Sidney Rittenberg and the End of an Era.

                      by David Parmer / Tokyo

On August 24, 2019, Sidney Rittenberg, one of the last of a generation of foreigners involved in the birth or the People’s Republic of China passed away at age 98. That generation included Dr. George Hatem, Edgar Snow, Anna Louise Strong, Agnes Smedley, Rewi Alley, and Dr. Norman Bethune among others. Of this group, it was only Sidney Rittenberg who became well known for his life after October 1, 1949.

Mr. Rittenberg grew up in Charleston, South Carolinian and attended the University of North Carolina where he majored in Philosophy. During this time Mr. Rittenberg became a member of the American Communist Party. During WWII he was sent to Stanford University for language study where he mastered Chinese. He served in the US Army in China during the war, and after his discharge worked for the United Nations, and then eventually made his way to Yan’an where he met Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. In 1946 Mr. Rittenberg became a member of the Chinese Communist Party.

During his time in China Rittenberg was imprisoned for 15 years, much of it in solitary confinement. His first imprisonment was from 1949 to 1955, allegedly at the order of Joseph Stalin himself who claimed that Rittenberg was a member of an international spy organization. One out of jail he went back to work as a foreign advisor working for the Chinese government.

Sidney Rittenberg immersed himself in the Cultural Revolution; he became a radical and participated in the factional denunciation of others. However, he himself was caught in the net of the Cultural Revolution, being denounced by no one less than Jiang Qing, wife to Mao Zedong. He was imprisoned for another 9 years, and upon his release, in 1980 returned to the US. He said that he held Joseph Stalin and Jiang Qing responsible for his life behind bars and not the Chinese people. 

On his return to the US he found a teaching position at Pacific Lutheran University and established a consulting company, Rittenberg & Associates to capitalize on his Chinese connections created over half a century.

Mr. Rittenberg’s death really closes a tumultuous chapter of Chinese history that set the stage for the birth of China as a world superpower. This new China faces 21st century challenges no less difficult than those witnessed by Sidney Rittenberg and his generation of foreign observers and participants.

Photo: Sidney Rittenberg

 Sidney Rittenberg: China History Podcast