The Tank Man


The red folds of the People’s Republic of China flag flapped noiselessly in the wind, its golden stars abused and misused emblems of hope in a severely oppressed land.

The camera panned over screaming students, raging bonfires, men on stretchers, and girls lying dead, protest signs smashed in oblivious dirt. And the tanks—countless tanks, endlessly rolling over the desperate courage of a smothered people, suffocating their chants, ending their cries for freedom, forever.

On June 5, 1989, the day following the senseless massacre, silver smog lifted with the coming of dawn. Beneath the thick blanket of cloud lay hundreds of murdered bodies, mere children who’d stood up for their rights, marching the streets for the past five weeks.

One by one, the tanks began to engage in what has been described as a dance—an absurd waltz of victory. They made their way, guns lifted high, down the abandoned streets, revelling in blood-stained victory.

And then, there he was—the Unknown Rebel of the June Fourth Incident. A grocery bag in hand, he seemed an ordinary man, stepping out in extraordinary shoes, standing tall, shoulders slightly bend, white collar shirt stained with sweat and fatigue, blue dress pants creased, worn. He stood before dozens of tanks, blocking their route. Behind him, bodies lay in peaceful piles.

Perhaps this silent man realized nothing more could be said? Perhaps he’d spent the last few days huddled in his tiny apartment, head bent over knees, weeping endlessly for someone he’d loved—someone who’d been killed by the very tanks he now faced?

Or perhaps he was just tired of words in general—useless words, flapping like China’s red flag in a perfectly controlled wind, unable to do anything except flap.

And so he did something. While seemingly suicidal, he merely exhibited a nonchalant laissez-faire attitude: whatever must be, must be.

And so, it was. The tank tried to roll around the man; he jumped in front of it. It turned back the other way; he followed it. Then the tank did the unthinkable, and shut off its engine. The other tanks followed suit, and for a moment—inconceivable quiet.

The man jumped up on the tank, opened its lid and began talking to the people inside. Then he leapt back down…

And stood, oblivious to impending international fame, to thousands of shutters clicking and cameras rolling. All that mattered to him was his duty to stand there, to force a deliberate decision in the face of innocence. Would they choose to let live, or let die? The man knew, in that moment, he wasn’t alone: crowding around him were millions of martyred, slaughtered souls who’d dared to fight for what they believed—ghosts of China’s long forgotten, the soundless sighs of unsung heroes.

Overnight his photo would inspire a world. Overnight his picture would become a symbol of peace, of spirits exploding in an otherwise stifled country. The nameless, faceless figure would serve as a muse for those trapped in labour camps, and for those continuing the fight for freedom.

Yet all he was trying to do was abide, in a world gone mad.



  1. December 12, 2008 at 5:05 am

    I remember the morning of the Tienanmen Square massacre. And how I cried.

    I remember walking across Tienanmen several years later, how empty the place seemed compared to the previous news and relatively clean compared to the horrific memory of its tragedy …

  2. naomi said,

    December 12, 2008 at 9:12 am

    wonderful, Em. i wasn’t aware of this pic before. xx

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: