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Sidney Rittenberg once served as a translator for Chairman Mao Zedong. (photo courtesy of Sidney Rittenberg)

Sidney Rittenberg ’41 spent 16 years in solitary confinement in a Chinese jail, imprisoned twice by the Communists on charges of being an American spy.

It’s the stuff great films are made of; only this story is true. “The Revolutionary” is a documentary film about the UNC alum’s life story, with a focus on the 35 years he spent in China and his close role with all the top leaders of the Communist Party.

The free public screening of the film is at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28 at The Varsity Theater on Franklin Street. Rittenberg and the filmmakers will attend and discuss the film.

The screening is also part of a UNC “Adventures in Ideas” seminar, “China Since 1949,” hosted by the Program in the Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences and co-sponsored by The Ackland Art Museum, with support from the department of history, The Center for Global Initiatives and the Carolina Asia Center.

Rittenberg’s life provides a compelling entryway into understanding China’s past and present. He went to China in 1945 as a Chinese linguist and interpreter with the U. S. Army. After the war, he linked up with the Chinese Communists and remained in China for 35 years, working as an English language specialist for New China News Agency and Radio Beijing. He came to know intimately all the top leaders of the Communist Party. On two occasions, however, he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement, first on the charge of being an American spy and again when he backed a losing faction during the Cultural Revolution. Altogether he served 16 years in prison, nearly half his time in China.

Rittenberg returned to the United States for a brief visit in 1979, during which time he came back to UNC for the first time in 40 years to give a talk on U.S.-China relations. The next year, he and his Chinese wife and their four children moved back to America on a permanent basis. For five years, from 1994 to 1998, Rittenberg was a visiting professor of history at UNC, teaching courses on the Chinese revolution and his own personal experiences in China. Over the years, he has returned to the Program in the Humanities for seminars.

He now lives near Seattle, has established a consulting firm that helps major American corporations do business with China, and also is a visiting professor of Chinese Studies at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. He travels to China several times each year and is considered one of the most knowledgeable foreigners about contemporary Chinese politics and economy.

Rittenberg wrote a 1993 memoir called The Man Who Stayed Behind.


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