The Two Sidney’s of China/拥有中国国籍和加入共产党的两位美裔

How many westerners have Chinese citizenship? How difficult is it to obtain a Chinese green card?

There are only around 12,000 westerners holding Chinese citizenship.

Sidney Shapiro, one of them, died over the weekend at his hutong home in Beijing. He was 98.

An American-born author and translator Sidney Shapiro was one of the first naturalized Chinese citizens invited and attended the 1949 founding ceremony of the People’s Republic of China. Premier Zhou Enlai granted him the right. He also served as the oldest foreign-born member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

The two well-known Sidney’s in China’s contemporary history both have very compelling stories.

Sidney Shapiro, lesser known in the Western world, going by the Chinese name 沙博理, translated Outlaws of the Marsh (水浒传), one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature as well as the more modern authors Ba Jin (巴金) and Mao Dun(矛盾). I haven’t read any of the four classics, but ZJ, and many Chinese high school students have. He also, interestingly, translated works devoted to the ancient Kaifeng Jews, Jewish-Chinese interaction, and other Jewish papers by Chinese scholars.

Shapiro, a Jewish-American, was born in New York in 1915. The United States Army chose Shapiro to study Chinese preparing for a possible American arrival on Chinese soil. He went to China of his own accord after graduating with a law degree from Yale, landing in Shanghai in 1947, where he met his wife Fengzi, an actress and a strong supporter of the Communist Party of China.

He became a Chinese citizen in 1963, worked for the Foreign Languages Press for 50 years, in addition to his appointment to the CPPCC from 1983 until present. However, he never joined the Party.

“I was still too much of a maverick, reluctant to accept any organizational strictures or discipline. But I had the greatest respect for the Chinese party, and fully supported its principles and goals,” he wrote in his autobiography I Chose China.

The second Sidney’s last name is Rittenberg, known in China as 李敦白. Also Jewish-American, Rittenberg is more well-known in the Western press and operates a consulting firm with his second Chinese wife. He’s 93. He lived in China from 1944 to 1979, and his memoir, The Man Who Stayed Behind, mirrors how very different the Sidney’s experiences were.

Rittenberg counted himself a member of the United States communist party as a 19 year-old college student before becoming the first American citizen to join the CPC. He had personal dealings with Mao, Zhu De, and Zhou Enlai as well as access to Yan’an in 1946. He worked for Xinhua and Radio Peking, ended up imprisoned twice for a total of 16 years, and in 1980 returned to the United States with his family in tow. The Army wanted him to learn Japanese, however a less than enthused Rittenberg was reassigned to learn Chinese instead.

Whereas Shapiro contributed towards cultural understanding of China through working as a literary translator, losing none of his fire in sticking up for China in the later part of his life, Rittenberg was never as devoted to the cause, and reminiscent of the modern-day “crusader” who moves to China hoping to make monumental changes to the people or system.

Shapiro lambasted the United States in 2006 following one of the State Department’s regular criticisms of China’s human rights.

“Democracy in America, which was won by the public through long-time struggle, had started going downhill in the 20th century,” Xinhua quoted him as saying on the sidelines of that year’s annual meeting of parliament.

“In the States today, the intelligence agencies have even got the power to tap citizens’ phone calls and inquire what books a person is borrowing from the library,” he said.

Shapiro is fondly remembered and his passing didn’t go unnoticed on the Chinese web; 163, the news portal featured an obit front and center the other day. On the other hand, Rittenberg appeals to the Western press, and in 2012 a documentary, The Revolutionary, featured his 34 years of being “China’s American.”

It’s difficult to comprehend devoting oneself so fervently to China, in every capacity, especially as both Sidney’s stayed during a very volatile time in China’s history. While living in Xi’an, I heard and was guilty of complaining about the pollution, cultural and lifestyle differences. It’s amazing to think these two adjusted to so much, and Shapiro lived out his remaining days in Beijing, even when his wife had passed on. He worked until the end, translating and attending the annual CPPCC. I may not see eye to eye with either Sidney in terms of their political choices, but their choices, in terms of their lives’ trajectories, are praiseworthy.

How many of us modern “China hands” would be willing to put ourselves in either Sidney’s shoes?

24 thoughts on “The Two Sidney’s of China/拥有中国国籍和加入共产党的两位美裔

  1. Susan Blumberg-Kason says:

    So fascinating! I love modern Chinese history and that of the foreigners who stayed behind. There’s a woman with the surname of Lo who was Caucasian and married to a Chinese man before 1949. She stayed in China for decades after with her husband and children. You know I couldn’t do that!

  2. R Zhao says:

    An insightful post! I have lived here nearly ten years, but I definitely couldn’t be a lifer. I couldn’t imagine staying if something happened to my husband. It also takes a lot of courage to stay in a country, especially a foreign country, when its situation is so precarious.

    Honestly, I’m shocked at how high (12,000!) the number of westerners who have Chinese citizenship is. I know it isn’t actually that high of a figure in the scheme of things, but I havent even come across a person who has secured permanent residency. I was under the impression foreign-born, non-ethnic Chinese could never secure Chinese citizenship. It’s such a pain to travel on a Chinese passport, for that reason (among others) I wouldn’t consider immigrating. I’m still hoping the day will come when China recognizes dual.

    • maklu001 says:

      I felt as though four years was long, and can’t imagine ten years! I did know of one foreign-born, non-ethnic Chinese with a green card; he was an elderly Frenchman who taught at the university I was employed at. He no longer teaches, but still lives in one of the apartments meant for teachers. I only saw him once or twice as he didn’t go out that often, instead former students and colleagues would visit, bring him meals, and keep him company. He’s in his late 80s and has no plans to return to France. Yes, let’s hope they recognize dual citizenship as that would make all of our lives easier!

