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25 Years On: Rare Photographs of Tiananmen Square Protests Go on Sale


Twenty five years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, a remarkable collection of photographs documenting the events surrounding the government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters has been listed for sale on AbeBooks.com.

Sixty-five photographs from the student-led protests in Beijing are for sale from Upper Valley Books & Paper in Ascutney, Vermont, for $6,500. The collection includes 12 black and white photographs, and 53 color photographs.

The images were taken between late April and June 1989. The photographer, or photographers, are unknown. The photographs were formerly the property of Wang Dan, one of the student leaders of the pro-democracy movement. Photographs and other materials relating to the Tiananmen protests have been suppressed by the Chinese government.

These photos shows marches, rallies, banners, hand-made posters, signs and cartoons, as well as memorials to the dead after the protests were crushed by the Chinese government on June 3 and 4.

“Most of these photographs were printed in December 1990, and stamped thus, long after the protest movement was smothered,” John Waite of Upper Valley Books & Paper wrote in an email. “This indicates the film likely was smuggled out of China and later processed in the US or another English-speaking nation.”

The protests began in April following the death of Hu Yaobang, a leading proponent within the Chinese Communist Party for reform.

Wang Dang was arrested and held without trial for nearly two years. After his trial, he served another two years in prison before being expelled from China. He later studied at Harvard and now lives in the United States.

The images can be divided into four general categories:

  • Marches and gatherings of protesters in Tiananmen Square;
  • Posters, banners, signs, cartoons, and open letters displayed by the protesters;
  • Protesters taking action against military or police vehicles prior to the crackdown on June 4;
  • Marches and demonstrations by students, teachers, and government employees in the city of Hefei (Anhui Province) shortly after the crackdown in Beijing.

There is also one black and white press photo of Wang Dan addressing the crowd in Tiananmen Square.

The hand-made banners document student groups from various universities and technical schools. The posters, banners, signs and cartoons show a range of political expressions and demands made by the student groups. These particular images are rare examples of the enormous amount of political ephemera generated by the various  protest groups for the demonstrations.

The actions taken by protesters, either to defend themselves or provoke authorities, are not well-known in the West due to the Chinese government’s suppression of documentation relating to the events. Photographic evidence that some protesters acted violently and the varied nature of the actual politics of the protest groups is rare.

The crackdown by the government began on the night of 3 June with lethal violence against civilians in various locations around the city. Hundreds of protesters died that evening even before soldiers began to clear Tiananmen Square in the early hours of 4 June. The collection includes several photos of armored personnel carriers burning amid crowds of people, and images of an armored personnel carrier that has been commandeered by protesters.

By 5 June, the news of the events had spread to the West and the media began trying to piece together the events of the previous 48 hours.

Crowds and burned vehicles

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Richard Davies

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