Chances are very good that you’ve seen the above photo before, possibly many times before. Taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, it’s one of the most iconic news photos of the entire 20th century. It was taken on June 5, 1989, 26 years ago tomorrow, the morning after the massacre of student and worker protesters in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing. That itself was one of the most important events of the 20th century. That makes it all the more unusual, therefore, that the man at the center of this photo is completely unknown–no one has any idea who he is, now decades after the event.
I was surprised to discover, only a few months ago, that the identity of “Tank Man” is unknown and has been since 1989. I remember watching the news coverage of the Tiananmen Square event as it happened, and I’m certain I remember–incorrectly, it seems–hearing or reading that “Tank Man” was ultimately shot down by People’s Liberation Army soldiers or run over by the tanks that he stopped. However, that was not the case. The real story is a bit more complicated.
First of all, the name “Tiananmen Square massacre” (or, as the Chinese say, the Tiananmen Square incident) is a little misleading. Although the pro-democracy protesters who rallied by the thousands in the spring of 1989–sparked by demonstrations upon the death of Hu Yaobang–occupied Tiananmen Square for many weeks, most of the killings occurred outside of it, not inside. “Tank Man” was photographed on Chang’an Avenue which borders the square. On the morning of June 5, as People’s Liberation Army troops forcibly cleared demonstrators from the square, “Tank Man” confronted a column of tanks and stopped. The tank drivers were unwilling to run him over and tried to go around him. The “dance,” where the protester mirrored each attempted maneuver to block the column, lasted several minutes. At one point he actually got up on the lead tank and conversed with someone inside. No one knows what was said. When he got down, two men in blue shirts came out of the nearby crowd and whisked him away. The tanks went on their way. Whether the protester was arrested or executed is unknown. Also unknown is how many people died in the massacre. Low estimates put it at 300; high ones several thousand (I’ve even heard 7,000). The Chinese government is unwilling to discuss the incident.
The raw video by CNN of the “Tank Man” incident is even more dramatic than the still photo. There are fewer more stark examples of standing up for what you believe in.
A British newspaper claimed they identified the protester, but no one is sure where the supposed identification came from and certainly it was never corroborated. Many people think that the Chinese government does not know, and never did know, precisely who “Tank Man” was. The capital was in a state of chaos on the morning of June 5, 1989, with both mass arrests and mass killings rampant. He could have been arrested, but perhaps once he was processed no one could prove he was the guy who held up the tanks. As the “Tank Man” image generated interest mostly in the West, not so much within China, there may not have been an incentive to identify him. It’s at least possible that he’s still alive, and if so he would probably be afraid to come forward and identify himself.
A fascinating thing happened this past winter. At my university I taught a course in the winter term on the history of China. A large percentage, perhaps 80%, of my class consisted of international students visiting from China. Almost all of them were between 18 and 25. When I showed an image of the “Tank Man” photo and asked, “How many of you have never seen this picture before today?” the hands of about half the class went up. This isn’t surprising. What happened in Tiananmen Square 26 years ago this week is not publicized very well within China, and most modern students know little about it. It’s amazing just how malleable historical memory is, and how it changes over time.