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.

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.

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. And when they came back to Yan’an, they thanked me and told me how correct my information had been. And in his memoirs, Li recalls this story and my role, which he exaggerates—my role wasn’t probably the decisive factor, but it was helpful. And then, these two commanders, who were both Central Committee members, Li Xiannian and Wang Zhen, became my two sponsors in joining the Chinese Communist Party.

And was this in 1946, as well?

1946. It was all in 1946.

What were the circumstances of your arrest in the 1940s? How did you run into trouble with Mao? And did Mao personally play a role in your arrest or was it someone beneath him?

No, no, no. Nobody could have touched me, or any other foreigner, without the personal approval of Mao. Couldn’t be done. What happened was, the story came out some years ago. Stalin’s foreign trade minister and one of his old Bolshevik allies, Anastas Mikoyan, otherwise known as the “Armenian rug salesman,” made a secret trip to China in 1949, I think in January. He went to

the mountains where Mao and we all were, about 100 miles from Beijing, and held a series of talks with Mao, giving him Stalin’s opinion of what was going on in China. Among the documents that he brought was a personal message from Stalin to Mao, saying that they had identified me as a member of an American spy ring, the queen bee of which was Anna Louise Strong, a friend of mine, whom they had arrested in Moscow. Stalin had her deported and recommended that the Chinese arrest me as well. Of course, they never sent any evidence because there wasn’t any.

And how long were you in prison at that time?

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

Did you think you’d be in prison indefinitely?

Well, I’ll tell you, not this time. That was the second time (from 1967-1977). Because after the horrible first year in darkness, the warden suddenly came and told me that they understood that I was telling the truth. They understood who I was, and that I should forget about all the accusations that were hurled at me. So he gave me two choices. I’d been hollering all along that if they were going to keep me here, let me at least read and study and make some use of my time. He said “we can’t let you go until your case is cleared up,” which I knew meant while Stalin was alive. The other option, he said, was that I could just go back to America and forget about China for the rest of my life. If I wanted to go back, they'd send me back.

But that was not an option for me. I didn’t even think about it. My health was totally broken down. I was in shambles, just trying to get back to normal life. And besides, I didn’t want to go back with this cloud over me. What was I going to do? So I said I’ll stay and study. And I did that for five more years.

And what was it like to be released? How did that happen?

[Laughs] One day, the chief keeper unlocked my little cell and came in and said, “Come with me. Someone wants to talk to you.” So I went outside and into the main prison corridor and he unlocked a little door that I had never seen open and led me in. And there was a man whom later I learned was the first leader of the Chinese version of the CIA, the state security ministry. At that time, he was a bureau chief at the ministry of public security, which was internal.

Anyway, they had a chair there. I sat down and I knew immediately something big was happening because you don’t sit counter-revolutionaries down. He then issued a formal apology in the name of the central government, and said: “We were wrong. You’re a good man. We mistreated you, we misunderstood you. We’ll do everything possible to make it up to you.” After that, we went through the process of picking jobs that I wanted to do. He said, “Well, if you want to go back to America, we’ll send you back and we’ll give you enough money to start up whatever you want to do. If you want to travel in Europe, we’ll send you to Europe. If you want to stay in China, we’ll give you a villa in the south. You won’t have to work.” And of course, that was the funny thing, because what you want most when you’re locked up in solitary is the chance to do something, to work. So anyway, I told him, I said I want to go back to doing what I was doing on the day I was arrested.

What was that?

I was working at the Xinhua news agency, correcting English, teaching a little journalism, and doing some writing and some pinch hit announcing. But mainly just helping the Chinese journalists who were working in English just straighten their stuff out.

In 1955 when you were released from prison, did your relatives and friends think you were crazy for wanting to stay in China? Did they petition for you to come back?

They knew nothing about it. They had no idea. My brother-in-law was a flying Colonel in the Marine Corps and he stuck his neck out in the McCarthy days to get the government to figure out where I was, what happened. But they were only able to find out that I was somewhere in prison. They didn’t know where or why or what. So when I got out, they still knew nothing about me. They didn’t know what was going on.

