In the years since World War II, there have been many variations of this famous tank image. There are whole photo libraries of tanks in the streets of East Berlin in 1953, in Budapest in 1956, and in Prague in 1968, all portraying civilians in desperate revolt against totalist systems. This video image shot during the 1989 Tiananmen Square confrontation, however, became an instant icon of individual courage challenging anonymous brute force. It is easily the best-known portrayal of that theme to appear in the last 35 years.
Yet the Chinese state perceives this image very differently, and it likes what it sees. As photo critic Vicki Goldberg has written, the picture "is exhibited to show the restraint of the troops, who chose not to run over a lone man blocking the march of an entire line of tanks." China's little fable of "restraint" would work better if it weren't widely believed in Beijing that the state had executed the unknown man. No one has ever identified him or confirmed his fate, but The New York Times reported in 1990 that his death was persistently rumored.
One picture can tell many stories, and this one's told three so far: of defiance against the state, of "restraint" by the state, and of the state's vengeance. Perhaps it has one more meaning that will become clear in the course of the next 35 years: a foreshadowing of the end of another totalist state.