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The last American Maoist in China
August 29, 2008 9:21 AM   Subscribe

In the 1950s, American Communists fled to China. The idealists returned home and got book deals. But one pragmatist remained behind.

He also happens to be the only Chinese Jew of note, the others having left for Israel when the going was good.

Previously on MeFi: the POWs who came home.
posted by shii (21 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
I wish there had been more information about his wife being sent to a reeducation camp.

The article really glosses over it, and I would love to hear why it wasn't a bigger problem to him.
posted by paisley henosis at 9:58 AM on August 29, 2008


Wow, that Rittenhouse guy sounds like a real scumbag. We had a lot of those "idea men" in Russia: they prattled on about Lenin when it got them into the nomenklatura, then turned into Forbes-reading multimillionaire CEOs as soon as the whole thing imploded.
posted by nasreddin at 10:04 AM on August 29, 2008


er, Rittenberg. David Rittenhouse was an eighteenth-century American astronomer who built a famous orrery.
posted by nasreddin at 10:05 AM on August 29, 2008


They had escaped the boredom of home, had dodged their humdrum bourgeois lives

And instead lived out expatriate bourgeois lives.
posted by FuManchu at 11:27 AM on August 29, 2008


In that tiny picture of Shapiro on his bike in 1960, his face measures 5 x 3 pixels. Obviously The National doesn't give a crap about its graphics... why do they even bother to include it?
posted by crapmatic at 11:27 AM on August 29, 2008


Fascinating piece, but like paisley henosis, I wish they'd gone further into the issue of his wife. "Oh yeah, they locked her up and kept her in hell for six years. Now, back to that bastard Rittenhouse..."
posted by languagehat at 12:13 PM on August 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


He also happens to be the only Chinese Jew of note, the others having left for Israel when the going was good.

There seems to be a healthy Orthodox community in Beijing. Sexy Beijing has done some interesting stories about Jew in Shanghai, too.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:32 PM on August 29, 2008


And instead lived out expatriate bourgeois lives.
This was by no means true of everyone: the William Hinton mentioned as a historian in the article (I'm currently reading the second of his two excellent books, Fanshen and Shenfan, on the revolution in one Shanxi village) spent six years between 1947 and 1953 teaching tractor mechanics in the countryside. He came back to the US right at the height of the Red scare and had his field notes and passport confiscated, meaning he didn't return to China until the 1970s. His daughter Carma, born in China, is one of the best documentary makers on the country.
posted by Abiezer at 12:57 PM on August 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Shapiro. I knew it would be him. I read his book, "An American in China". I bought it randomly from a used bookstore in San Francisco. It was an interesting read for a little while but it eventually degenerated into a gushing ode to Chinese communism. I do not recall reading anything about his wife being in a prison camp.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:16 PM on August 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Poor Rittenhouse, always confused with that bastard Rittenberg.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 2:23 PM on August 29, 2008


There's more about Shapiro and his wife in this article.
posted by Carol Anne at 2:45 PM on August 29, 2008


Hmm the English language is cool, if you came from a rich country, you're an expatriate; but if you're from a poor country, you're an immigrant.
posted by zouhair at 5:47 PM on August 29, 2008 [4 favorites]


Interesting factoid: China took in more Jewish refugees during World War II than most other countries in the world! Note Feng Shan Ho, the "Chinese Schindler", noted with saving hundreds, probably more like a few thousand, Jews by issuing them visas to Shanghai and allowing Austrian Jews to escape Europe.
posted by schroedinger at 10:28 PM on August 29, 2008


I would say "all" other countries, but I can't find the table where I saw the numbers broken down.
posted by schroedinger at 10:28 PM on August 29, 2008


“The war was a change for me,” he says, “and when it was over, I didn’t want to go back to being a lawyer. I didn’t want to spend my life helping one son of a ***** screw some other son of a ***** out of some money.”
He must have been messing with that reporter. This is the perfect setup for that old joke about communism being the exact opposite of capitalism. I can't believe it went to waste.
Rittenberg remembers running into a man from Niger who’d just been harassed by a group of Red Guards. “They treated me just like one of them,” the man said, beaming. “Just like a comrade.”
Wasn't this a Monty Python sketch?

Seriously, his story sounds just like that of any other expat who comes for the exoticism, discovers a knack for some line of business there, and lives out a comfortable life in his adopted country. Just that in his case the business included revolutionary politics.
posted by No-sword at 10:49 PM on August 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Hmm the English language is cool, if you came from a rich country, you're an expatriate; but if you're from a poor country, you're an immigrant.

Actually, if you move from that country to this one, you are an immigrant, while if you move from this country to that one you are an emigrant. Those terms both suppose that you stay in the other country.

An ex-pat is a foreign national (ex patris, out of the fatherland), someone who is in this country, but not of this country. This person is presumed to return to their own country eventually, else they would properly be called in emigrant.

The FPP article was from a UAE website, and 80% of the population of the UAE is imported people, expats.

But you were probably just snarking, so feel free to disregard.
posted by paisley henosis at 11:27 PM on August 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


paisley henosis: "Hmm the English language is cool, if you came from a rich country, you're an expatriate; but if you're from a poor country, you're an immigrant.

Actually, if you move from that country to this one, you are an immigrant, while if you move from this country to that one you are an emigrant. Those terms both suppose that you stay in the other country.

An ex-pat is a foreign national (ex patris, out of the fatherland), someone who is in this country, but not of this country. This person is presumed to return to their own country eventually, else they would properly be called in emigrant.

The FPP article was from a UAE website, and 80% of the population of the UAE is imported people, expats.

But you were probably just snarking, so feel free to disregard.
"


Webster's definition says : adjective : living in a foreign land.

That sounds more as immigrant to me.

Anyway, you may find this article quite enlightening.
posted by zouhair at 1:20 AM on August 31, 2008


Seriously, his story sounds just like that of any other expat who comes for the exoticism, discovers a knack for some line of business there, and lives out a comfortable life in his adopted country.

With the significant distinction that his standard of living would have been far, far lower as a western translator in China than it would have been as a lawyer in Brooklyn. Normally, the story is that ex-pats/immigrants move to other countries to improve their standard of living, not to reduce it.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:51 AM on August 31, 2008


Sure, lower than a lawyer in Brooklyn, but much, much higher than 95% (99%?) of China's population at the time, and as we all know relative wealth is more important to happiness than absolute wealth. In any case the point isn't how much money he made but what he wanted out of life, and it sounds like he got it: excitement, exoticism, feelings of moral superiority, privileged status as valued intellectual resource. Nothing wrong with that, but he's hardly the only guy to have taken that road.
posted by No-sword at 7:14 AM on September 1, 2008


I thought it was interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that Shapiro has it in for Rittenberg so much. I've read both of their memoirs, and Rittenberg seems to have been as much of a true believer as Shapiro -- until that second 10-year prison sentence in solitary. In many ways I think his story mirrors that of China: idealism in the 40s, getting badly fucked over in the 50s, a return to idealism in the early 60s, then getting utterly fucked over even worse for 10 years, and then, sha-bam, capitalism.

Both books are well worth a read for anyone who's interested, by the way. Shapiro's got an interesting jab at Rittenberg in the linked article regarding whether or not he actually made himself a black armband after hearing of Zhou's death; one might turn that one around and ask Shapiro if he really believes in the praise his book has for the June 4 crackdown.
posted by bokane at 1:32 PM on September 2, 2008


Also, Shapiro is hardly the last American communist. Joan Hinton (assuming she's still alive and out working on her dairy farm) comes to mind.
posted by bokane at 1:35 PM on September 2, 2008


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