When did they learn that you were released from prison?

As far as I know, the first time they got word was when Israel Epstein, who was working in the foreign languages press in Beijing, went to America and met my niece. He told her the story and then my niece got in touch with me, and then my sister, and so on. Oh, my goodness, but by then, that was after my second arrest. By then, it was 1977. In between, they didn’t know anything about me, and I didn’t try to contact them because in those days it was tricky for an American to be in touch with, you know, “Red China,” quote, unquote. It wouldn’t have been good for them.

Was there any criticism of Mao in the mid-50s? Was there a sense of euphoria in China at this time? When did his so-called abusive power begin, in your mind?

I think there was a fundamental change that began as he was coming into power. He gave a speech in 1949 just before the proclamation of the P.R.C. on the people’s democratic dictatorship. Previously, he said that the government of the new China would preside over a pluralistic economy. He even once said, “China doesn’t suffer from too much capitalism; it suffers from too little.” So when the new regime took power, they'd develop socialism, collective economy, private capitalism, individual artisans; six different forms of economy, altogether.

But in this 1949 speech, he shifted his emphasis to one-party dictatorship. I remember feeling aggravated at the time because I thought if the U.S. had played its cards better, maybe he wouldn’t have gone that far. We may have been able to influence the kind of government that finally formed in China. In 1946, I translated a message from Mao to the United States saying that in five years, the Communists planned to be in power in China and wanted to have normal relations with the United States by then. They knew Americans supported Chiang Kai-Shek, but that once Mao took power, that would be over.

Mao cited two reasons why he wanted normal relations. The first one was that China was in shambles: They'd been fighting wars for over a century and everything needed to be rebuilt. They needed a major input of capital. And the only country in the world, after World War II, that had that kind of money was the United States. So China want to get construction loans from the U.S. Mao added that the Chinese were not asking for a handout. They had gold and they could pay at the ongoing rates of international interest. So that was point one, which was not surprising to me.

But point two really bowled me over. He said after the Communists came to power, they didn’t want to be unilaterally dependent on the Soviet Union. They wanted to have good relations with both East and West. Mao said, of course, the Soviets were China's comrades.  "We’re all Communists, but there are many of their viewpoints that we do not share, and we have our own way of looking at things. And we don’t want to be shut off from you, from America, and dependent on them."

I think if America had taken those remarks seriously, it could’ve been different. I even think that we may not have had to fight the wars in Korea and Vietnam. But we totally ignored it.

And was that just because of the McCarthyist spirit in the U.S., the fear of a Red China?

Yeah. It was not just McCarthy, it was people like Dean Rusk—Secretary of State [under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson], undoubtedly a man of strong principle, a good man, but very, very ideological, and, in my view, bigoted. In Rusk's view, a Communist was a Communist was a Communist. The differences between the Chinese and the Russians were not that important.

After your first arrest from prison, how did you get involved again with Chairman Mao? How long did that process take?

Actually, I didn’t sit down and talk with him again until 1963, when I had been working for two years on the translations of his works into English. Four Americans plus Israel Epstein, who was stateless, met with Mao to discuss some questions of translation, which turned into a long talk about everything under the sun, and then dinner. And then I saw him every year after that until my arrest in 1967.

What were the circumstances of your second arrest? They were very different from the first, is that right?

Very different. My wife and I were supporting young people who were trying to dismantle the dictatorship of the proletariat and establish a kind of town hall democracy in China. And I was making speeches in support of them all over the place. And, well, Mao lost his sense of humor about it and put me back in prison.

And you were imprisoned for how many years this time?

Ten years.

And solitary again?


My goodness.

But this was better than the first time because I knew why I was there, you know. The first time, I had no idea what I was doing there. There was this terrible hurt, this feeling of being misunderstood. But the second time, I was not being misunderstood, so it was different.

You were in prison until 1977—how did you learn about the death of Chairman Mao in ‘76?

I had the People’s Daily in prison so I had the news.

