An American in Mao’s Cultural Revolution

The Revolutionary: An American in Mao’s Cultural Revolution

Directed by Irv Drasnin, Lucy Ostrander and Don Sellers (2012)

Film Review

This documentary concerns the late Sidney Rittenberg, the only US citizen ever to join the Chinese Communist Party during the tenure of Mao Tse Tung

Rittenberg, active in the Southern union and civil rights movement during the early forties, was drafted in 1941 and trained in Mandarin by the US military. He was deployed to China in 1945 and served briefly as a UN observer following the Japanese surrender in August 1945.

In 1946, the Chinese Communist Party invited him to remain in China to serve as a “bridge” between the Chinese revolution and the Western world. Fearful of becoming too dependent on the Soviet Union, Mao was eager to establish good relations with the US.

After Stalin denounced him as a spy in 1949, the Chinese imprisonment him for six years (without trial) in solitary confinement. During the first year of his imprisonment, he was offered the option of returning to the US or remaining in prison under relaxed conditions allowing him full access to books and writing materials. Rittenberg, who believed that Mao’s revolution offered genuine freedom and democracy for China’s brutally oppressed poor, chose to remain in prison.

Following Stalin’s death he was released with a full apology. With his party membership restored, he was offered a prestigious position at Radio Beijing running the English language section. As a high level Communist Party official, he also enjoyed a life of privilege, with access to a chauffeur, hot water, and higher pay than Mao.

The most interesting part of the film concerns Rittenberg’s experience with three momentous programs Mao launched to counter pro-capitalist* forces in his government (the 1956 Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom campaign, the 1958-62 Great Leap Forward and the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution).

During Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, Chinese intellectuals were encouraged to criticize government policies they felt weren’t working. While Mao accepted suggestions for improving existing policies, he came down hard on intellectuals (many lost their jobs or were imprisoned) who expressed outright oppositions to his policies.

During the Great Leap Forward, Mao first established vast rural communes that provided free food for all Chinese citizens, and then pulled most of the farmers off the communes to develop local steel and copper foundries. The loss of production would result in a massive famine in which 25-35 million people would die.

The famine-related deaths resulted in heavy criticism of Mao among the party leadership. The Cultural Revolution he launched in 1966 was intended to purge the Party leadership of his critics. The program consisted mainly of empowering youthful Red Brigade members to act as police, judge, and jury of authority figures  they perceived as counter-revolutionary (or simply disliked). Mao simultaneously ordered the police and army to stand back, while the Red Guards brutally assaulted, tortured, and killed people they singled out. During the Cultural Revolution, many intellectuals and academics were also detained without trial and either sent to prisons, labor camps, or agricultural communes.

Erroneously believing the Cultural Revolution was a true democratic rebellion, Rittenberg, became involved in a rebel group at Radio Beijing. Initially Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife and notorious Gang of Four member, encouraged his efforts. However in 1968 when he began criticizing the lack of democratic process, he found himself back in prison in solitary confinement.

He would be released shorty after Mao’s death in 1976. He and his family returned to the US in 1980, where he and his wife started new careers again in adult education. As China increasingly opened up to US investment, both embarked on lucrative careers as consultants to major Wall Street companies.

Rittenberg died August 24, 2019.


*The strength of the pro-capitalist movement Mao was struggling with becomes apparent from the speed with which China abandoned communism for industrial capitalism following his death. See How China’s Peasant Lost Collective Farming and Gained Urban Poverty

People with a public library card can see the documentary free on Kanopy. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into your search engine to register.

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