Word(s) of the Week: “Objects Placed in a Row” (物体排成一排, wùtǐ páichéng yīpái)

The sight of a lone man standing before a row of tanks in Beijing is perhaps the most enduring image to emerge from the Tiananmen Protests of 1989. Photographs taken on June 5 of that year—one day after PLA troops crushed the protests, killing and injuring untold numbers of Chinese citizens—show an unidentified man dressed in a white shirt and black trousers and holding two shopping bags, standing before a line of tanks on Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue. The identity and fate of the individual who has come to be known as “Tank Man” are unconfirmed.

Images of Tank Man are completely censored on the Chinese internet and social media. This heavy-handed censorship has given rise to many variations on a theme, in an effort to evade censorship. Photoshopped permutations of the “objects in a row” theme are manifold: in some, the line of tanks has been replaced by enormous yellow rubber ducks, Lego figures, cartoon characters, or food items such as zongzi (glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves.) In others, “Tank Man” himself has been replaced by a cartoon or video-game character, a Lego man, a “grass-mud horse,” or another animate or inanimate object. Typographic and ideographic tricks also abound: strings of Chinese characters such as 占占人 and 占占占人 have been used to represent a person standing in front of two, three, or more tanks, while the combinations 占占点 and 占点占 resemble a person being crushed by tanks. In June of 2012, a Sohu Weibo user had their account blocked after posting this extraordinary string of characters representing a person being crushed under four tanks: 占占占占人 占占占点 占占点占 占点占占 点占占占 灬占占占占.

“Tank Man” stands before a row of four enormous yellow rubber ducks.
A blue bird from the video game “Angry Birds” raises a defiant middle feather to a row of cartoon pig-tanks. (Cartoon by artist Hexie Farm.)
A “grass-mud horse” stands before a line of tanks.

These derivative images and memes are subject to censorship as well, as illustrated by the following censorship instructions—recently translated by CDT editors—for Douyin official accounts and KOL (key opinion leaders) during the period from June 3 to June 5, 2023:

Comments and reposts are forbidden from displaying content including, but not limited to: lit candle emojis, numbers with unclear implications, slogans, tanks, old photos with a throwback feel, Jackie Chan/Alan Tam/Eric Tsang/Anita Mui and other Hong Kong artists, or photographs of large crowds/Victoria Harbor/Tiananmen/the Summer Palace/candlelight/objects lined up in a row, among other content. When necessary, please temporarily close the comment section until the day restrictions are lifted. [Source]

This year, the phrase “objects placed in a row” (物体排成一排, wùtǐ páichéng yīpái) was also the object of censorship, as reported by CDT analyst Eric Liu and others:

June 4 censorship extends to livestreams and e-commerce activities, as well. Last year, e-commerce livestreamer Li Jiaqi hawked a tank-shaped cake during a show on the eve of the massacre’s anniversary. His livestream feed was cut soon after the cake appeared, and Li did not return to livestreaming for three months. Li’s temporary downfall gave birth to the Li Jiaqi Paradox: how are you supposed to self-censor if you don’t even know what is forbidden?


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