And what did you feel when Mao died? Were you relieved? Were you delighted? Were you sad? It must’ve been complicated.

No, no—I still thought he was a revolutionary leader that had answers to the world’s problems. I thought his death was this terrible loss ... but you know, here’s the thing, Matt. It was very strange. When Zhou Enlai died, in January that year, I was distraught. I thought he’d been a very dear, very warm and caring friend on a personal level. And I felt like I’d lost my father almost, I really, literally sat in prison, you know, and just cried and cried.

When Mao died, intellectually, I felt that this was much more important. A much greater tragedy, this was the leader, with a capital L, who had been lost to the world. But I didn’t have a single tear. And I remember thinking to myself at the time: why is this? What’s going on? And I didn’t have the answer.

I think my emotional intelligence, if there is such a thing, was smarter than my intellect at that point. Intellectually, I mourned him, but emotionally, I didn’t.

You moved back to the United States in 1980. What prompted that decision? Did you think you were through with China? Was it exhaustion?

No, no, not at all. When I was in the Army class at Stanford in 1943, I had this idea of learning to be a bridge-builder between Americans and Chinese. If I had both languages and both cultures, I could help these two peoples understand each other and to learn to work together. So by 1980, I decided there was nothing more that I could do on the Chinese end, and I needed to go back and work from the American end. What brought it about was my disgust at the corruption that was already rampant. It wasn’t yet like it is today, but it was already very much in evidence.

I was disgusted by the fact that Deng Xiaoping, after bragging to Robert Novak about the Democracy Wall, about how the government allowed people to put up posters and express their opinion and criticize freely and so on, he shut it down once he consolidated his power. He suppressed the Democracy Wall. We had lots of young democratic activists coming to our home every weekend and we had a kind of forum discussion, and we were living at the Friendship Hotel, where most foreign experts lived, and when they came in to the hotel compound, they had to register their names. So once Deng began suppressing democratic opinion, these people were all going to be in danger. I didn’t feel that my wife and I would be in danger because they weren’t going to fool with us anymore, but I thought these kids were going to be in danger.

But mainly, I was just disgusted by the shutting down of democratic activity and the corruption, and I just said to Yulin you know, it’s time to go to America and off we went.

I imagine that when you arrived in America after 35 years, the culture shock must have been incredible.

It was such fun! When I got back, the op-ed editor of the New York Times asked me to write a piece on July 4th on how it felt to come back after being away 14 years longer than Rip Van Winkle. And I did. And you know, we got a terrific welcome from the press. I was on the Today Show the day after we got back. And, unfortunately, Tom Brokaw wasn’t there that day, so it wasn’t a great program. But, then, the next day, Linda Charlton of the New York Times wrote a feature that took up the whole of page 2. And the headline was something like: "Native Son Returns to Tell His Folks About His In-Laws." And they had a picture of Yulin and myself. Then, everything was coming up roses. That week, I was invited to go to Washington and was formally received by the assistant Secretary of State for Asia, who was Richard Holbrooke. I spent two days talking with the guys on the China desk at the State Department. Everyone was very courteous and friendly. Nobody tried to put me on the spot or ask embarrassing questions. And I felt right at home. I felt great.

It was around this time that Deng Xiaoping made his famous assessment of Mao, saying that Mao was 70 percent correct and 30 percent incorrect. How do you feel about that?

I don’t buy that. I think of it more as before and after. I think Mao was a great leader up to coming to power in 1949, and maybe for three or four years afterwards, when they carried out these great social reforms in China. You know, the eight-hour day, jobs for all the intellectuals, and eliminating opium, eliminating prostitution, equality before the law for women; just ordinary social reforms, which really were a transformation in the China of that day.

It started going bad around 1955. Initially, he encouraged the set up of co-ops, which worked very well. Farm production went way up. It was based on continued private ownership of the land, but the farmers helped each other to till the land. The harvest yield was distributed 60 percent in terms of how much land one had, 40 percent in terms of how much work one put in, or different proportions like that.

