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The Man Who Stayed Behind Hardcover – April 1, 1993
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From Publishers Weekly
Rittenberg, the only American citizen to join Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Party, befriended Zhou Enlai, debated with Mao and was influential in the '60s Cultural Revolution. Born in South Carolina, this former U.S. labor organizer had his faith in Mao's "sacred revolutionary organization" tested by 16 years in Chinese prisons. His first jail term (1949-1955), after he was wrongly accused of spying, only strengthened Rittenberg's resolve to prove himself a loyal communist. Released, he took a job scrutinizing co-workers' dossiers, sending suspected counter-revolutionaries to labor camps. His next 10 years (1968-1977) in solitary confinement broke his faith in communism. Coauthored with Wall Street Journal reporter Bennett, this robust, often exasperating political autobiography affords close-ups of recent Chinese history as it was made. Rittenberg, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1980 with his second Chinese wife, now views Mao as a "brilliant, talented tyrant" and a "tragic figure," but he remains proud of what he views as the revolution's accomplishments and his role in it. Photos. Author tour.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Kirkus Reviews
The dramatic odyssey of an American who cast his lot with mainland China's Communists following WW II--and who lived to regret it. A member of the American Communist Party who had organized coal miners and steelworkers in the South prior to entering the Army in 1942, Rittenberg was trained as an interpreter. Posted to Asia, the author stayed on as a UN employee after V-J Day, and he soon joined forces with the Reds who eventually wrested control of China. The only US citizen ever to be accepted by the Chinese CP, Rittenberg earned his keep as an upper-echelon official in the Party's Broadcast Administration before, during, and after the Revolution. An ardent leftist, he gave his intellectual and ideological all to the presumptively common cause--and, for his pains, he was twice imprisoned, for a total of 16 years. Though rehabilitated following a ten-year stay behind bars that began at the height of the Cultural Revolution, he and his loyal Chinese wife made for the States in 1980. Here, with the help of Wall Street Journalist correspondent Bennett (The Death of the Organization Man, 1990), Rittenberg offers an account of his China sojourn that's remarkable, among other reasons, for its near- perfect pitch. At the outset, he tells his tale in the same awed tones as might a callow, hero-worshipping youth. Subsequently, as he gains maturity and perspective, his voice becomes that of an aging radical no longer willing to swallow the metamythical pronouncements of despots whose lust for power has undermined a shared vision. Throughout, moreover, Rittenberg (who turned 70 last year) provides insightful takes on Mao, Jiang Qing (Mao's hard- driving wife), Zhou En-lai, Lin Biao, Deng Xiaoping, and other notables with whom he treated during his 35 years in China. The gripping saga of an expatriate whose extraordinary experiences left him without illusions about Marxism--but with his personal ideals triumphantly intact. (Eight pages of b&w photographs, one map--not seen) -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
Top customer reviews
Note: Read the Preface to understand the perspective. The negative reviewers seem to have skipped this key part of the narrative, as it clearly indicates the author's hindsight, like everyone's, is 20/20. He was a middle class white college student looking for atrocious injustices so he, a self important lad, could protest for his lofty ideals of change. You know the type; they were the Occupy Wall Street participants who couldn't explain to reporters the purpose of the protests. The author didn't have the luxury of the Internet back then and was shipped off to China prior to the enlightenment that accompanies the age of 30-ish. It's unfair and unproductive to judge his naïveté. The book is rich with facts, experience, history, perspective that one is unlikely to find elsewhere, all delivered in effortless prose. Definitely read.
Almost uniquely among foreigners, Rittenberg became a member of the Chinese Communist Party. With that, “comrade Li Dunbai,” as he was known to the Chinese, gained entry to the very core of the Communist leadership. He came to know some of the leading CCP figures, including Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Li Xiannian, and Zhu De. Rittenberg observed the Chinese Civil War at close range, its hardships and privations, brutalities, hopes, and delusions.
Despite his commitment to the CCP cause, Rittenberg greeted Communist “liberation” behind bars. Accused of being an imperialist spy (a move meant to show Mao’s loyalty to the Soviet Union), Rittenberg the hapless revolutionary ended up in solitary confinement for six years, where he nearly went mad and partially lost his eyesight.
Rittenberg reemerged in the mid-1950s, scarred by the experience yet somehow ever more committed to the Communist cause. He explains the paradox by describing his imprisonment as an exercise for building character, a test of devotion to the revolution. “Hardheadedness,” someone would say from today’s vintage point but, then, who are we to judge?
Rittenberg’s new life was one of relative privilege. He took up a high-ranking position at China’s Broadcast Administration, moved into a fine apartment, and developed at one point a passion for antique furniture. Like many other Westerners, he was carried away by enthusiasm for the Great Leap Forward, failing or unwilling to see beyond the façade of the Chinese Potemkin village. For someone of his position and experience, it was a serious oversight, as Rittenberg recognizes in his memoir, asserting repeatedly that he had no idea about the scale of starvation, even though his own wife came home bloated from edema.
The high point of Rittenberg’s career was the Cultural Revolution, which he (mis) interpreted as Mao’s call for democratization. He travelled around and made fiery speeches. He became a celebrity and boasted rare access to China’s core leadership. Rittenberg’s account, although skewed somewhat in a way that puts him in a more central position than he probably enjoyed, offers a fascinating perspective on the chaos of the experience of the Cultural Revolution. His descriptions of meetings with Mao, Jiang Qing, Zhou Enlai, and other key Chinese players, are also very interesting, if fragmentary.
For unknown reasons but probably due to his conflict with Jiang Qing, Rittenberg was imprisoned again in 1968, spending another ten years in solitary confinement. When finally released, in 1977, Rittenberg saw a very different China, one which by and large lost faith in the “revolution.” Disgusted with growing corruption and hypocrisy of the CCP, he left China for the United States in 1980.
Rittenberg cast in his lot with the Chinese Communist Party and longed to be accepted as “one of them.” In his search for acceptance, he endured unbelievable hardships, enough to fill ten lifespans. But for all his effort of thirty five years, for the all the suffering, for all the glory – he never did become “Chinese” in the way he had hoped to. It was “their” revolution. It was “their” struggle – as Rittenberg belatedly recognizes, with some remorse for having overstepped the unseen red lines, for trying to be what he never could become.
His experience in China, Rittenberg pointedly concludes, led him to reappraise his youthful idealism, to understand that great social changes are not brought about through revolutions and violent campaigns but through painstaking, grass-root, improvement of the human experience. His life was a great delusion, a strange dream, as was much of China’s postwar. The awakening came at a terrible price, for Rittenberg, as well as for China. In this, at least, their destinies were intertwined.
This story reminded me of my own experiences and thoughts of my youth, from the personal to the philosophical. And I believe Sidney's experiences show humanity across time that the true road of liberation does not end in the creation of a revolutionary and just society, but in the slow and patient transformation of an individual's heart and mind as he travels with society on the journey of progress.
What a brave soul. To quote Trotsky's last testament - "Life is Beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of violence and oppression and live life to the fullest." Sidney has lived a full life and will help countless lives yet to come live life to the fullest with his own beautiful example.
From friend to foe and back into the frying pan Sydney survives a harsh life in a poor country, xenophobia, homophobia, prison, and eventual vindication.
Rittenberg gives a very American account of the Chinese revolution, his journey and complex friendship with Mao, and life in Cold War China.