A film by Irv Drasnin, Lucy Ostrander and Don Sellers. 2012. 92 minutes.
Study areas: Modern China, Revolution, Cultural Revolution, U.S.-China Relations, Political Travelers
Very few Americans ever gained first-hand experience of Chinese politics during the Mao years. Even those few political travelers and ambitious reporters who arrived in Beijing were insulated from the realities of mass campaigns and witch-hunts for internal enemies. These realities were deliberately concealed from foreign visitors the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, the few accounts that did return from the People’s Republic of China mostly glowed with accounts of well-run state institutions, improving economic conditions, and the revolutionary wisdom of the Communists.
For the small international community of foreign experts living in China during the Mao years, exposure to the tumult of political upheaval in the name of the revolution could be somewhat more direct. This was certainly the case for Sidney Rittenberg, a South Carolina-born union organizer who became a Communist Party member and direct participant in the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was Communist Party leader Mao Zedong’s experiment in revolution without a revolutionary party to lead it. It was, in Rittenberg’s account, essentially an object lesson in controlled anarchy whose ultimate outcome for the people of China was death, torture, and spiritual trauma.
The Revolutionary tells Sidney Rittenberg’s story through interviews, photographs, and Cultural Revolution-era political art. In the voiceover to this direct and personal film, Rittenberg is described as “the most important foreigner inside of China since Marco Polo” during the years of Mao’s rule. The film takes viewers through Rittenberg’s early years as a labor organizer and civil rights supporter in the American South; his decision to join the Communist Party during China’s 1945-1949 Civil War; his experiences as a foreign expert and English-language radio broadcaster in Bejiing; and, briefly, his post-Mao career as a an advisor and consultant for U.S. institutions looking to strengthen ties to China amidst economic globalization.
Two themes emerge from the film. First, Rittenberg wanted to be a revolutionary and, in the words of the Chinese Communist Party member who recruited him to their cause, a “bridge” between China and the United States. His desire to become a revolutionary and, this time in his own words, become a “part of history” led him to support the Communist revolution, and this political zeal led to his downfall. Along the way he participated in the public criticism of political targets and gained the trust of China’s top leaders, including Mao, as an expert on the United States and U.S.-directed external propaganda. His real professional zenith, however, came during the Cultural Revolution, which Rittenberg viewed as a democratic experiment of world-historical significance. Supporting the Maoist line that it was “right to rebel” against the Communist Party itself, Rittenberg joined the efforts of Mao’s politically ambitious wife Jiang Qing to seize control of the national broadcasting apparatus and turn this powerful opinion-shaping tool against her political rivals.
The second theme is that Rittenberg’s political fortunes were of the “feast or famine” variety. As a foreign expert living in Beijing, he enjoyed all of the privileges of a high-ranking Communist Party official. In the materially straightened circumstances of 1950s China this meant twenty-four hour access to a car and driver, hot water, and regular vacations. Rittenberg was married twice in China, had three children, and was for all intents and purposes a “cadre” – a political and bureaucratic functionary whose responsibilities included the entire English-language section of Radio Beijing. By his own account, he regularly attended high-level talks for and by the Communist Party leadership in Beijing, was well-paid, and was distinguished even among other Party members, by his connections to the revolution’s pre-1949 origins. Mao and state premier Zhou Enlai knew Rittenberg from the central Party’s Yan’an days – a the period and place in which the Communist Party nurtured and grew its strength prior to overthrowing the rival Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-shek. In this sense, Rittenberg was not only distinguished by being a foreigner who had earned the Communist Party’s trust, but by his impeccable political pedigree.
Rittenberg also spent considerable periods of time in solitary confinement. Soon after joining the Communist Party he was personally named by Josef Stalin as being part of an international U.S. spy ring; as a result, Rittenberg spent most of the time between 1949 and 1955 in jail, during which time the People’s Republic of China strengthened its ties with the Soviet Union, went to war with the United States in Korea, and emerged as a viable nation-state within tumultuous, post-colonial East Asia. Rittenberg was released following Stalin’s death and enjoyed more than a decade as a foreign expert, family man, and employee of Radio Beijing before his involvement in Cultural Revolution politics led to a second period of imprisonment, again on the suspicion that he was in reality a U.S. spy. From 1968 to 1977 Rittenberg was an occupant of Beijing’s notorious Qincheng Prison, surrounded by the screams of the tortured and constant threat of his own madness. This time it was Mao’s death that presaged Rittenberg’s release from confinement, following which “Sidney Rittenberg, revolutionary” became “Sidney Rittenberg, consultant.”
The Revolutionary offers a window onto a unique individual and a unique perspective on the Mao-led Communist Party, particularly during the latter’s Cultural Revolution phase. The film also poses important questions about what it meant to be a revolutionary in the twentieth century; how China’s Communist Party members remained insulated from the negative consequences of their own rule; and how those who feel accepted by other cultures and societies can easily fall victim to hubris. The film would work particularly well paired with readings and discussions on the Cultural Revolution and history of U.S.-China relations, or in a comparative context in which revolution is treated as a transnational phenomenon. As a historical document, the film has two principal shortcomings. The first is that the historical context it provides is primarily limited to a Communist Party-centered view of China’s history. The second is that it insinuates that Maoist China was closed to Americans during the Cold War. Writers Edgar Snow and Anna Louise Strong, both of whom visited and, in Strong’s case, lived in China after 1949 also enjoyed access to China’s top leaders and played important roles as bridges between the Communist Party and U.S. As did W. E. B. Du Bois and Robert F. Williams – African-American intellectuals and leaders whose roles in transnational U.S.-China relations has been overlooked by historians on both sides. Members of the CPUSA visited China during the early 1950s and again during the Cultural Revolution, and a handful of journalists also arrived there on the eve of Great Leap Forward. Other U.S. foreign experts employed by the PRC included former Treasury officials Frank Coe and Solomon Adler.
Those interested in a finer-grained version of Sidney Rittenberg’s story will benefit greatly from his co-authored biography, The Man Who Stayed Behind
. In sum, this is a unique film appropriate for students in advanced high school history courses and up, and which is useful for exploring topics related to twentieth-century revolutions, their supporters, and their human costs.
Matthew D. Johnson is Assistant Professor of East Asian History at Grinnell College. His research and teaching cover modern China and East Asia, political communications and propaganda, and United States-China relations. He is a member of the advisory board and reviews editor of the H-PRC listserv.
The Revolutionary is available online from the distributor's website.
Last Updated: October 21, 2013