BEIJING -- The image flashed for only a few seconds on an enormous video screen, but it was enough to catch the attention of some concertgoers in the Chinese capital.
Then began days of head-scratching and hand-wringing over an unlikely political flash point: the appearance during a Michael Jackson tribute concert of the famous "Tank Man" photograph of June 1989. The most common version of the image, distributed worldwide by The Associated Press, shows a lone man facing down a line of tanks near Tiananmen Square the day after Chinese troops killed hundreds or thousands of peaceful protesters.
As the Chinese might say, the image is as rare as phoenix feathers and unicorn horns here, where the Communist Party suppresses any mention of the 1989 violence. Its sudden appearance at the opening performance of the China leg of Cirque du Soleil's "Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour" underscored the challenges that governments face in controlling history in the modern age. Censors can work overtime scrutinizing content for taboo messages, but some inevitably slip by.
In imperial times, China's rulers tried to exercise strict control over what versions of history were fit for public consumption. "The punishment for bringing sensitive historical matters to light could be death," said John Delury, co-author of a new book on modern Chinese history, "Wealth and Power."
"Today, of course, Chinese, with the world's largest online community, live in a world of radically expanded information borders," he said. "Yet there remain certain taboo images and texts that, even when iconic at a global level, are verboten to Chinese eyes. It takes a tremendous amount of energy for the state to maintain this screen over knowledge of the past, and a vast amount slips through the censors today, just as it did back in imperial days. This is what Deng Xiaoping referred to as 'The flies come in when you open a window for some fresh air.' "
The Cirque du Soleil dance show used Mr. Jackson's music, including "They Don't Care About Us," an overtly political song whose lyrics are full of rage. "Tell me what has become of my rights?/Am I invisible because you ignore me?/Your proclamation promised me free liberty, now/I'm tired of bein' the victim of shame," the song says. Along with the lyrics, Cirque du Soleil featured a montage of images showing civil rights abuses and protests, including that of the Tank Man.
The sight of Tank Man resulted in "an audible collective gasp from the audience," wrote Stephen George, one of the thousands of concert attendees, in a blog post on the Web site of "That's Beijing," an expatriate-oriented magazine where Mr. George works. The post went up on Saturday but has since been deleted.
The moment "felt genuinely quite radical," Mr. George wrote. "As my friend commented, 'I can't imagine ever being witness to that image being shown in Beijing again, even if I stay here for another 50 years.' "
Reports of Tank Man's appearance circulated online. For some, it evoked Bjork's Shanghai concert in 2008, where she surprised concertgoers by calling for Tibetan independence.
In this instance, Cirque du Soleil quickly cut the image from subsequent shows in Beijing. It is unclear whether tour organizers had come under pressure from officials.
A tour spokeswoman, Laura Silverman, sent an e-mail this week to The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, that said "the image was removed immediately and is no longer shown." She also said the full show had been submitted to the Chinese Ministry of Culture for approval before the first China concert.
In an e-mailed statement on Thursday, Ms. Silverman said: "We believe in diversity and are apolitical. We also respect any laws and cultural uniqueness of the countries where we perform."
The show is scheduled to open in Shanghai on Friday and in Hong Kong next Thursday. Since 2011, when the show opened, it has grossed about $300 million, and a review in The New York Times called it a "galumphing sensory assault."
Ms. Silverman's assertion that the show had been officially reviewed in China has raised the question of whether a government official allowed Tank Man to stay in the video. The Culture Ministry did not respond to questions on Thursday.
It could be, though, that blanket censorship of all things related to June 4, 1989, has resulted in such widespread amnesia about the episode that even some censors can no longer recognize the taboo material for what it is.
There have been past cases of this. In 2008, Beijing News ran a profile of the veteran photojournalist Liu Heung Shing, who covered China in the late 1970s and 1980s for Time magazine and The Associated Press. The article featured several of his photographs, including one of the injured and dead being taken from the scene of the June 4 killings by rickshaw drivers.
When officials realized what had happened, they ordered the newspaper pulled off the streets. Mr. Liu said he later asked employees at Beijing News what had taken place. It turned out there had been an empty space on the page before it went to press, and an editor with a keen interest in history pulled one of Mr. Liu's photographs from the Internet to fill the hole. The editor apparently had no idea what the image represented.
"It's ironic, because even the guy interested in history didn't seem to know China's modern history that well," Mr. Liu said. "Otherwise, it wouldn't have gotten through."
Officials made inquiries and determined the mistake had been a genuine one, Mr. Liu said.
Such mistakes are more likely to occur with younger Chinese. "You'd be surprised how those born in the late 1980s and 1990s, how ignorant they are," said Mr. Liu. He was the A.P. chief photographer who pushed editors in 1989 to publish the Tank Man photograph, which was taken by Jeff Widener. (There are at least four versions of the famous scene, each captured by a photographer shooting from the Beijing Hotel.)
Last November, before the 18th Party Congress, during which Communist Party leaders were expected to gather in Beijing for a handover of power, those running an official propaganda Web site for the event posted photographs from past congresses. There was a surprising one from the 12th Party Congress in 1982 that showed Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, leaders associated with the 1989 protests who have been erased from official histories. The photograph was posted on Nov. 1, but by Nov. 4 had been replaced.
China Digital Times, a Web site based in Berkeley, Calif., that tracks the Chinese news media, said that propaganda officials at the State Council, China's cabinet, had ordered news organizations not to report on the appearance of the photograph.
There is another explanation for how Tank Man might have gotten past the censors screening Cirque du Soleil: the image might have flashed by too quickly for officials to notice. At least one person in the audience said she had missed it on Friday night.
"Everything is very overwhelming," Vera Penêda, 33, a Portuguese journalist, said of the show at the MasterCard Center, which was used for basketball matches during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "On the stage there are lots of dancers, and all the outfits are amazing, so I didn't pay attention to the photo."
The friends who had accompanied her also missed Tank Man, she said, adding that she noticed no "collective gasp" from the audience. Ms. Penêda learned about the image popping up only later from online reports.
"I was disappointed in myself, a reporter who goes to a show like this and lets this one go by," she said.
Marc Santora contributed reporting from New York, and Mia Li contributed research from Beijing.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.