The American Who Gave His Life to Chairman Mao

On the dictator's 120th birthday, Sidney Rittenberg—whose life story entwines with the turbulent history of the People's Republic—describes his interactions with the man who still dominates China 37 years after his death.
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Chairman Mao Zedong (L) signs a copy of his Little Red Book for Sidney Rittenberg (R) in Beijing, 1966. (Sidney Rittenberg)

From 1944, when the 23-year-old Sidney Rittenberg first arrived in China with the U.S. Army, to his departure 35 years later, no other foreign national played as important a role in the country. A Chinese linguist and Communist sympathizer, Rittenberg served as a friend, confidante, translator, and journalist for the Communist Party leadership after first encountering them at their Yan'an base in 1946. During the first three decades of P.R.C. history, Rittenberg enjoyed remarkable influence in a country largely closed off to the outside world. However, his high profile came at a grave cost: He was imprisoned twice and held in solitary confinement for a total of 16 years.

Now 92, Rittenberg remains a sharp observer of contemporary China, commenting often about the country that has defined his personal and professional life. A genial man with an easy laugh, Rittenberg betrays little bitterness about his years in China, which he wrote about in his memoir The Man Who Stayed Behind, and has continued to visit since his return to the U.S. In a wide-ranging phone conversation with me last month, Rittenberg recounted his personal memories of Chairman Mao Zedong, born 120 years ago today, and why he believes that, through forging an early alliance with the Chinese leader, the United States might have avoided both the Korean and Vietnam wars. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

When did you actually first meet Chairman Mao in person?

It was October 20-something in 1946. I’d just come over land to Yan’an [the Communist Party home base in Shaanxi Province] from Inner Mongolia, and after arriving, I was immediately taken to the weekly dance in the Party headquarters building. When we opened the door to go in, Mao was dancing in the middle of the floor. He saw me and stopped dancing, and after I shook his hand he said, “We’d like to welcome an American comrade to join in our work.” Then, he took me over by the side of the hall and sat me down on a chair, and immediately said that he wanted to invite me to his place and spend a day or two just talking about America. The interesting thing here is—and this is confirmed by Li Zhishui, the doctor who wrote the book on Mao’s personal life—America was the only foreign country that really fascinated and interested him and was one he greatly admired. He would invite left-wing Americans to his place and sit and chat. To my knowledge, he didn’t invite foreign experts of any other nationality—just the Americans.


Why do you think he had such a fascination with America and Americans?

Mao’s modern education began when he went to high school in Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan Province. There, he had a very enlightened liberal teacher, one whose daughter he actually married, who taught him about Rousseau, Franklin, Jefferson, and so on, and those first foreign thinkers really interested him. In fact, Mao related somewhere that he once thought Jeffersonian democracy was the future for China. Eventually, he came to believe that foreign backers would not permit China to evolve into a Western-style democracy, and that’s when he turned to Lenin.


What were your impressions of him? What was he like? Was he as charismatic as people say?

He was only charismatic because of the strength of his mind and his ability to put complicated political thinking into very colorful, popular language—which is a talent that seems to be totally lost in China these days. But, you know, he was no Fidel Castro. He was no orator. He didn’t keep people spell-bound—he was a rather slow and bumbling speaker. But the way he analyzed things was fascinating. And he was always careful to make it very simple, to put things in popular terms, not like the mind-numbing stuff that began coming out later.

You know, it was interesting: When you sat and talked with him, he was laid back. He talked as though everything was just a casual conversation and very humorous. Anyone who was talking with him in my experience would be constantly in stitches laughing, and he’d laugh too. So he gave the impression of a kind of sage from the backwoods, who was a great analyzer and a great talker. Nothing threatening at all, nothing tough.


What was the relationship like between Mao and [Chinese premier] Zhou Enlai? Was Zhou more sophisticated and more urbane? Did they balance each other well?

They were totally different. Zhou was a very gregarious, urbane person, an organizational genius who could do two or three different things at the same time without getting mixed up. In the early 1930s, Zhou had led the attack on Mao as one of the students Stalin had sent back from Moscow to run the Chinese Communist Party. But after the near-obliteration of the Red Army—when they took its remnants and started the Long March— Zhou decided that Mao had been right about the strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare and dropped his opposition and made up his mind that from now on, he was going to follow Mao—and he did. He acted as Mao’s chief of staff: Whatever the leading team decided, Zhou would be in charge of executing the decision. He was an organizational genius, no question about it. Everyone respected him and looked up to him.


Was Deng Xiaoping a major figure in the Party by this time, or did he emerge later?

Deng only emerged later, really. He came to prominence in the Chinese Civil War, when he was the number one political commissar of the great field armies that wiped out or captured most of Chiang Kai-Shek’s elite troops. He was a little man who carried out Mao’s strategic concepts. Mao would send him a document on how to wage the campaign strategically, and Deng was in charge of making sure it was carried out. You know, one of Deng’s great advantages politically—and it probably saved his life in the Cultural Revolution—was that in the 1930s, he was persecuted for supporting Mao against Stalin’s people. Mao never forgot that. So, in the Cultural Revolution, Liu Shaoqi was enemy number one, and Deng was enemy number two. But unlike Liu, who was hounded to death, Deng was protected by Mao.


How did you earn the trust of these men in the 1940s?

[Laughs] Well, you know—that’s a curious question. I’m a kind of open, direct guy, and I think they understood that I was telling them the truth, whatever I said, as I saw it. I was working with the UN relief program and doing famine relief work in the Communist area that was under the command of Li Xiannian, who later became president of the P.R.C., and Wang Zhen, who later became vice president. I was able to give them some important information about the American decision to allow Chiang Kai-Shek to wipe out Communist troops in that area. At the time, the local leaders, Li Xiannian and his colleagues, were in dispute about the intentions of General Marshall and the American role in the Chinese civil war. Some people, including the then-political commissar, felt that the Nationalists would not be allowed to attack them and wipe the Communists, who were outnumbered four or five to one in that area, out. Others believe that Marshall would let them be killed.

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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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