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Bringing Chinese History to life: Professor Sidney Rittenberg honored for commitment to building peace

By Drew Brown

Sidney Rittenberg never planned to go to China. But PLU’s visiting professor of Chinese studies ended up living there for 35 years, becoming the only American thought to personally know every Chinese leader from Mao Zedong to current President Jiang Zemin. Even after being wrongfully jailed by the Chinese government for 16 years, Rittenberg remains dedicated to fostering cooperation between China and the U.S.

"It was always my goal to build bridges between people," Rittenberg said. "I never gave up on that idea, even through the hardships."

For all his work, Rittenberg received the Wang Center for International Program’s first Peace Builder Award at the China symposium.

"Sidney Rittenberg is a pioneer in building peace between China and the United States and promoting relations between our two peoples," said Ambassador Wang Yunxiang, consulate general of the People’s Republic of China.

"I am immensely thankful to Pacific Lutheran University for this award and to (Wang Center founders) Peter and Grace Wang who made it possible," Rittenberg said. "I will take it as an encouragement to do more together with you in the future."

Rittenberg, 81, who was also a speaker at the symposium, has taught classes on China at PLU for five years. He brings decades of experience in China, where he worked as an interpreter, aid worker, program developer, business consultant and translator of major texts.

His journey began during World War II, when he was drafted and sent to the Army Far Eastern Language and Area School at Stanford University, where he studied Chinese. After the war, Rittenberg joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency in China, as a famine relief observer.

He then became a neutral interpreter (for the three sides, US Army, Nationalist and Communist) in one of the Truce Teams set up to conciliate in the Chinese Civil War by President Truman’s Special Envoy. Rittenberg’s work helped develop his relationship with the Chinese. In 1946, China’s Communist leadership invited him to remain to help set up their English language program.

His work ended abruptly in 1949 when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin accused him of being a spy for the US, forcing the Chinese government to send him to solitary confinement. Upon Stalin’s death in 1955, Rittenberg was released.

"With the billons of dollars of aid China needed (from the Soviets), my incarceration is not excusable, but understandable," Rittenberg said.

Eventually, both Mao and Zhou Enlai made a number of public apologies to Rittenberg and made him a ranking member of the Communist Party, giving him access to information rare, if not unprecedented, for an American.

Rittenberg decided that the times, and his new privileged position as a "hero" who had been through severe trials and had not turned against China, made it favorable for him to remain. And most simply put, he loved China and wanted to continue bridging the gap between United States and Chinese cultures.

Rittenberg continued living in China, met his wife, Yulin, married and started a family. He worked with Chinese journalists, training editors, translators, radio announcers and others in English. He also took part as a Chinese/English interpreter in the translation of major texts, including the Selected Works of Mao Zedong, and at times interpreted for Chinese leaders in their talks with foreign visitors.

Yet he was forced to weather another incarceration starting in 1968, this for an astonishing 10 years, for actions and criticisms against the dictatorship and bureaucracy during the Cultural Revolution.

He left China after his release, and he and his wife and four children resettled in the U.S. Since then he has taught, consulted, and (in 1993) penned the story of his years in China, "The Man Who Stayed Behind" (with Amanda Bennett of The Wall Street Journal).

During his early days in China, Sidney Rittenberg knew and supported Chairman Mao Zedong.


Rittenberg, who lives on Fox Island, was introduced to PLU by Ned Graham ’85, who along with being the youngest son of the Rev. Billy Graham also has worked to spread Christianity in China. After talking with Chinese Studies professor Greg Guldin, and visiting PLU’s campus, Rittenberg knew it was the right place to teach.

"I feel at home here because PLU is dedicated to education for service, not just education for education’s sake or education for a career," he said. "I feel at home at PLU and enjoy immensely my interaction with my students and the faculty and other colleagues."

He has taught courses in Chinese anthropology, history and philosophy while at PLU. Rittenberg’s most recent course, Chinese Culture and Thought, focused on many branches of ancient Chinese philosophy.

"I don’t demand they remember a lot of names and dates," Rittenberg said of his students. "I have them write mostly about what they think, turning these philosophies into a sounding board."

Of great importance to Rittenberg, who gave the Commencement Address in May, is finding happiness and encouraging others to do so. "College students will have spirited, lively discussions about philosophy, but when asked about happiness, they’re stumped," Rittenberg said.

He has maintained happiness by continuing his work to improve relations between the US and China. Along with teaching, lectures and frequent trips back to China, he and Yulin have established Rittenberg & Associates, which consults individuals, agencies and businesses who work with China.

"The road to happiness leads through other people’s hearts," he said. "It doesn’t matter how much you are able to accomplish. It’s the attempt, trying to serve others, that is important. It’s not the quantity, it’s the quality."


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