Blood Red and Going Down: Tank Man In Tiananmen Square, part 2

June 7, 2009 at 12:00 am 8 comments

Tank Man - lone citizen vs. PLA tanks, Tiananmen Square, 1989, Jeff Widener

Tank Man - lone citizen vs. PLA tanks, Tiananmen Square, 1989, Jeff Widener

I confess to being taken by melancholy this week as I recalled the events on June 4, 1989 in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. But it’s a good opportunity to think back on those fateful days from a perspective of twenty years later.

In the six weeks prior to when things all went to hell on  June 4  two decades ago, students and workers were peacefully occupying the Square and sympathy was growing across China for their demands for reforms to China’s political and economic systems. Sometime during those six weeks I remember talking on the phone with my friend Rebecca. We thought we were witnessing a revolution in the works and that the Chinese people’s voices would surely be heeded.

Terribly, things turned out differently than we’d hoped and the insurrection was violently crushed by the tanks and guns of the People’s Liberation Army. More horribly, the numbers of the dead were never confirmed, as many bodies were burned in mass cremations, and many other demonstrators were taken elsewhere for execution. China’s official tally of those killed was a ridiculously lowball count of 241 people, most of whom were deemed by the government to be “ruffians” and “armed thugs” who weren’t actually students. The government also claimed that no one was killed in the Square itself. Other estimates by NGOs on site range from 500 to 7,000 people killed that day.

This morning Rebecca forwarded me a link to a project by artist Michael Mandiberg that utilizes the famous image of the Tank Man, the anonymous protestor who blocked a column of tanks the day after the PLA cleared Tiananmen Square of demonstrators. Four years ago Mandiberg conducted an experiment in which he sent copies of the Tank Man image to a dozen commercial artists in China and asked them to paint a replica of the picture. The responses from the artists suggest that some if not all of them were unaware of the image and its historical context, and few knew its source.

Tiananmen Square: You can add the person to painting when you get it, 2005, Michael Mandiberg

Tiananmen Square: You can add the person to painting when you get it, 2005, Michael Mandiberg

Mandiberg notes:

“Of the dozen requests I sent, most were returned with a price and the universal salutation “it is a pleasure to do business with you.” A few painters suggested I just leave the man and the lamp post out, often for unclear reasons: political or aesthetic? One person outright declared that he could not paint the image.”

In the West the image of the Tank Man is well-known, as photographs and video footage of his actions that day were widely disseminated throughout the media at the time. However, in China the image is largely unrecognized, due to the government’s attempts to erase the June 4 events from public memory.

The government has achieved this in part through its severe restrictions on Internet access. In recent days, in an attempt to prevent the Chinese citizenry from getting to online discussions of the Tiananmen Square killings, the Chinese government blocked access to twitter, facebook, and other social networking sites, as well as blogging sites such as wordpress, xanga and blogspot.

But before we go too far in excoriating the Chinese government for its erasure of June 4, let’s remember that historical amnesia is not unique to China. Many World War II Nazi concentration camps sites in Europe have been razed or otherwise obliterated. The Japanese government still hasn’t acknowledged the Rape of Nanking. And lest we start to feel too pleased with ourselves here in the U.S. let’s not forget the Bush Administration’s multiple attempts to rewrite reality, from un-defining waterboarding as torture to linking Iraq to the destruction of the World Trade Center.

So on this grim anniversary it’s vitally important to remember the untold numbers of demonstrators who were silenced twenty years ago on Tiananmen Square. But it’s also significant to note that the Chinese government doesn’t stand alone in its disregard for facts and that our constant vigilance is required to keep ignorance and the obliteration of history at bay.

UPDATE: Thanks to dleedlee for sending along the following information, which fills in some of the backstory of the Tank Man photos and video.

FYI, Frontline is rebroadcasting its The Tank Man program this week.

Also, a New York Times blog posted this interesting piece on the various versions of the ‘tank man’ photo(s).

And artist Michael Mandiberg sent me a further link to his flickr site, which contains all of the images from his series:

Entry filed under: activism, civil rights, internet, interventionism, michael mandeberg, politics, social practice, twitter, Uncategorized, visual art, youtube. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Brad  |  June 7, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Good post, Val.

    • 2. valeriesoe  |  June 7, 2009 at 3:48 pm

      Thanks! Those days are coming back to me all too clearly this week.

      Bonus points if you recognize the song the title is from.

  • 3. Michael  |  June 8, 2009 at 2:17 am

    Hi Valerie,

    I’m glad you found my post, and I appreciate your writing about it. I just got a Google Alert ping that you wrote about it on Daily Kos. It would be great if you could put a link in to the original post, or to the images:

    Chinese people forgot the history



    • 4. valeriesoe  |  June 8, 2009 at 4:29 pm

      Hi Michael,

      Sure, I’ll post the links on Kos–I can’t figure out how to embed pictures there so it will be nice for folks to be able to click to your site.

      Thanks for the interesting project, by the way! I’m happy to be able to include it.


  • 5. dleedlee  |  June 8, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    FYI, Frontline is rebroadcasting its The Tank Man program this week.

    Also, a New York Times blog posted this interesting piece on the various versions of the ‘tank man’ photo(s).


    • 6. valeriesoe  |  June 8, 2009 at 4:29 pm

      Hi D,

      Thanks for the info–I’ll update in the body of the post!


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