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BOOK REVIEW : Caught Up in 'Fun' of Chinese Revolution : THE MAN WHO STAYED BEHIND by Sidney Rittenberg and Amanda Bennett ; Simon & Schuster $25, 456 pages

April 26, 1993|CAROLYN SEE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a classic New Yorker cartoon from the 1950s, a hipster bebop musician, complete with goatee and beret, sits by his little boy's bed to tuck him in. But the kid wants a story and cajoles: "Daddy! Tell one more time how jazz came up the river from New Orleans!"

The Chinese Revolution is a lot like that. If you're a fan of that material, you can't hear about it enough: Whether it's that drunken cryptographer in Chongqing (Chungking) dripping wood alcohol through white bread so he can get smashed at night but hearing far-off tales of the virtuous soldiers living in Yanan (Yenan); or Ross Terrell's story of the "white-boned demon," that marvelously nutty biography of Mao Tse-tung's wife (who bonked the Great Helmsman with a giant flashlight when she caught him in an infidelity, to which he responded calmly, "This isn't helping the revolution, dear."); anything --if you're a fan of the revolution--is a pleasure to read. But this autobiography has to be in a class by itself.

Actually, "The Man Who Stayed Behind" goes past autobiography into the realm of fable. Its title should really be: "The Man Who Was Very Smart and Very Dumb at the Same Time" or "The Foreigner Who Did Not See He Was Foreign" or "The Idealist Who Applied Communist Principals to Capitalism and Became a Rich Man."

This story is off the wall, amazing, unbelievably funny and sad. And you get the feeling that sometimes the author knows all this and sometimes he's utterly oblivious to it, unconscious about the story he's telling.

It's that same great story--the Chinese Revolution, a social upheaval that began before World War II and is still going on today--except that Sidney Rittenberg was smack in the center of it.

He arrived in Chongqing as a young GI during World War II and immediately started to teach himself Chinese. He hung out with the Chinese servants instead of American soldiers. He became aware of the enormous corruption of the Chiang Kai-shek regime and began, at the same time, to hear the siren song of the Chinese Communists to the north.

They lived in caves. They gave food to the peasants (and taught them how to brush their teeth) instead of stealing them blind. They held dances every Saturday night. They played "Turkey in the Straw" when American visitors came. They led saintly lives. They were waiting for the Japanese to be defeated and then they would themselves defeat the cunning Chiang Kai-shek, redistribute the wealth in China, move from socialism to communism, and, wow, they'd have a perfect country.

Rittenberg, who had worked as a young communist in the American South, wanted, more than life itself, to be part of this incredible action. The fact that he did it is equally incredible. He journeyed to Shanghai--which at that time must have been the frozen-corpse capital of the world--and made his way thence to Yanan, where he got to know Chou En-lai and Mao, and danced with Jiang Qing, Madame Mao herself.

When Chiang's Nationalist bombs dropped near the caves, Rittenberg was terrified. When his Communist friends got irritated with him (for no apparent reason), he was jailed by Mao and Chou for six whole years.

When he came out, they promoted him and he got to be a big mucky-muck in Beijing broadcasting. When the regime conducted the "Hundred Flowers" campaign--the movement in which intellectual dissidents were encouraged to come forward with their own objections to communism as it was being practiced at the time, and then were jailed or executed for their pains--Rittenberg thought it was a good thing.

When the Great Leap Forward resulted in millions of deaths in the ensuing famine, he hardly noticed, except that his wife, Wang Yulin, began to swell up from malnutrition. Heck, by this time, Rittenberg was Chinese .

In the middle '60s, Rittenberg began to feel antsy. Was he, after all this effort, turning into nothing but a bureaucrat? He went on a diet and lost 50 pounds. He gave away his priceless antique furniture, without remembering to tell his wife.

When the Cultural Revolution finally hit, he was ready, denouncing colleagues right and left, until he himself was denounced in wallposters as a Jew. He was astonished. (How can a man be so smart and so dumb at the same time?)

Ten more years in solitary confinement. Then three more years in China, until he finally got it. He returned to the United States and his wife started their nest egg by selling $2 million in computers to--China. Recalling all this, Rittenberg says it was "fun."

You want to hug him for that, box his ears for giving that furniture away, then salute him for living his life the way he wanted it.

What I want to know is: Where are the miniseries people? If they could get their minds off adultery by morons in Long Island, we might get to see some decent television, for a change.

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