include three daughters and a son. Chinese became their first language.
When the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966, the Rittenbergs were convinced that the Great Day had arrived for China. They threw themselves wholeheartedly into fighting against Communist Party control and for an open democracy.
Mao ordered armed forces to take charge and crush the democratic movement. Sidney was again arrested and imprisoned for 10 years. Yulin was sent to hard labor at a reform camp.
The couple was reunited in 1979 and resettled in the state of Washington with their four children eventually joining them. The Rittenbergs operated a China consulting firm for businesses and advisors to U.S. government agencies.