The Tank Man, also referred to as the “Unknown Rebel” or the “Unknown Protestor,” is a nameless Chinese protestor who has become an international symbol of resistance and rebellion against oppression. He was captured in photographs clicked at the Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989, a day after the Chinese troops opened fire on scores of student protestors who were demanding a democratic government. The photos show the Tank Man resisting a military tank, by blocking its way and then getting on top of the tank to speak to the people inside it, before being pulled away by onlookers. There is no clarity regarding the identity of the Tank Man and no information regarding what happened to him after the protest. Though many believe he was executed by the Chinese military, others claim he is still alive. Some even claim he fled to Taiwan later. Though five photographers had clicked pictures of the event amid severe foreign media censorship, the picture by Jeff Widener, an Associated Press photographer, was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize and was later featured on Time magazine’s list of The Most Influential Images of All Time.
Also Known As: Unknown Protester, Unknown Rebel, Wang Weilin (alleged)
Born Country: China
The “Tank Man” incident occurred on June 5, 1989, a day after the Chinese army began a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protestors who had been demonstrating at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing for more than a month.
The protests in Beijing had begun after former communist leader Hu Yaobang died on April 18, 1989. Hu had tried to make China more liberal and democratic. After his death, scores of mourning students marched to the Tiananmen Square to demand a more democratic government and to demonstrate against China’s communist rulers.
A rally held on May 19 that year attracted over 1.2 million people. A 33-foot-tall statue, known as the Goddess of Democracy, was installed in the square.
The Chinese army started firing on protestors at around 1 a.m. on June 4. It is believed, countless students died. As many as 10,000 people were arrested and over dozens were later executed.
The Tank Man was one of the protestors whose picture later took the world by storm. Though many versions of his picture, clicked by multiple photographers, exist, the most popular of them all was the one clicked by Jeff Widener, an Associated Press photographer.
The incident took place at the northeast edge of the Tiananmen Square, near Chang'an Avenue. Widener was focusing on a line of Type 59 tanks when suddenly, he noticed a man (later known as the “Tank Man”) dressed in a white shirt and a pair of dark trousers, carrying what seemed like shopping bags, blocking his shot.
Widener, who was hurt by protestors the previous day, captured the man on his Nikon FE2 camera from the sixth-floor balcony of a Beijing hotel. An American exchange student named Kirk Martsen had helped Widener sneak into the hotel, amid strict military scrutiny.
Widener watched the Tank Man come in front of the main military tank by blocking its path. The tank stopped for a while and attempted to go around the man. The man began moving with the tank and blocked its path again.
The man then climbed on top of the main tank and appeared to speak to the troops who were inside it. A few onlookers finally pulled the man away. Others believe it was the Chinese government PSB that took him away. It is not known what eventually happened to the man, but he remained etched in various photographs, as a symbol of resilience and defiance.
Since circulating any film or photo related to the massacre or the protest was made illegal by China, Martsen smuggled out the “Tank Man” film in his underwear. The photos were soon circulated outside the country.
Widener’s “Tank Man” picture was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize that year. Much later, the image was listed as one of the top 10 most memorable photos of all time by AOL.
The Tank Man, also known as the “Unknown Rebel” or the “Unknown Protestor,” became immensely famous. However, Shao Jiang, a Chinese student leader, later said that he had seen a lot of people blocking tanks. Nevertheless, the Tank Man was the only one who had been photographed and filmed on video.
In April 1998, Time magazine mentioned the "Unknown Rebel" in a feature named Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century. In November 2016, Time included Widener’s picture of the Tank Man on the list of Time 100: The Most Influential Images of All Time.
Five photographers had photographed the event. Four of the photos were retrieved soon after, while the fifth photographer, Terril Jones from the Associated Press, revealed his photograph (from the ground level) on June 4, 2009.
Charlie Cole, a Newsweek reporter, had hid his film roll in a hotel toilet but was able to retrieve it later. Cole received the 1990 World Press Photo of the Year award. In 2003, his photograph was featured on Life magazine’s list of 100 Photographs That Changed the World.
Stuart Franklin, from Time magazine, was with Cole on the same balcony, and his film roll was smuggled out of China, concealed in a tea box, by a French student.
Soon after the incident, the Sunday Express, a British tabloid, claimed the Tank Man was a 19-year-old student protestor named Wang Weilin. However, the Communist Party of China rejected such claims, saying that they had not been able to find the man’s name in their records of people arrested or killed in the protests.
In 1999, Bruce Herschensohn, ex-deputy special assistant to U.S. president Richard Nixon, claimed the Tank Man had been was executed 14 days after the incident. Other sources claimed that he was probably executed by a firing squad a few months later.
Some claim he is still alive and lives in mainland China, while another theory suggests that he probably fled to Taiwan and works as an archaeologist at the National Palace Museum.
In 1990, the then-CPC general secretary, Jiang Zemin, said in an interview that the man was probably not killed. In 2000, Zemin claimed the man had never been arrested but denied having any concrete information on the same.
Skinny Puppy, an electro music band, released a track titled Tin Omen, which had a reference to the protests.
In 1994, a music video for the song Refuse/Resist by death metal band Sepultura featured footage of the Tank Man.
In 1996, the Tank Man inspired heavy metal band Nevermore’s track The Tiananmen Man.
American folk-rock group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released the song Stand and Be Counted in 1999, which had a reference to the Tank Man. English rock band Kasabian’s video of Club Foot in 2004 depicted the Tank Man’s tale.
The Tank Man also appeared in Tom Clancy's 2000 novel The Bear and the Dragon and in Lucy Kirkwood's 2013 play Chimerica.
On June 4, 2013, China’s microblog site Sina Weibo blocked the words "today,” "June 4,” "tonight,” and "big yellow duck,” as a photoshopped version of the Tank Man that showed the tanks replaced by rubber ducks had become viral on Twitter.
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