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The Unknown Rebel’s Courage at Tiananmen Square

The Atlantic. Photo Gallery: “Tiananmen Square, Then and Now.” June 2012.

C-SPAN. Washington Journal: “25th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square Protests.” Broadcast date: June 3, 2014.

C-SPAN House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights. “25th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square Protests, Survivors’ Stories.” Broadcast date: May 30, 2014.

Cunningham, Phillip J. Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising of 1989. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.

Nathan, Andrew J. Foreign Affairs. “The Tiananmen Papers.” January/February 2001.

The New York Times. “The Tiananmen Square Protests.” New York: New York Times Company, 2012.

Pye, Lucian W. Foreign Affairs. “Appealing the Tiananmen Verdict: New Documents from China’s Highest Leaders.” March/April 2001.

Zhao, Dingxin. The Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.


Without identifying the time and place, or revealing identifying information, show students a peaceful-looking crowd scene photo from the Tiananmen Square, Then and Now photo gallery at The Atlantic online  ideally by projecting it for large-scale viewing. For an example, refer to the image below.

The optional introductory activity above is designed to support you in the classroom. However, the primary narratives and photos in the section that follows can be used with or without this introduction.

Post this definition of courage: To stand firm in being a person of character and in doing what is right, especially when it is unpopular or puts one at risk.

Distribute to students copies of either of the following:

Depending on your students’ grade level and abilities, use either the entire article or excerpts. Be sure to explain the reasons why not all “on the ground” information flowed freely out of Beijing during and immediately following the demonstrations and why Pye’s article offers new information.

Assign students to groups of 3 or 4 and have them read the article and identify examples of courage both inside and outside the Chinese government’s power structure that existed at the time of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and in the years that followed.

Once each small group has had time to read and identify exemplars of courage, lead a class discussion about how courage was demonstrated given each person’s position within the existing power structure. In each case, examine the question, “Was it worth the risk?”

Share pre-selected clips from the C-SPAN May 2014 broadcast, “25th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square Protests: Survivors’ Stories” ( Invite students to expand on their initial responses to the question, “Was it worth the risk?”

You may also assign an Exit Slip on which each student identifies one person or group of people addressed in this discussion, and offers his or her own answer to the question, “Was it worth the risk? Why or why not? Would I take such a risk? Why or why not?”