During the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, one Chinese citizen stood in front of a line of oncoming tanks, in an attempt to prevent them from entering the Square.
Although he was ultimately unsuccessful, his image was broadcast around the world in video and still footage, and he came to be known as “Tank Man,” or the Unknown Rebel, in a reference to his incredible act of bravery. Tank Man has become an iconic symbol of the Chinese democracy movement, and his image is familiar to many people around the world.
The Tiananmen Square protests were organized by thousands of Chinese students and activists who wanted to see a change in the way their nation was run. They are accompanied by similar protests and marches all over China, and quickly became a topic of international interest. Ultimately, the Chinese government put down the rebellion extremely violently, with the aid of soldiers and tanks. Thousands were injured and killed by Chinese soldiers, despite the efforts of people who tried to stand against them.
To examine the Unknown Rebel, it helps to see him in context. Many people have suggested that he may have been a provincial Chinese man visiting Beijing for business or to visit family, not a protester. Video footage suggests that he was merely walking down one of the streets which leads to Tiananmen Square on 5 June, 1989, when he saw a line of tanks approaching the area and he decided to do something about it. The later events of Tiananmen Square were widely condemned by the international community, and Tank Man became an emblem of those events.
Tank Man has become a symbolic figure for a number of reasons. The first is related to his ordinariness. Tank Man is plainly dressed, and in all of the images of him, he is carrying a bag of shopping. He clearly illustrates that any citizen can be brave enough to stand up to injustice by being so unremarkable. He was also incredibly bold, at one point climbing up onto the leading tank and having a heated exchange with the driver before members of the crowd pulled him off to hide him from retribution.
The image of Tank Man is also universal, and it needs no words to be understood. One of the most famous images of the man was taken by Stuart Franklin, and it ultimately won a World Press Award. Another well known image was taken by Jeff Widener, an Associated Press photographer, from the window of a nearby hotel. Many activists and idealists see the potential for a small action to make a big difference when they look at a picture of Tank Man. The image suggests that each individual member of a society has a duty and an obligation to stand up for what they believe is right.
The fate of Tank Man is unknown, as is his real identity. Several people have posited possible identities for the Unknown Rebel, but none of these identifications have been confirmed. The man may have survived the events of Tiananmen Square, or he may have been arrested and executed. His anonymity only adds to the mystique in the opinion of many people.