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Sidney Rittenberg's Memories of Mao


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Sidney Rittenberg is one of the oldest (or handiest?) of the Old China Hands - arrived in 1943, stayed 35 years, spent almost half of that time in solitary confinement, hung out with Mao, Zhu De, Zhou Enlai, Xi Zhongxun (father of Jinping). He has some interesting stories to tell.

And how long were you in prison at that time?

Six years. The first year was in total darkness. It was not good.

That's from an Atlantic interview published last month. There's also an hour-long video of him talking to James Fallows where he talks more about the modern era - on Xi Jinping at 15:00, on the anti-corruption push at 20:00. Fallows just made me giggle by referring to hardliners as the Dick Cheneys of China. 


26:00 is Internet censorship and contrasting the Soviet Union and China on the introduction of the PC

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That guys is a legend. I have been sending him messages on facebook for about five years now to go for dinner in Beijing.

Seriously, if I could choose one person to have a chat with on this planet, it would be him. At 92, not so likely to happen anymore though.

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I got a very clear statement from General Marshall’s attache, General Henry Byroade, that the Americans were definitely going to let the Nationalists attack and annihilate these 60-70,000 Communist troops in that area. I took that information to the local commanders, Li Xiannian and so on, it proved to be right, and they totally escaped from encirclement.

That's a pretty stunning admission. There has long been allegations that Mao won the war largely with the help of Western Communist sympathizers. Here was a 25-year old American who changed the history of China.

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As it happens I'm currently half-way through his memoirs The May Who Stayed Behind. An absolute must-read for anyone interested in modern Chinese history - you pretty much can't get much closer to the action than he did. But even if you're not a history buff, it's a very accessible book, and he writes engagingly and candidly about his experiences. I had no idea he existed until I saw an article written about him on the BBC news app a few weeks ago.


Yes he was one of the few Americans (or the only American?) to successfully become a member of the Chinese Communist Party. Perhaps more astoundingly, he managed to do this before they even took hold of the country. On top of that, he must have been very talented to have gone from learning Chinese in the US Army to reaching the level of fluency to do translating and interpreting work with some of the highest political figures. All before the convenience of smart phones and the Internet we all rely on today.


Reading his autobiography, you get a feeling that he was truly immersed in the country's political system, as well as the language itself. There would have been a number of years there where he didn't utter a word of English. Some of his anecdotes about learning and using the language are truly fascinating. Really worth reading if you haven't already.

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I would like to read the book. Looks like there is a Kindle edition:



Also, here's a Laszlo Montgomery podcast about him:


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  • 3 years later...

Two more Sidney Rittenberg media links:


The Revolutionary : film 2012 (if you have educational library access, you may be able to watch this for free through the Kanopy website) 


Sinica Podcast Interview part 1 and part 2 : winter 2017


The film is an interesting watch, the documentary film maker has a five year conversation with him. He's about 90 years old at the time and so amazingly quick-witted and remembers everything in such detail; facts and names from decades ago. I hope I'm half as 'with it' as he is when I'm that old!

The podcast interview is great too, the hosts Kaiser and Jeremy are obviously enamored with his life story and at 95 (at the time) he still tells a good tale. They drill down into more about his life from the movie and his book. Enjoy!

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  • 2 years later...

The Sinica podcast did a two-part interview with him a couple of years back (audio is downloadable):


(via today's Supchina weekly briefing.)



Btw, for those who can't read the NYT obituary due to the paywall, it's also available here: 




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2 hours ago, mungouk said:

Connecting from where? 



2 hours ago, mungouk said:

Do you have an account on the site?

Nope, but I always used to get a paywall when I had cookies automatically disabled.  Now however, I use a cookie auto deleter that accepts all cookies, but then deletes them automatically whenever I close the tab, and I haven't seen the paywall since.

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4 hours ago, suMMit said:

Wow, interesting guy. I wonder what his Chinese was like

As soon as I read your comment I was curious too! My guess was: either amazing, or good but with surprisingly awful tones. Here's a clip, and another one. Seems the truth is a bit in the middle: really good, with a bit of an accent and the occasional off tone. His 哎呀 is on point though and his intonation is very much 'old 领导'.

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