The Revolutionary - an American at Mao's elbowMay 28, 2012 @ 9:18 am (Updated: 11:35 am - 5/28/12 )
It was a packed house at the Harvard Exit Theatre Sunday evening for the world premiere of "The Revolutionary," a documentary about an American citizen who took part in the Communist revolution in China.
In one of the highlights of this year's Seattle International Film Festival, that man, 90-year-old Sidney Rittenberg, put in a surprise appearance after the screening of "The Revolutionary" and fielded dozens of questions about his extraordinary life.
Rittenberg was a South Carolinian who joined the U.S. military during World War II and was assigned to learn Chinese. Although the war ended before he could be put to good use, the military shipped him to China in 1945 anyway, where he served as a military translator.
When his military service was up, the Chinese Communist Party invited him to stay on as their translator. Wanting to be a part of history, Rittenberg says, he gladly accepted the offer and ended up taking an active part in the eventually successful Communist overthrow of the Chinese government.
Rittenberg spent almost 40 years in China, serving as the highest ranking foreigner in Mao's government and even playing a role in the infamous Cultural Revolution of the 1960's that lead to the deaths of thousands upon thousands of Chinese intellectuals and professsionals.
Calling Mao Zedong "a great leader and a great criminal," Rittenberg has many, many regrets over his role in the history of 20th Century China. He admits now he was blinded by his own idealism and athough he says he tried in his own small way to curb the excesses of Mao's regime, he realizes he might have done more harm than good.
And it wasn't that Rittenberg's life in China was so perfect. He twice served long prison sentences while in China. In 1949 he was denounced as an American spy by Stalin who convinced the Chinese to throw him in solitary confinement ... for 6 years. And then during that cultural revolution in the mid-1960's, he was denounced by Mao's wife and served almost 10 years, again in solitary confinement.
Rittenberg finally returned to America in 1980 and now lives on Fox Island in Pierce County, with his Chinese wife of almost 60 years. He currently works as a consultant to a number of corporations, including Microsoft and Prudential.
During Sunday's Q&A at the Harvard Exit, Rittenberg was incredibly articulate - sharp, expansive, witty and reflective. 90 must be the new 60.
"The Revolutionary" plays SIFF one more time, this Thursday at Pacific Place, 4:30.
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