Tank Man

Carolin Behrmann

With two shopping bags in his hands a single man in a white shirt stopped fearlessly a column of 18 tanks that were heading down Chang’an Avenue in Beijing towards the student protesters of the ’89 Democracy Movement on Tienanmen Square on June 5, 1989. A hunger strike by 3.000 students to claim political reforms in China was followed by seven weeks of demonstrations and the movement grew up to one million people who assembled and camped on the central square. In the early hours of June 4 the Chinese state troops struck back, and killed violently several hundreds of civilians; the extent of bloodshed and exact number of deaths are unknown until today. As hardly any images of the massacre persisted, the image and anonymous act of defiance of the “tank man” became an icon and symbol of the protest movement.

The situation has been filmed and observed by international journalists who were taking shelter in the proximate Beijing Hotel. In a short video that was shot by BBC journalists from afar you can see the man all by himself walking towards the tanks, forcing the first in the line to stop right in front of him. After a few moments he starts climbing on the top of the tank, knocks on its doors from outside, trying to talk to the soldiers. After a while he jumps back on the street again, the driver of the tank opens the door and they talk to each other briefly. The tank tries to go on, but the man positions himself again right in front of it to block it. Four photojournalists, who were later repressed and intimidated by the PSB agents (secret police) but could smuggle the photomaterial out of Beijing, have captured the moment: Charlie Cole for Newsweek, who won the World Press Photo Award of the Year 1989 (fig.1), Stuart Franklin for Magnum (fig.2), Jeff Widener of Associated Press took the most-used photo that was nominated for the Pulitzer Price (fig.3), and Arthur Tsang Hin Wah of Reuters (fig.4).

No other image of the protests on Tienanmen Square has been more evocative as the image of the unknown man in front of the tank. The photo and documentation of that heroic action turned the defeat of political resistance into a victory (Drechsel). It has been compared with other pictorial strategies of “asymmetrical” violent conflicts as for example the image of David defeating the giant Goliath. The “unknown rebel” was listed by Times Magazine among the “most important political leaders and revolutionaries” of the 20th century.

Among the artistic receptions of the figure there is a graffiti by Banksy “Golf Sale”(fig.5), that ironically comments this image of resistance: “We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves.” A moving document about fear and censorship of the massacre is Liu Wei’s video “Unforgettable memory” (13 min, 2009) (fig.6). The artist confronts pedestrians on the street with the image of the tank man and asks about their memory of this scene. But none of them reacts with empathy or remembrance, but ignorance, fear and denial, which proves that the massacre is still a taboo topic in China. In 2013 the Spanish artist Fernando Sánchez Castillo has sculpted a hyperrealistic lifelike sculpture that shows the “tank man” standing amidst the buying public in Hoog Catherine Mall (today part of the Collection of the Centraal Museum Utrecht) (fig.7). Also in his exhibition “Made in China”, 2015 the figure serves as a template for 5.000 tiny plastic figurines, that were set up in the large entrance hall of the Albertinum in Dresden (fig.8). As an antithetical-monument of peaceful resistance they also remind of the fact that until today the reproduction of the “tank man” photograph is still prohibited in China.


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fig. 7 fig. 8


  • Benjamin Drechsel: Der Tank Man. Wie die Niederlage der chinesischen Protestbewegung von 1989 visuell in einen Sieg umgedeutet wurde. In: Gerhard Paul (ed.): Bilder, die Geschichte schrieben. 1900 bis heute. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2011, pp. 228–235.
  • Pico Iyer: The Unknown Rebel, in: Time Magazine, April 13, 1998.
  • Banksy: Wall and Piece. London: Random House 2006, p. 204.



  • The Tank Man. June 5,1989. Tiananmen Square. An extraordinary confrontation took place which became an icon for the fight for freedom. Frontline: PBS Home Video

About the Author:
Carolin Behrmann studied Art History, Philosophy and European Ethnology in Tuebingen, Bologna and Berlin. Master thesis on “Gianlorenzo Bernini. Representation, patronage and symbolic capital (1623-1644)”. 2001-2005 scientific assistant at the research project “Requiem. The Roman Tombs for the Popes and Cardinals of the Early Modern Age”. 2005-2011 scientific collaborator (doctoral assistant) at the Institut fuer Kunst- und Bildgeschichte at Humboldt University of Berlin, chair Prof. Horst Bredekamp. 2008-2009 Fellow at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, annual theme “Networks and Boundaries”. Thesis on “Tyrant and Martyr. Images and the History of Ideas of the Law around 1600” which analyzes the correlation between Art and Law after the Council of Trent by focusing on figurations of martyrdom and tyrannical force in the 16th and 17th century. It seeks to explore and include the juridical and political significance of martyrologies in their historical context of the consolidation of statehood and institutionalization of power, as well as the Jesuit concept of international law theory. September – December 2011 post-doc-fellow and January 2012 to February 2014 scientific assistant at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut.
Since 2014 leader of the Minerva-Research Group “The Nomos of Images. Manifestation and Iconology of Law”.
Contact: carolin.behrmann@khi.fi.it

Reference / Quellennachweis:
Carolin Behrmann: Tank Man, in: Aesthetics of Resistance, Pictorial Glossary, The Nomos of Images, ISSN: 2366-9926, 12 October 2015, URL: http://nomoi.hypotheses.org/19.

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