The Goddess of Democracy, a statue also known as the Goddess of Democracy and Freedom, the Spirit of Democracy, or the Goddess of Liberty (自由女神; zìyóu nǚshén), was a statue that stood over twenty feet tall, created and erected during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China. Known as the “June Fourth Incident” in China, the demonstrations were a student-led outpouring of anxiety about the direction of their nation within the backdrop of rapid social change and economic development in post-Mao China, triggered by the death of pro-reform Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Hu Yaobang in April 1989
The protests triggered similar events in over 400 cities across China. The response to the protests exposed deep division in the Chinese leadership. One of the most famous images of the event shows a young man standing in defiance of an oncoming tank and holding it at bay.
During the protest, a statue of a woman holding a torch was erected from metal, foam, and paper-mâché by fine arts students from the Central Academy of Art in Beijing on the night of 29 May 1989 in Tiananmen Square. The goddess was unveiled the following morning to cheers of “long live democracy!”
She was not modeled after the Statue of Liberty, Libertas, or Eleutheria. While the resemblance may be there, she is sui generis. The creators wrote the following declaration about the statue:
At this grim moment, what we need most is to remain calm and united in a single purpose. We need a powerful cementing force to strengthen our resolve: That is the Goddess of Democracy. Democracy[…] You are the symbol of every student in the Square, of the hearts of millions of people. […] Today, here in the People’s Square, the people’s Goddess stands tall and announces to the whole world: A consciousness of democracy has awakened among the Chinese people! The new era has begun!
The government responded by imposing martial law, expelling journalists, and ultimately mobilizing more than 30,000 troops to end the protests. The image of the goddess was destroyed by the Chinese military when armored cars and tanks entered Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds of protesters.
The Chinese government’s massacre of the Tiananmen protesters was condemned by the international community.
Despite the goddess’s short manifestation as a statue, the students’ invocation and the energy that created her evolved and manifested around the world. It is a well that is familiar to many Pagans.
Replicas of the statue now abound. In 1991 the National Endowment for Democracy began presenting the symbolic statuette as its annual Democracy Award. With the help of Chinese dissidents, San Francisco sculptor Thomas Marsh created a 10-foot-tall version of the Goddess of Democracy in 1994. A 10 foot tall replica is at the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C.; an unknown artist made a replica of fiberglass and placed it at the University of Calgary; and another replica was installed in Victoria Park in Hong Kong. There is an augmented reality image of the statue by the artists collective 4Gentlemen, part of Tiananmen SquARed, a two-part augmented reality public art project and memorial.
Last year, the Chinese University of Hong Kong displayed a statue of the Goddess of Democracy. It was taken down in December while students were away from the holidays, along with a famous 26-foot-tall sculpture called the Pillar of Shame, by Danish artist Jens Galschiot, which honored the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The elimination of these works of art are part of the Chinese acceleration of a program to erase Tiananmen Square from the public’s memory. The removal of the statues marked China’s final scrub of all artwork memorializing the events of 1989 at Tiananmen Square.
Until recently, Hong Kong was one of the few places in China that commemorated the event. Beijing has banned all memorials and remembrances. Officials said any assembly would be met with prison time. In 2020, 26 protesters were sentenced to up to 14 months of jail time for a vigil, and earlier this year, activist Chow Hang-tung was sentenced to 15 months in prison for her role in leading a vigil. She was already serving 12 months for the prior year’s vigil.
“To the people of China and to those who continue to stand against injustice and seek freedom, we will not forget June 4,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
Students and goddesses are hard to suppress, however. One student maintains anonymity under an Instagram account called @finding_manneoi – “manneoi” being the Romanisation of the Cantonese for “Goddess of Democracy.” “The Goddess of Democracy has accompanied CUHK teachers and students through eleven springs and autumns,” they wrote, “and has become a part of the CUHK campus.” But after the statue was removed, they called on their community to help.
“This is a kind of a rebellion. The university ‘stole’ the statue from its students so we’ve decided to make our own versions on it and put it back,” one of the organizers, identified as Luna, told Hong Kong Free Press, a local outlet.
The author wrote that “the original statue may have been smashed or even destroyed.” But now a 3D print version is available. “From May 31st to June 5th, we will put 10cm size 3D printed version of the statue in different corners of the campus every day, and then announce the locations one by one and the surrounding environment map,” they wrote. “You are welcome to watch the post and go to the relevant location to find them.”
Chinese diaspora communities have been holding commemorations in Taiwan, Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US. 3D-printed replicas of the Goddess of Democracy are also available online.
They added that these statues may not be the original, but they hope they inspire in the same way.