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Who is Tank Man?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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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.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

By anon978504 — On Nov 18, 2014

Long live tank man's memory.

By anon955331 — On Jun 06, 2014

Can't the media get access to the driver of the tank who spoke to Tank Man? Better to bribe some Chinese official to give whomever a photocopy of the Chinese government's record of events. The Chinese are meticulous at recording every event and it will be written down somewhere in a Chinese government department who he was and what was his fate. The name of the tank driver will be recorded too. The media needs to use bribery to get the information. Powerful image of the guy with two bags of groceries standing in front of the tank. A powerful image representing freedom and democracy.

By anon954678 — On Jun 03, 2014

This is the best thing that happened for me in 1984.

By anon944789 — On Apr 09, 2014

I think that you should respect others' viewpoints and not call each other stupid based on way of life, religion, or education. I also think that the tank man is a brave man. He stood up for what he believed in and did what he thought was right. I know that I will probably get hateful replies, but I don't care. Those are my views and I live in a country with freedom of speech.

By anon332917 — On May 01, 2013

I just want to say China was democratic. From the end of the Q'ing dynasty to 1949, it was democratic. Chiang Kai-shek ruled the main part of full democratic rule (the first part was mostly European Imperialism). Because of him millions of Chinese died from starvation like during the old Dynasties.

In communist China (which is not a full communism) there are limitations on human rights, but most families do not starve to death. Today's China is the best China for the people ever. True, it needs improvement, but the "full" democracy everyone is looking for won't work in China.

By anon325048 — On Mar 13, 2013

"Western fools" is a polite term in the Chinese Communist Party's dictionary. Young Chinese were raised in the propaganda, and it is very difficult for some of these young minds to appreciate viewpoints of people in the free world. They were raised with one correct answer to each question, and the correct answer was provided by the Chinese government.

Most people in the free world have heard of strict media control in China. Not many know the politics education for students. Each semester from the first grade to the senior year in college, there is a required course called “politics education”.

A student must pass the “politics education”course every semester before he can advance to the next grade. Passing the politics education course requires the student to memorize the government viewpoints and demonstrate his buy-in of the government views. A common test question is “explain why only the Chinese Communist Party can save China”.

The decade long propaganda education has done huge damage to the minds of young Chinese. Many Chinese students still cannot think for themselves after years living in the free world. The modernization of China depends on free thinkers, not mind-slaves.

By anon280441 — On Jul 17, 2012

Governments should not kill their own people, period.

By anon152979 — On Feb 15, 2011

Westerners are fools. The only fact that they blow up this tank man up to proportion is because they finally found something that we Chinese are bad at.

besides there was no other way to put down the protest. you westerners don't have nearly as many people in it like in china. it's much harder to put down the protest when there were so many people.

By anon146386 — On Jan 26, 2011

Wow? A whole country? highly improbable it just involved Beijing which is a capital and not all of it. do some reading. it will help you.

By anon114207 — On Sep 27, 2010

@anon61987: The last time I checked, Westernization was a result of globalization. It is not our fault that the United States had much success in this field. We enjoy the life, civil liberties, and technology that a democratic society provides. If we are not the best country in the world then we come pretty damn close. I know you would not agree because you sound pessimistic and don't consider the positive values that society can safely offer!

By anon106283 — On Aug 25, 2010

It is a pity that the Chinese Government is communist and it is true that the would be a greater place if it was democratic. If it were democratic the potentials would be limitless.

However, I must say, the tank drivers themselves acted humanely and did not just run over the man. Much of the Tiananmen Square protests were exaggerated anyway. At the most, there were probably around 1,000 dead. That's not much for an entire country.

By anon87452 — On May 30, 2010

You call the Americans fools? I'm American, I eat what I want, sleep were I want, dance and sing when I want. I go when I want and come when I want and nobody directs me or tells me my actions may bring consequences!

Communist rule brings a set direction and if you do something your government doesn't approve of you're punished. Your government is the fool. Look at your own history. You're being controlled and for you as long as they control in a good manner its OK?

