Tiananmen’s Goddess of Democracy: Remembering a Pillar of Defiance

30 years after the deadly protests, a brief look at the sculpture which symbolized a struggle for political freedom

The Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square, 1989. Courtesy: Getty; photograph: Peter Charlesworth

It took just three days to construct The Goddess of Democracy. The white, ten-metre-tall statue of a woman holding a torch was erected on the night of 29 May 1989 in Tiananmen Square by art, music and theatre students. Built from metal, foam and papier-mâché, it reigned over the peaceful protesters who demanded greater political and economic freedoms following the death of popular reformist – and former Chairman and General Secretary – Hu Yaobang. Five days later, on 4 June, the Goddess was toppled by the Chinese military. Armoured cars and tanks crashed through the streets, seized the square and indiscriminately murdered thousands of protesters. Soldiers attacked the statue with metal bars until ‘our hands hurt’. Two days ago, the Chinese Defence Minister defended the crackdown, saying that halting the ‘turbulence’ was the 'correct policy’. 

The Goddess of Democracy, which faced a portrait of former Chairman of the People’s Republic of China Mao Zedong, was more than just a replica or pastiche of New York’s Statue of Liberty. Before the events that unfolded on 4 June – a date that is now too taboo to discuss in China – the statue, and even its construction, drew large crowds. It was a pillar of defiance. It gleamed against the backdrop of a dark sky and a caliginous government. The Goddess of Democracy has since been replicated worldwide; a cut-and-paste symbol of liberty and free speech. The intention of most monuments is to stand as a permanent reminder of an important moment in history. The Goddess of Democracy achieved just that – despite its very short life.

Kadish Morris is editorial assistant and staff writer of frieze, based in London, UK.  

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