Guest article by Larry Kessler, Professor of Chinese history, UNC-Chapel Hill, written in July 2012
Sidney Rittenberg was born in 1921 into a prominent Jewish family of Charleston, South Carolina. His father was president of the city council, and there is a boulevard in Charleston named after his grandfather, Sam Rittenberg, a local businessman and long-serving state legislator who was a driving force behind enactment of state laws to improve public school education and human rights. Sidney had received scholarships from Princeton and Virginia, but he decided to attend UNC because of its liberal reputation under Frank Porter Graham, who knew his family and took Sidney under his wing. Sidney later called the university, which he attended from 1937 to 1940 majoring in philosophy, his “spiritual birthplace.” He dropped out of school before completing the requirements for a Bachelor of Arts degree. Sidney once stated that ironically it was also because of Dr. Frank that he left after his junior year. Rittenberg had become heavily involved in the peace movement and labor organizing, and had joined the campus affiliate of the American Communist Party. As he began to neglect his academic work, Dr. Frank Porter Graham (president of UNC at the time) called Sidney into his office and suggested that he drop out of school and pursue his radical activities, which he did. But after Pearl Harbor and the American entrance into World War II, Sidney was drafted into the U.S. military in 1942, after first being rejected for poor eyesight when he tried to volunteer right after Pearl Harbor. Before joining the army, he gave up his Communist Party membership so as not to jeopardize his position. He was sent to study at the army’s Chinese language training school in Monterey, and also took courses at Stanford University.
He was sent out to China as an interpreter in 1945 just as the war was ending. When time came for his honorable discharge from the army, he decided to stay in China and was able to get a job with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) upon the recommendation of Madame Sun Yat-sen. Through his work with UNRRA, he came into contact with the Chinese Communists, whom he saw as working for the same ideals as he held. In 1946, he left UNRRA to go to Yan’an, where the Communists were headquartered, and met Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and all the top members of the Party. In 1947, he was accepted as a member of the Chinese Communist Party, only one of two Americans ever to be given that privilege. (The other was George Hatem, also a graduate of UNC in 1930, and his story is equally amazing.) For their part, the Communists were interested in his English-language skills for what they imagined would be an American-dominated postwar China. He was given a job polishing up the English language broadcasts of Radio Yan’an and news releases of New China News Agency.
But in January 1949, on the eve of the Communist triumphant entry into Beijing and declaration of the birth of the People’s Republic of China, Rittenberg was arrested and charged with being part of an American spy ring led by the leftist writer Anna Louise Strong sent to sabotage the Chinese revolution. For the next 6 years, he was kept in solitary confinement in a Beijing prison, finally being exonerated and released in the spring of 1955. Amazingly, Sidney still was committed to the Chinese Communist cause and decided to stay in the China. He was given a job in the government’s Broadcast Administration, responsible for the English language broadcasts of Radio Beijing. Sidney married Wang Yulin, a co-worker, and raised four children in China. He rose in the ranks of the Communist Party, had access to classified information and all the top leaders, and was a leading participant in the key political movements of the time despite being a foreigner. But during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, he ended up on the wrong side of the factional struggles, and served another term in prison (1968-1977), again in solitary confinement. Altogether, of his 35 years in China, Sidney spent nearly half that time, 16 years, in prison. He has publicly stated that it was his fond memories of Dr. Frank and Chapel Hill that helped him endure those years. Sidney recalled these China experiences in his engaging autobiography, The Man Who Stayed Behind (Simon and Schuster, 1993). He emerged from these experiences not at all embittered, and at the end of the 1970s he was back in the good graces of the Chinese leadership (at the time Deng Xiaoping), but he had to formally resign from the Communist Party. Rittenberg worked for a few years for the New China News Agency before finally leaving China in 1980.
Sidney and his wife returned to the United States, with their four children joining them later, and eventually they settled in the Seattle area. In 1989, Sidney and Yulin began a consulting firm, Rittenberg Associates Inc., which has counted among its clients such American firms wanting to do business in China as Microsoft, Hughes Aircraft, Levi Strauss, Polaroid, Intel, and McCaw Cellular. He regularly travels to China on brief business trips and to maintain contact with his many acquaintances there. Since 1997, Sidney has been Visiting Professor of Chinese Studies and Senior Adviser at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. Sidney has extraordinary command of spoken Chinese and is a fluent translator, skills he honed while working for the New China News Agency and Radio Beijing.
Rittenberg’s renewed association with UNC
Rittenberg first trip back to the United States came in 1979, on a four-month visit to see family and friends and to give talks on China. In June of that year he came back to UNC for the first time in forty years, at the invitation of Larry Kessler, a China historian and Director of International Programs at the time. Sidney gave a major address on U.S.-China relations to a large audience in Hamilton Hall, and met with Asian specialists on campus. It was on that occasion that Sidney inquired into the possibility of receiving transfer credit for his work at Stanford University in the early 1940s, so that he could finally earn his UNC degree. Associate Dean Frederick Vogler and Professor Kessler investigated his record at Stanford, and it was clear that he had more than enough credits to qualify. When Dean Vogler notified Sidney that he was now a UNC graduate, he wrote in reply, “it was difficult to articulate my pride and joy at your letter, and the feeling it gave me that my long, deep love for our school has been re-quited. . . . How I wish Dr. Frank could know and see this all taking place.”
It was also during the 1979 visit to UNC that Rittenberg expressed a desire to become a visiting lecturer at UNC. There was some interest on the part of the College and the School of Journalism, but Sidney got involved in other projects and the matter was dropped. He maintained, however, a regular association with the university through participation in Alumni Association and Program in the Humanities seminars on China. Finally, in 1993 he was appointed the Frey Foundation Distinguished Visiting Professor, on the recommendation of Professor Michael Hunt and the History Department. The Rittenbergs established a temporary second home in Chapel Hill when he began teaching at UNC in the spring of 1994. From 1995 to 1998, he held the position of the Edward M. Bernstein Professor of History. Each year, usually in the spring semester, Rittenberg taught two courses in History and Asian Studies. Sidney was overjoyed to be teaching at UNC. He said to one interviewer, “I really feel a very deep love for Chapel Hill, and so being able to come and teach here is another dream that came true.”
Sidney was a very effective communicator with students, alumni, and the general public. Students in his undergraduate courses were very enthusiastic about him as a teacher. He would enthrall them with stories of helping Mao Zedong with his English or playing bridge with Deng Xiao-ping. History came alive in his conversations. Participants in the many Program in the Humanities seminars he led also give him very high marks for his ability to convey his experiences and his knowledge of China with great clarity and charm. He also worked with the Alumni Association in organizing and conducting tours to China. Sidney’s presence on campus during those five years enhanced our Asian Studies program, enriched the Program in the Humanities seminars, won many friends for the college and the university, and in general raised the visibility of a country that Americans need to know more about.
Kessler’s Addendum (August 31, 2019): Sidney died August 24, 2019 at the age of 98.
Addendum #2 (July 12, 2021): Larry Kessler died on August 10, 2020 at the age of 84. His obituary is here. – David Martin
See also: “The Carolinas, Jews, and China.”