Freedom comes at a cost, and one you are not ready to pay! So keep telling yourselves it's all going to be fine! The tank man had the same spirit that Americans carry every day!

By anon65945 — On Feb 16, 2010

anon61987: Just alone by calling the people here "Western fools" you are also propagating a bias. You are also stereotyping by assuming that every single person who visits this site is a "Westerner", by which you imply, American.

Yes, our news outlets have a bias, but so does every single public viewpoint on the planet. And some biases are more hurtful than others.

The People's Republic of China, for instance, has used military force against every faction that has risen up against it with, what it sees as, "Pro western values". From Falun Gong and Buddhism to Tibet and Tiananmen Square, they have battered down any group that has claimed to represent independence, to protest for peoples' rights, to peacefully suggest change, or to simply exercise their own freedom of will.

You also say that the tank "behaved very humanely and tried more than twice to avoid him and even stopped to allow him to climb onto it." There should have been no tanks in the first place. From the anti-Vietnam protests in America, to the rice protests in the Philippines, to even the anti-occupation protests in modern day Iraq, tanks have never been brought into play.

Now as far as I know, you'll probably never read this, and frankly, I don't care. I really don't even have enough credibility to write this, seeing as I'm just a high school freshman. But the willingness to speak out for what you see as right will always trump those who wish to batter themselves against it. -Archie B.

By anon64545 — On Feb 08, 2010

anon61987: Are you kidding me? it took me five seconds to find a webpage that shows footage of the massacre. Ignorance will never make us forget what the chinese government did.

By anon61987 — On Jan 24, 2010

You western fools are always speculating the worst. There has been no concrete picture ever of what happened at Tianamen square including this so called "massacre" the western media is propagating.

If you actually view an actual clip of this "tank man", you will find that the army tanks behaved very humanely and tried more than twice to avoid him and even stopped to allow him to climb onto it.

Just because China isn't democratic doesn't mean all you ignorant westerners have a right to comment on it. After all, all you see or hear is from your own western media which I generally find to be as biased a news source out there.

By anon54714 — On Dec 01, 2009

Now he is dead, and it is not cool.

By anon48263 — On Oct 11, 2009

i`m a chinese student. I think he is very brave. our country needs more people like him to build a true republic country.

By anon33335 — On Jun 04, 2009

I feel it's quite appropriate/symbolic that he was never named or identified. Without a name or a face, he could be anyone; and as such he represents everyone. His image, in its infinite simplicity, stands in defense for us all, and demonstrates to truth that even a person like you or I can have that kind of bravery.

By anon33276 — On Jun 03, 2009

The massacre in Tienanmen Square happened on the night of 4th June, therefore tankman blocking the tanks happened *after* the massacre. According to the news, there was already a curfew declared in Beijing for a number of days. Therefore, to see him in context, he *cannot* be just an ordinary passerby.

By anon30942 — On Apr 27, 2009

Act of bravery is always remembered.

By anon30413 — On Apr 18, 2009

To me this man is symbolic of true courage. We live in a society there the word "courage" has been cheapened by inappropriate use in regard to people like sports stars. Tank Man stands as a reminder of the things for which courage is real. When we're tempted to avoid getting involved or we are aware of small injustices of someone being bullied at work, it's time to think of this man who took an enormous risk for something he knew was important. We are challenged to allow his true courage to inspire all of us to stand up for what is right in every aspect of our lives.

By anon30392 — On Apr 18, 2009

I'm an Iranian and we had a tank man before the Islamic revolution. The tank was trying to go around the man, but he was changing his place all the time and managed to stop the tank.

By anon30355 — On Apr 17, 2009

*People* have died in demonstrations due to police action in both the U.S.A., and the U.K.

Perhaps we should put our own houses in order.

Due to the *action of the Chinese government,* I did not allow my business to trade with China. Other businesses stepped in, many of them large Capitalist organizations, and made vast profits with no conscience.


John Knowles

By screenwriter — On Apr 17, 2009

It has always been my understanding that the student known as 'The Tank Man' was arrested and died while in custody. Ironically his escalating fame, a consequence of those well publicized photos likely sealed his fate in that Totalitarian Police State!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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