Heroes and Villains

The Unknown Rebel’s Courage at Tiananmen Square

An exploration of the virtue of courage using the example of an anonymous individual who refused to yield to a tank during the crackdown on protesters at Tiananmen Square.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.

Suggested Launch Activity

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 http://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2012/06/tiananmen-square-then-and-now/100311  ideally by projecting it for large-scale viewing. For an example, refer to the image below.

About Launch Activities

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.

Lesson Background

In April 1989, China—and the rest of the world—saw the beginning of a six-week demonstration. Protestors demanded freedom of speech and press, and greater accountability in the Communist Chinese government….

Essay PDF

Analyzing Primary Source Documents

Ask students what clues they can find in the photograph that can reveal the historical period during which it was taken.

  • Describe the people in the photograph.
  • What is happening? In what types of activities are people engaged?
  • Look at the clothing, the vehicle styles, architecture (if any). How do these help you to identify the time and place in which the photo was taken?

Once the students narrow the photo’s location to China and narrowed its time period to the 1980s, show them additional photos while asking what they already know about the Tiananmen Square protests in the spring of 1989.

Show students the clip of the C-SPAN Washington Journal June 3, 2014 broadcast, “25th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square Protests” in which the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Global Human Rights is interviewed about the Tiananmen Square protests. Start from 0:25 and show through 1:21 (http://www.c-span.org/video/?319629-6/washington-journal-tiananmen-square).

Assign students to groups of 3 to 4. Task each group with collaborating to write a definition of the word “courage” and to create a visual (either drawn, with hand motions, or mimed) to accompany the definition. After each group shares its definition and image, share the photograph on the following page and post the accompanying definition of “courage” on the board.

Lead a class discussion in which the students compare…

  • their group visuals with the Tiananmen Square photograph.
  • their group definitions with the posted definition.


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” (http://www.c-span.org/video/?319617-1/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?”

Sources and Further Reading

The Atlantic. Photo Gallery: “Tiananmen Square, Then and Now.” http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2012/06/tiananmen-square-then-andnow/100311/ June 2012.

C-SPAN. Washington Journal: “25th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square Protests.” http://www.c-span.org/video/?319629-6/washington-journaltiananmen-square Broadcast date: June 3, 2014.

C-SPAN House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights. “25th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square Protests, Survivors’ Stories.” http://www.c-span.org/video/?319617-1/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.


Virtue Across the Curriculum

Below are corresponding literature and film suggestions to help you teach this virtue across the curriculum. Sample prompts have been provided for the key corresponding works. For other suggested works, or others that are already part of your curriculum, create your own similar prompts.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), directed by Peter Jackson
Before the black gates of Mordor, the forces of good are surrounded by a force one hundred times their size. It could be their last stand against evil. Aragorn rallies his men with a speech in which he says:

“My brothers. I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me! A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of Fellowship, but it is not this day! An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the age of men comes crashing down! But it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you, stand, men of the West!”

Is courage the absence of fear, or acting in spite of fear? Is there such a thing as too much courage? Where is the line between courage and refusal to face reality? Is Aragorn saying that if they win the battle, all will always be well? What effect do these words have? Why? Note: This movie is rated PG-13.

A Few Good Men (1992), directed by Rob Reiner
Lt. Daniel Kaffee defaults to his usual practice of plea bargaining when he is assigned a complicated murder case. His refusal to “stand up and make an argument” earns him the scorn of his clients as well as his co-counsel. How is Kaffee able to earn back their respect by the end of the film?
Note: This movie is rated R.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

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