  3. Sarah says:

    That’s really interesting. I, like Rosie, thought that even getting permanent residency was near impossible so 12,000 does seem high. It makes me wonder what different kind of circumstances brought these people here.

    I know I couldn’t do it either. I moved here this year with a number of years in mind but I have to say that now here it’s a different story, as I find I’m really homesick, although some have said it takes 2 years to feel at home in another country. To all those who really make China home, I am in awe!

    • maklu001 says:

      The around 12,000 includes all foreign-born individuals with citizenship. It will take you at least two years to feel at home, and as with most places, it’s in flux. I had days where I felt like there was no chance of returning to the US, and days where I wanted to get on the next plane home.

  4. Marta says:

    I’m with R. Zhao, really? 12,000? So many? hahaha.
    I also hope China would consider dual citizenship, specially for children of Chinese + foreigner. And some kind of system for long-term foreigners in China, something in the middle of Chinese citizenship and having to renew your visa every year.

    • maklu001 says:

      It does seem incredibly high but we’re talking about all foreign-born individuals, whether that be people from Europe, the Americas, Africa, and other parts of Asia. The green card is meant as something in the middle and the process was streamlined this year, however, I’m not aware of all the particulars in terms of green card eligibility.

      • Marta says:

        Oh I see, this green card is the “permanent residency” thing, right? As everybody else is saying, it is so hard to get that no one actually knows how it looks like haha.

      • maklu001 says:

        Yes, however, it’s “supposedly” easier after they streamlined and expanded the circumstances in which you can obtain one.

  5. CrazyChineseFamily says:

    Though I cant say anything really about the two Sidneys, as I can’t even imagine what they all did and how they managed so well, especially back then with the difference compared to today where people complain on every step they take!

    But the number of westerners having the chinese citizenship is actually rather high as usually foreigner can’t get the citizenship, only through hard ways(nearly impossible) the green card. Is it possible that the these 12.000 westerners obtained it actually rather long time ago, not anymore after the 1990’s?
    I know few people who tried to get the Chinese citizenship ever since the 1990’s, even few who contributed to the well being of China, but it is not allowed for them, only a couple got the green card some years ago. Not even our son is allowed to get the Chinese citizenship anymore, as he hasnt been registered in China right after his birth and has two other nationalities now

    • maklu001 says:

      And they had much more to complain about: the Cultural Revolution, the Great Famine, imprisonment, and being struggled against, just to name a few of the hardships they lived through.

      Yes, it’s likely that many of these westerners obtained citizenship before the 1990’s.

      Second, China doesn’t recognize dual citizenship at present, but they have streamlined the process as well as changed the rules for getting green cards. Unfortunately, I’m still not well-versed in what the particulars are, perhaps it’s something to look into?

      • CrazyChineseFamily says:

        Probably I will try to read into all the Green Card regulations once life is settled here. I know of one German guy (just an aquintance) who got a green card a couple of years ago, but he got it through large investments etc. However he is facing the problem that at the airports no Chinese personal knows what on earth that card is (too rare!!)

        I know that China doesnt accept dual citizenship but also that they easened everything a bit up. When we travel to China our son wont need a visa, we only need to apply for a Chinese Traveldocument from the Chinese embassy and this document is valid for several years.
        So it seems that China might do the leap to allow dual citizenship at some point, as this is already a big step forward

      • maklu001 says:

        What a surprise, and they might think it’s forged, haha. As I mentioned in replying to another comment, I knew of a Frenchman with a green card, in his late 80s, who worked for the university that employed me during my four years in Xi’an. I don’t know how long he worked for the university, but he plans to remain in China, like Shapiro. That’s great to hear things have streamlined a bit, in terms of visa concerns, as I’m sure this will come up for us some day!

  6. Ruth Silbermayr-Song says:

    I like reading about people who went to China way before Reform and Opening. Living in China as a foreigner must have been so different back then.

    There’s an Austrian woman called Gertrude Du-Wagner who married a Chinese policeman and went to China in 1934. I don’t think she became a Chinese citizen, but she stayed in China until her death in 2003. They made a movie about her life called “The smile of Fanny”.

    • maklu001 says:

      I do, too, however I have to admit it’s mostly my husband’s interests in history that have rubbed off on me. I’ll have to see if I can find the film, and is that its English title?

  7. Chris P says:

    Wow, this is so fascinating! I thought the one way a Westerner could get citizenship in China was to be born to a Chinese national (with the other half being a foreigner, obviously).

    • maklu001 says:

      I also initially thought that citizenship was as you mentioned, however, a number of foreign-born Chinese nationals, before the 90s, were awarded citizenship for outstanding contributions to Chinese culture.

  8. Suigetsu says:

    This is fascinating, and both of these guys lived to a ripe old age!

    Maybe the reason that it is difficult for foreign nationals to obtain Chinese citizenship is because China already has a large population and it has had to take drastic measures (i.e. one-child policy) to keep its population growth in check. It’s much the same in other East Asian countries such as Taiwan and Japan, whose citizenship is also difficult for foreign nationals to obtain.

    • maklu001 says:

      That does seem likely but I’m in the camp who believes it’s also politically motivated. Green cards for spouses are far and few between whereas in the US, green cards for spouses are more easy to come by. The US may not be the best parallel as it’s a country deeply vested in immigration.

    • maklu001 says:

      Thanks! I’ll be sure to check out this title and review it, if I feel so inclined. Thank you for reading and visiting the blog 🙂

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