Review: The Man Who Stayed Behind

Deep, Deep in the Hutong

Just finished The Man Who Stayed Behind by Sidney Rittemberg and Amanda Bennett. The book is an account of Rittenberg’s 35 years in China, first as a U.S. Army translator in World War II, then as a U.N. Relief official, and finally, from 1947, as the only American citizen to serve as a member of the Chinese Communist Party. After the communists took China in 1949, Rittenberg chose to remain in China, rising in 16 years from a translator at Radio Beijing to – briefly, during the Cultural Revolution – head of China’s Broadcast Administration. He was imprisoned twice, once for over six years, once for nearly ten.

The one question I asked myself when I finished was “why the hell didn’t I read this sooner?”

Honest Insights

As personal histories go, this one is exceptionally easy to read and enjoyable, due I am sure in no small part to Bennett’s contribution, but also because Rittenberg’s story itself is so engrossing and painfully, blisteringly honest. The very idea of an American at the heart of China’s revolutionary maelstrom is remarkable. The insights and context he is able to put on those events easily rivals in importance the better known works of Harrison Salisbury et al.

But that is almost the least of the book’s merits. In the spirit of the self-criticisms he and all party members had to endure, Rittenberg does a brilliant job at avoiding hindsight, instead taking us on a journey as much mental, emotional, and spiritual as it was geographic, ideologic, and historical. The insight into the mind of a man who could first buy into the promise of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought, then subjugate his ego and his conscience to the cause of revolution by itself makes the book worth reading.

We come away from the book understanding, as Rittenberg did, that the Chinese revolution deserves neither to be idealized or demonized. Great horrors were committed in the name of the revolution, to be sure, but China has indeed come a long way since 1949, and we see through his eyes – and are able to juxtapose – the suffering in the neo-feudal chaos that was Republican China before 1949, and the murderous excesses committed since.

Rittenberg could probably get away with passing final judgment on China, but he does not, and the book is better for it. He strives instead to put us behind his eyes through the whole experience, good and ill, and let us judge for ourselves.

It is customary for a reviewer to look for flaws in a book, but to do so in this case would be picking nits. The book does not pretend to be more than it is – an honest memoir of somebody who was there and saw it all. Rittenberg makes no excuses for himself and his behavior – and he comes out in most respects looking no better or worse than those around him.

The book is no substitute for a more academic history of the period, and there is nor shortage of either histories or biographies to provide a broader canvas, more context, or greater analysis. And frankly, the more background the reader has in modern Chinese history the greater the value of this read.

Key Takeaways

I walked away understanding two things: first, there is no excuse, even for those of us who profess to care about China and its people, to either apologize for or vilify the country or the party. Only a balanced perspective on either will give us perspectives on how to help China evolve as a nation. If Rittenberg can avoid those tracks, so should we.

Second, China’s modern history has in its background a constant tug-of-war between internationalism and xenophobia. In most cases, those conflicts are represented by people who are more one or the other: the foreign-hating Empress Dowager vs. her nephew, the Kuangxu Emperor; Yuan Shikai vs. Sun Yat-sen; Mao Zedong vs. Zhou Enlai, and even Li Peng vs. Zhu Rongji. But as The Man Who Stayed Behind points out, that’s an over simplified understanding of the battle. Rittenberg subtly reminds every non-Chinese who lives in or deals with the People’s Republic that China and its people have a schizophrenic love/hate relationship with things and people foreign, and that they seem fated to eternally swing between the two extremes.

If such insights put long-range goals and long-term investments in China in a starker light, That’s probably a very, very good thing.

A must-read.