There aren’t very many Charlestonians who can say they rubbed shoulders with Mao Zedong, but Sidney Rittenberg did — and he paid a stiff price for it.
Rittenberg, the grandson of Sam Rittenberg, served as a Chinese language expert in China at the end of World War II. After he was discharged, he stuck around and became the first American to join the Chinese Communist Party, rubbing shoulders with all the bigwigs, including the biggest, main man Mao himself. But it wasn’t all good times: Amid accusations of being a spy, Rittenberg spent a total of 16 years in solitary confinement before eventually returning to the United States in 1980.
Eventually, Rittenberg co-authored The Man Who Stayed Behind, a book about his experiences, and he’s currently a faculty member at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington state. He’s also the subject of a documentary, The Revolutionary, which will screen at the Stern Center Ball room. The College of Charleston’s Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program hosts the event (along with the Asian Studies Program, International Studies Program, and the School of Languages, Cultures and World Affairs) on Mon. April 15 at 7 p.m.
“Sidney Rittenberg was not just another expatriate who found his cause in China’s revolutionary turmoil,” says Irv Drasnin, The Revolutionary‘s producer, writer, interviewer, and narrator. “He is an American who, during the Maoist era, assumed an unprecedented role for a foreigner in Chinese politics. He was an insider who today bears witness to Mao’s historical role and to events that, in China, have been all but removed from public discourse.”
Rittenberg wasn’t just a witness, but an insider, to Chinese and world history. He was in the country during the Great Leap Forward (when the country tried to switch from an agrarian economy to an industrialized and collectivized one, resulting in famine and the deaths of almost 40 million people) and during its cultural revolution. “You won’t find references in China today, not in published books, or films, or in museums or on the internet, to the enormity of these events,” Drasnin says. But they are still essential for understanding China today.
The Revolutionary took five years to make. Money was one reason — the crew had to reshoot certain interviews in high-definition, and the fundraising process was never-ending. “Another factor was opportunity,” Drasnin says. “Whenever we were with Sidney to film something else, from his archives, his library, his home life, we asked more questions. We took every opportunity to continue the conversation, to go as deeply as possible into his remarkable experiences and into his thinking, then and now.”
As Drasnin explains, Rittenberg was willing to confront his past on camera, and he discusses the corruption of power in depth. “His life speaks eloquently to the fallacy of ideological certainty, no matter where you find it,” Drasnin says. He also hopes The Revolutionary will help the audience confront history and understand the past and how it connects to the present.
And interestingly, although the film screening is hosted by the Jewish Studies program, Drasnin says that Rittenburg’s Judaism isn’t a part of the narrative. “But his connection to Charleston is strong and enduring,” Drasnin adds. “The Rittenbergs were prominent members of the community and Sidney speaks fondly of his Charleston roots and how he was influenced by them. It’s too bad we couldn’t get more of that into the film.”
There will be a discussion and reception following the screening, and Rittenberg will be in attendance.
“It’s not every foreigner, let alone an American, who is hailed by Chairman Mao as a true ‘communist fighter’ and who also ends up spending a total of 16 years in Chinese prisons, in solitary confinement,” Drasnin says. “It’s quite a story.”