Interview: Yulin Rittenberg on the bitter and the sweet of life, China, U.S. and Communist Party
By Wen Liu Mar. 2, 2016
Many of us have read “The Man Who Stayed Behind" by Sidney Rittenberg who lived through Mao’s revolution, and jail, in China. Now Yulin Wang Rittenberg (王玉琳), the woman behind “the man who stayed behind,” has presented us with her own book, “After the Bitter Comes the Sweet.” As they say, behind every great man there is a great woman, Yulin is the ultimate embodiment of that woman. On Feb. 25, Yulin along with her husband was among speakers at the Wang Center Symposium “Countenance of Hope” at the Pacific Lutheran University. She reflected on her life, the hardship, the love, and most of all, the triumph of sweetness over bitterness, happiness over unhappiness. Here in the pages of WA China Watch Digest, Mrs. Rittenberg kindly responds to a few more questions about her book, her life, China, U.S., and the Communist Party.
WCWD: First of all, could you tell the readers a little more about the title of your book, “After the Bitter Comes the Sweet”? Do you mean “after the bitterness of the Cultural Revolution comes the sweetness of China’s economic reforms and opening up,” and/or “after the bitterness in China comes the sweetness in the U.S.,” as you and Sidney left China and moved to the States in 1979 after the normalization of U.S.-China relations?
Yulin Rittenberg: The meaning of the title is as follows: I went through heavy pressure and lots of suffering because of the suspicion against Sidney. But I faced them down, went through all their struggles against me without giving in to them. I maintained my own integrity. As a result, when Sidney’s innocence was established, I knew the joy of triumph. I had been tested and not found wanting, which made me a very happy and confident person.
WCWD: You grew up picking coals along railway tracks and hunting for edible weeds with your mother in war time China. It was the Communist Party, as you said, that sent you to school and gave you a job in the government. But the same Party also jailed Sidney for 16 years for alleged spying and punished you with hard labor for staying loyal to him. How do you view the Party, which you joined and believed in, that both benefitted and harmed you?
Yulin Rittenberg: First of all, the CPC (Communist Party of China) of today is not the same party as the CPC of 1947, and not the same CPC as it was in 1968. The Party during the Cultural Revolution was shut down. From Spring of 1967, even the Party Political Bureau was shut down, replaced by the “Cultural Revolution Leading Group” of Jiang Qing and company. During my years of suffering, I did not consider the leadership to be the Party. I still considered the original Party as an organization that worked in the interests of the common people. It was not the Party that wronged Sidney and me. The real Party did not exist at that time—and has never been fully restored.
WCWD: Sidney talked about surviving his long-term solitary confinement by staring down “your own madness sitting right across from you” while you talked about enduring hard labor like carrying bricks on your back by believing “stubbornly” that your husband was a good man. Could you say something about the role of love in sustaining you, as you famously declared that you would never leave your husband simply because he was in prison, “Otherwise,” as you said, “what do you mean by love?”
Yulin Rittenberg: When you have lived with someone for many years, and you thoroughly understand him, you know that he is an honest man, not a liar and deceiver, then you naturally will continue to believe in him and stick by him, even though he is thrown into prison. That is my understanding of true love. If you abandon him when he is in trouble, then your feeling for him is not true love. I have always believed that and I have acted on that belief. “Share in happiness and share in suffering.” That’s love.
WCWD: You are now in your early 80s as you mentioned at the recent Wang Center event at PLU, having lived about 40 years in China and 40 in the U.S. Could you tell us one thing you liked most about China and one thing you like most about the United States?
Yulin Rittenberg: China is a community based society, a “we” society. You share your joys and sorrows with neighbors, friends, colleagues, and there is a feeling of warmth. America is a land of great personal liberty—you won’t get in trouble if you say something that the leaders don’t like. I love the neighborly warmth of China and the individual freedom of America.
WCWD: With your dramatic life story, from a girl of poverty to a promising career woman, from a mother taking care of four children while your American husband was in the Chinese jail and then to a successful entrepreneur in the U.S., you concluded that happiness comes from the struggle with unhappiness. Both you and Sidney fought and succeeded mightily in that struggle. Could you share with the readers the most important factor in your experience in winning the struggle against unhappiness?
Yulin Rittenberg: Our success comes mainly from persistent learning. We have always stuck together, each one using their strengths to make up for the other’s weaknesses, refusing to accept defeat, learning what we didn’t know, determined to be useful, to make a contribution. We worked very hard, long hours, going for years without one day’s vacation—but we loved every minute of it, and we celebrated our clients’ success as our own. All this was made possible by our love and our devotion to each other and to the way we help each other.