Never Before Seen Tiananmen Square Photos Found in Shoebox

by Shelley Zhang

It was a black film canister, rattling around the bottom of an old Naturalizer shoebox labeled “photos.” I opened it, wondering if it was a roll of unused film. Instead, I found a twist of white tissue paper wrapped around tightly rolled black-and-white negatives. I held them up to the light. At first I saw…legs.

Then, people with bicycles.

Wait, that looks like the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Is that Tiananmen Square? With banners?

Next, a white form rising above a crowd, holding…a torch?

Oh man, is this what I think it is?

On the evening of June 1, 2014, I was searching through my parents’ photos for a piece I was writing on Tiananmen Square and my father, when I stumbled across two rolls of negatives that appeared to be from the 1989 student democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. I was stunned. I had no idea where they were from, why my parents had them, or why they never said anything about them.

Since my parents died, I’ve become an archeologist of my own past, digging through documents of half-remembered events, looking at pictures of people whose names I’ll never now know. Finding something like this though, on the eve of the 25th anniversary of June 4, was unexpected.

I had the photos printed. There were two rolls of film: 30 photos of a march down Chang’an Avenue to Tiananmen Square, another set of 15 photos of the Goddess of Democracy presiding over the square. In the second roll, I found a picture of my uncle, who was an art student in Beijing during the protests. Mystery partially solved.

I knew from my parents that my uncle was in Beijing during the protests, that he had gone to the square, and that he was not in the square on the night of June 3. I had no idea he had taken pictures. He must have developed the photos himself. Did he mail them to my parents? Did he slip them to my mother when she went to China in 1993? There’s no way to ask, at least for now.

From some of the banners, it looks like the first set of photos must have been taken after the student hunger strike began on May 13, but before May 29. The second set must be from the five days between May 30,  when the Goddess of Democracy was unveiled, and June 3, when everything went to pieces.

When we talk about Tiananmen and June 4, we often speak of memory, and forgetting. These photos have waited 25 years to be seen. So let’s take a look, and remember.

Photos from the march (sometime between May 13-May 29, 1989)

She looks so hopeful and happy.
The girls’ banner says, “Wake up!”
One of the signs in the back says “Public Security Bureau Research Institute.” The Public Security Bureau is the Chinese police department.
The sash of the man holding hands says, “Only by speaking up can we have democracy.”
Lots of emphatic signs. One of them says “Don’t be a vase” (ie, something that’s just for show). Probably good advice.
Marching down West Chang’an Avenue in front of the Beijing Telegraph Building.
Lots of lighthearted people in the back. Sign says the workers of the People’s Educational Press Printing Center support the students.
I forget sometimes how many bikes there were.
Sign in the back pledges support from juniors at Beijing’s 35th high school.
I was surprised that there were five or six photos with children in them. I wonder if any of them remember it now. The sign in the back says “Can’t watch this anymore.”
Tourists show their support.
Waving at the tourist bus.
Tiananmen Square street fashion
These guys show up in several photos. Friends of my uncle? Or just guys with perfect looks of determination?
One of the signs on the monument says, “The People Will Not Forget 1989.”

Photos of the Goddess of Democracy on Tiananmen Square (sometime between May 30-June 3, 1989)

The Goddess of Democracy above the crowd
Parents take their daughter to see the Goddess of Democracy.
A close up of the statue. A little kid is eating tang hulu in the shade.
Reading the banner
Another Westerner in the square.
The Goddess of Democracy rising above the tents.

Photos and text reposted with permission from The China Girls, a blog by Shelley Zhang and Ying-Ying Zhang.

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  1. Thank you, Shelley! These pictures brought back memories and the hope that was kindled and so horribly snuffed out by the CCP back in 1989. Your uncle was a brave man and did humanity a great service by taking these photos. Thank you for finding and sharing them. They really bring tears to my eyes.

  2. As an American I watched the events unfolding in Tiananmen Square on TV and felt great hope for the people of China, as well as great sadness when the protestors were ruthlessly suppressed. A few years later my family became friends with a married couple who had been students in the square when the protestors were killed. They were lucky that they survived, and lucky that both had parents who were “connected” in an important business in China, so their punishment was less than it might have been (although it was a creatively evil one with subtle consequences over the course of their lives). I’d love to tell more of their story, but they are back in China, and I dare not risk saying anything publicly that might cause them of their families to suffer in any way. We no longer have any contact with these friends, but we think of them when we think of China, as well as of friends we have in Taiwan. But we are just ordinary folks, and our ancestry is from Europe and the UK, not Asia, so we are not well positioned to have any significant impact on these problems. But we try to do what little we can to help, and supporting “China Uncensored” through Patron is one of those small things. I was very moved by these pictures, and for a moment I found myself looking for familiar faces in the crowd, and feeling a connection to our distant friends. Thanks for sharing them, and for the good work you are doing.

  3. Wonderful to see. My thanks to you and your family for this effort not to shove the event down the memory hole. Of course, the American applies to China Uncensored.

  4. Thanks for these pictures Shelly! Too bad no one has published a 3D design for the “Goddess of Democracy”, so everyone could print it and keep it on their desks and book cases as a continuing reminder of this tragedy – and the heroes who stood up for a better China and world… A powerful image of the people’s aspirations!

  5. Great to see how much strength can be seen in the hearts of courages hopefulness.
    It’s great to see the passion of your dreams for change. May we be patient and enduring to bring those dreams of peace and freedom of choice to manifestation.

  6. I’m 56 now, however I remember watching all the brave souls standing up for democracy. Unfortunately I remember watching the young guy standing in front of that tank, brave, maybe, hungry for western style democracy, YES. Then came the massacre, the premier had enough of this “cancer called “DEMOCRACY”. He ordered the military to stop this “DEMOCRACY MOVEMENT”, and stop it they did. With bullets raining down on their fellow country men and women, that were UNARMED. First thing the soldiers did after their shooting orgy was over, the military brought down the liberty statue. Sad day in China’s history. The world’s government’s just stood by and watched and of course did nothing. Just like what’s going on in the south china sea today!
    Sorry Shelley :^(

  7. Just imagine what the world would be like today if they had been successful. A free Tibet(?) no south china sea and North Korea problem threating to turn into WW3, the possibilities are endless. A real chance lost to greed of old men. Sad the loss of all those brave young people. Thanks Shelley for sharing those great photos it personalises the people who were there and lost their lives.

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