But then, Mao got overexcited and got into his build-Rome-in-a-single-day mode. They went from the co-ops to collective farms, so the farmers who had got their own land after centuries of hunger now lost their land to the collective. But being good Chinese patriots, most of them didn’t complain about it. They went along, but farm production, per capita, never went up again until the Deng Xiaoping reforms, when the land was de-collectivized. So that’s when it all really started going bad, really. So, in other words, what I’m saying is I think of it more in terms of Mao before power and after power, rather than a particular ratio.

Do you think there was something personal that changed him? Did he get drunk with power, to use the cliche?

I do. I do think that. In 1968, I think it was, he was up at the Tiananmen gate with Edgar Snow. I was in prison then, but I read about it. He told Snow that China was mostly a peasant country and needed an emperor figure. He was endorsing the kind of adulation and emperor-worship that was going on with him at the center. I think he consciously did get drunk.

It’s strange, Matt, because before coming to power, he wrote and talked constantly about the dangers of the arrogance of power. I remember in 1944, before I got to China, he had reprinted a little pamphlet about a peasant uprising in the Ming dynasty, where the peasant leaders drove the emperor out of Xi’an and assumed the throne. But as soon as they got into power, they became drunk with power and corrupt. And they lost power very quickly. The emperor brought his armies back and chased them away. Mao ordered every functionary in the party to study the pamphlet as a guard against being corrupted by power later on. And he kept constantly preaching this kind of sermon, and yet he was corrupted by power worse than most people.

Jung Chang in her biography of Mao in 2006 argued that he was a megalomaniac who was after more than just power of China—that he wanted world power. What do you think about that idea?

Well, first of all, in my personal opinion, I think that whole book is pretty much garbage. It’s a terribly one-sided—well not really one-sided, but a lot of it is just fiction. You know, like the story she tells about the Long March being a conspiracy hatched by Chiang Kai-Shek and Stalin, working together. It’s ridiculous. Anyway.

Did Mao want to be a more consequential figure than just the President of China? That was one of her arguments.

No, I think that’s nonsense. You know, Mao, he had two sides. One, he was a great military strategist and tactician. I could cite endless examples of brilliant strategies that most people wouldn’t even dream of.  But the other side of him was that he was a terrific individualist, and sort of an anarchical populist. I remember after the border war between China and India in 1962, Marshall Chen Yi, who was also foreign minister, came back from the Himalayas and he brought a big cobra back with him. And he invited my wife and I to come eat the snake with him. And I remember asking him, playing devil’s advocate, I said look: the Indians were beaten, you’re at the peak of the Himalayas, you could have swept down, and in 200 hundred miles, you’d be in Calcutta. So why did you turn back?

He looked at me like I was crazy. He said: Lord, we have so many problems managing China, you think we want to have to manage India? I don't think Mao or anybody else was really interested in anything but China.

If Mao were alive today, what would he think about China’s progress? What would he think about the country? I mean, I know it’s impossible to answer in a way, but would he be satisfied? Would he be disappointed? Is today's China what he had in mind, in a strange way?

I think it’s a two-sided thing. I’ve thought quite a lot about this, actually. He would be very proud to see the strength of the economy and the change in the world position of China. He’d be thrilled at that. On the other hand, he’d be really disgusted at the breakdown of morality and values. And I think he would be very happy with the way Xi Jinping is starting out by trying to restore some of the old values. But, at the same time, I don’t think he would be happy about the added emphasis now, after the recent Third Plenum meeting, on letting market forces decide things and getting the government increasingly out of economic management. That was certainly against his fundamental views. Of course, he might have changed.

Does it surprise you that Mao is still the face on all the Chinese banknotes, that his portrait is still at Tiananmen, that he is still revered in China? 

No, not at all, because the young people that are growing up now, including young Party members, have no idea really who he was and what he wrote and what he did. All they know is he’s sort of the George Washington figure. He was the founder of the country, the unifier of the people, and so on. And that’s all they know. And I wouldn’t expect that to change in the near future.