Arts, Culture & Media

25 years later, Tank Man lives on as a symbol of courage — just not in China

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Credit: Crazy Crab, Hexie Farm, China/China Digital Times

A lone man stands in front of a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. He wears a white shirt and black pants. He carries a shopping bag in each hand. You watch him from the back as he confronts a column of army tanks.

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The man, now known simply as Tank Man, pivots and moves with the tank. He won't let it pass him. Finally he climbs up on the tank and talks to one of the soldiers. Eventually he climbs down. What happens next, no one really knows. But 25 years to the day later, the image endures as a potent example of courage and bravery.

Not many people in China know about Tank Man. His image is officially banned in China and whenever it slips through via social media in the form of a doctored photo or a coded cartoon using David and Goliath imagery, Chinese authorities intervene quickly and remove it.

You can't even search the terms "tank" or "tank man" on Weibo.

But outside China, the iconic image is everywhere, from protest movements to advertisements to political cartoons, even The Simpsons. In a 2005 parody, Homer Simpson is in Tiananmen Square refusing to budge before a column of taxis. The episode is funny but it also makes a point. 

Political cartoonists around the globe use the imagery to convey all sorts of political messages. In one cartoon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the lone person confronting a tank driven by Vladimir Putin. The barrel of the tank is a natural gas pipeline. A cartoon from 2008 shows the Dalai Lama as the lone man confronting a tank symbolizing China. It was a comment about the Dalai Lama's comments on the Beijing Olympics. Still another shows a European farmer chewing on a piece of hay. He stands down a tank, a stand-in for genetically-modified crops. The barrel of the tank is an ear of corn. 

With the advent of social media, some images do reach Chinese eyes. A few Chinese political cartoonists working under pseudonyms occasionally use the Tank Man image, and their work is then posted on Facebook or Weibo. One famous cartoon by a Chinese illustrator who goes by the name of Crazy Crab depicts Tank Man as the Twitter bird, and the tanks are characters from "Angry Birds." Another one by the Chinese cartoonist Badiucao uses the tank man image but the lone person is a young Uighur girl.

In 2013, a Hong Kong artist created a satirical version of the famous Tank Man photo, showing the man but the tanks were replaced with giant rubber ducks. It went viral. China responded by banning the phrase "big yellow duck" from web searches.

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