She was the symbol of a movement.
On May 30, 1989, 10 art students unveiled the Goddess of Democracy in the middle of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. She stood 30-feet tall, her arms raised to hold her torch high, her eyes staring unwaveringly into those of Mao Zedong, whose portrait hung on the opposite building. The statue rallied the flagging protestors, helping them to reinvigorate their pro-democracy movement in the face of exhaustion and government opposition.
And then, five days later, she watched as hundreds of tanks and thousands of soldiers invaded the camp, shooting down students and ultimately bringing down the goddess herself.
The protests had started two months earlier, in mid-April, after the death of Hu Yaobang, a Chinese politician who had been forced to resign from his position two years earlier over criticism that he was too sympathetic toward students and intellectuals.
While the movement would eventually end with a bloody roar in Beijing, protests were launched in several cities throughout the country.
For nearly two months, students, intellectuals, journalists, and others who sympathized with the activists’ call for greater rights and government transparency staged protests and boycotts.
In Beijing, these activities centered around Tiananmen Square, the site of many of the country’s most important historical events, from Mao’s creation of the People’s Republic in 1949 to earlier student protests dating back to 1919.
The 1989 protests had launched with the force of the students’ passionate convictions, but, by the end of May, they were starting to wind down.
The students and their supporters were tired. They had put themselves on the line, their lives on hold, for months, and their initial energy and zeal was starting to leech away as more and more people left the square. There were murmurings that it all might be coming to an end.
But not everyone was ready to give up the fight. In a piece written on May 30, 1989, The Wall Street Journal reported that a core group of students had hoped they could keep the protests going through June 20, when the standing committee of the National People’s Congress was scheduled to meet. But in order to do that, they needed a rallying cry to unite and reinvigorate the movement. They needed a piece of art—a symbol—that would represent what they were fighting for.
Over four days and nights, 10 students from Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts got to work building a statue that would do just that.
The result was a towering white statue of a woman, her one-shoulder dress artfully draped down her body. Her left arm reached across her chest to grasp the bottom of the torch held high in her right—a two-handed grip on the flame of democracy.
Her hair billowed out to one side and her face—which was detailed with Western features—gazed determinedly over the crowd.
The artists made the choice to construct the statue out of plaster and Styrofoam, a decision that may be attributed partly to speed, but one that also had another benefit—the massive structure would be harder to dismantle.
“The students regard the statue as a public relations coup: either it will remain and symbolize the democracy movement and official weakness; or the authorities will be in the embarrassing position of sending the police to attack the Goddess of Democracy and Freedom with sledgehammers,” Nicholas Kristoff wrote in The New York Times on May 30, 1989.
On the night of May 30, the remaining protestors in Tiananmen Square became curious when they noticed a wooden scaffolding being built in the middle of the square. Soon after, a crew of tricycle carts came riding into the courtyard, ferrying sections of the goddess from the art school to her new home. It took all night, but piece-by-piece, the Goddess of Democracy took shape.
Reporter Steve Futterman was on the scene that night covering the events of the protest. In a 2009 article on The Huffington Post, he recounted watching this momentous event unfold. “It was a slow, arduous process, yet virtually no one left the square, so enraptured were they by the power if [sic] this papier-mâché Goddess. The crowd cheered each time a new section was put in place.”
The reaction was immediate. Futterman remembers that “tens of thousands of ordinary Beijing citizens, people who had played no active role in the protests,” quickly flocked to the square to see the statue.
“She signifies hope for China,” 22-year-old Y. H. Yang told The New York Times. “But she’s behind schedule in reaching the square, and she’s coming by tricycle. That is symbolic of the slowness and backwardness of the democratization process in China.”
This new symbol injected a fresh wave of hope and energy into the movement. Tiananmen Square filled back up and the protest enjoyed a new sense of resolve, one bolstered by the tall white beacon of democracy standing vigil in their center.
The Chinese government, predictably, was not so moved. They called the artistic expression an “abomination” and reiterated that “this is China, not America,” a fact that surely did not need to be reiterated to those who had given the previous couple of months to the fight for democracy.
But less than four days later, the government decided to intervene and end the stand-off. Premier Li Peng ordered tanks and thousands of soldiers to break up the protestors’ Tiananmen Square camp on the night of June 3 and into the next day.
There were reports that locals rushed into the streets to try to slow down the soldiers and provide a barricade for the students. But they were no match for the military force, which began firing into the crowds.
To this day, the exact number who lost their lives in the Tiananmen Square Massacre is unknown. Estimates range from the hundreds to the thousands, with thousands more injured and arrested.
Among the death toll that night was the Goddess of Democracy. Her end was televised as a tank rammed into her base and the statue toppled over, face forward.
While the government ultimately prevailed that day, the Goddess of Democracy remains a symbol of the freedom that the Chinese students were fighting for during those protests over two decades ago.
In the following years, cities and countries around the world, from Hong Kong to Canada to San Francisco, constructed replicas of the statue in their own public spaces.
But the Goddess of Democracy remains banished from China—at least for now.
The 10 artists knew their plaster and Styrofoam creation wouldn’t last forever. In a statement they issued when the statue was unveiled, they revealed their hopes that a more permanent replacement would eventually be created.
“On the day when real democracy and freedom come to China, we must erect another Goddess of Democracy here in the Square, monumental, towering, and permanent. We have strong faith that that day will come at last,” they wrote. In the meantime, they implored, “Chinese people, arise! Erect the statue of the Goddess of Democracy in your millions of hearts!”