When Chinese art students designed the Goddess of Democracy for Tiananmen Square back in 1989, they said they wanted her to look different from the Statue of Liberty. They wanted the statue to represent China, not America.
France presented the Statue of Liberty to the United States in 1886 to recognize America’s place as a beacon of freedom to the world. One hundred and three years later, obviously, even the Chinese didn’t see China as a champion of liberty. Their Goddess had to say something else.
In New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty looks to the east, her right hand holding the torch of enlightenment high over her head. The flame is far from her eyes, and yet she knows what she carries -- freedom -- and she’s telling the world of its protective, creative and healing power. She is stepping ahead, crushing shackles in her path.
In tyranny’s face. In Tiananmen Square, the Goddess of Democracy faced north. She clasped her torch in two hands, not one. She held it out slightly forward, just above eye level and to her right. Her eyes looked ahead, the flame not far from her line of vision. Like the Statue of Liberty, the Goddess stepped forward.
In Beijing, perhaps accidentally, the Goddess of Democracy faced the traditional photograph of Mao Zedong on the Tiananmen Gate. It was as if freedom were confronting the tyrant. The Goddess held out the light of liberty as if to say, “Behold what we have been denied these many centuries.”
The Statue of Liberty celebrates the freedom the United States already has. The Goddess of Democracy celebrated freedom only as an ideal, a right yet to be claimed.
A lasting message. Today, the Goddess of Democracy has been gone from Tiananmen Square exactly 25 years. Yet the symbol represents the same ideal. All over the world, replicas of the original statue honor China’s most courageous democrats of June 4, 1989.
When she returns in grand form to a permanent place in Beijing, the Goddess of Democracy will say something different from what she said in 1989.
Towering above the Tiananmen Gate, that future Goddess will say, “We have our freedom at last, and we will never let it out of our sight. Until the end of time, each one of us will hold on to our liberty with both hands.”
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This was first posted June 4, 2009, on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.