Cos (cos) wrote,

Tank Man

Yesterday was the 20th aniversary of June 4th, 1989 - the Chinese crackdown on a massive protest in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Although we remember June 4th as the climax, the military crackdown actually took several days, beginning on June 3rd - which was also the day the Ayatollah Khomeini died, and a massive gas explosion on the Trans-Siberian Railway destroyed two trains and killed 575 people. It was not a slow news day.*

Today is the aniversary of the photo that came to represent June 4th, 1989, but was actually taken the following day, as the military crackdown continued after Tiananmen Square itself was cleared. At the time, we saw it on TV: the man standing in the street as a column of tanks approach and then stop. The lead tank trying to go around him to the left and right a few times, but he keeps moving into its path. Finally, after about a minute, he climbs onto the tank, leans into the compartment to apparently say something (or just look?), and walks off.

Tank Man became a symbol of individual courage against the military machine of authoritarianism, as well as the icon representing the Chinese protests and movement of 1989.

That fall Shen Tong, one of the leaders of the Tiananmen Square protesters, started college at Brandeis: He had already been accepted for a Wien Scholarship at Brandeis, and had a passport and visa which allowed him to escape to the US. Brandeis became a center of Chinese dissidents and activisim in the few years after June 4th.**

That fall I also started college at Brandeis, and I attended a big conference on the Chinese protests and prodemocracy movement that was held in a building almost adjacent to my dorm. Shen Tong was the keynote, of course, and I remember listening to him speak, but I don't specifically remember what he said. What sticks out most in my memory is a panel presentation on how the protests and crackdown were portrayed in the Chinese press...

... apparently, the famous photo of Tank Man was ubiquitous on Chinese TV as well. Although the entire incident has been whitewashed from Chinese history in the decades since, back in 1989 it was big news, and so was Tank Man. Here in the west, he represented courage and standing up to authority. In China, said the professor who had recently been there, he meant something else: He was the Chinese Government's symbol of the peacefulness of their military. How, even in the midst of it all, a column of tanks stopped for a lone unarmed man in the street, and did not move forward until he walked away of his own accord.

I was temporarily stunned, but then I realized: You know what? They were right, too. A column of armed tanks did stop for a lone unarmed man in the street. He represents that, too. Truth is like the blind men's elephant, but even though we have the capacity to look at other parts of it, we often don't notice they're there.

Yesterday, a new photograph of tank man was published for the first time. Take from street level, it shows a couple of other protesters fleeing, with him in the background standing alone on the street, waiting for the tanks. It tells a related but somewhat different story than the images we've seen.

What about all the stories that could be told of this incident, that we're never going to see, because a photographer didn't happen to be in the right spot to capture them? Or because a propogandist didn't happen to exist with the vested interest in ferretting out that particular interpretation?

* My memory keeps telling me that a fourth very big thing happened that day, but I can't remember what it was.

** For example, the Chinese dissident movement in diaspora had a weekly radio show co-produced in Chicago and at WBRS at Brandeis. They were on shortly after a show I did on Saturdays, and some weeks they'd just play the tapes from Chicago, so they often asked me to cover for them and I'd sit there reading or doing homework while playing tapes of Chinese announcers and interviews, all speaking very rapidly, with a music bit from the New World Symphony in between each clip.

[ Crossposed to Open Salon ]
Tags: essay, photos, politics

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