Jon and I regularly present at two conferences a year, MCSS in the fall and NERC in the spring. For the past few years, the conference organizers have graciously allowed us to present in each of the available workshop slots. Our first presentation is always an introduction to the 4QM. (If you’ve storyboarded Cinderella and puzzled over the Salem witch trials with us, you’ve attended a version of this workshop.) Then we do focused workshops on as many of the questions as we have time to address. 

China Trade War & “Soft Persimmon”

Last Friday, at the most recent MCSS conference, we repeated our overview workshop and then introduced two brand new presentations. For the second of our three sessions, Jon focused on Questions One and Two. First, he gave a narrative lecture on China’s “Century of Humiliation” — imperialism from the Opium Wars to the Boxer Rebellion. Then he posed a great Question Two, ripped from the headlines:  What was Xinhua, the party-line newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, thinking when it editorialized as follows this past spring? 

“If anyone today regards China as the China of old, prey to dismemberment, as a ‘soft persimmon’ that can be squeezed at will, their minds are stuck in the 19th century and they’re deceiving themselves.”

That would be the 19th century Jon had just lectured on. Once you know that story, as everyone in the room did, Xinhua’s statement opens up like a, well, some kind of ripe fruit, anyway. It becomes meaningful and engaging. So we engaged: we paraphrased, then talked purpose and audience. Interpretation — the mental act required to answer Question Two — pursued seriously, typically raises a variety of plausible alternatives. So, should we read this statement as aggressive posturing in the China/US trade war? Or does the statement betray sensitivity and insecurity about an ignoble past? Or maybe the domestic audience, bearing the costs of a protracted trade war, could do with a reminder that the Party had redeemed China from abject victimhood…? 

Hong Kong Protests

For the third workshop, I demoed how to 4QM a contemporary topic. It seemed sensible, after Jon’s presentation, to rip another big China story from the headlines: the Hong Kong Protests of 2019. I’d been keeping track of the story on my own, but for preparing this model lesson, I read overview articles and briefings from a handful of news sources: The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Financial Times, the South China Morning Post, and the Hong Kong Free Press. Naturally, I checked to see what Wikipedia had to offer on the topic. 

Once I had the lay of the land, I made a storyboard to answer Question One, present-tense version: What’s happening right now in Hong Kong? My storyboard has the following headings: 

  • One Country, Two Systems (1997)
  • Article 23 (2003)
  • Umbrella Movement (2014)
  • Extradition Bill (June 2019)
  • Protests and Standoff (June 2019 – October 2019)  
  • Resolution?

For the purposes of the workshop, I told the story lecture-style, with a handful of images. For closer-to-full independence, I’d write a brief narrative for my students and chunk it exactly I storyboarded it. I had also culled six short news excerpts describing the main events of the protests from June to October — Box Five in my storyboard. I’d have given my students that chunked source and directed them to storyboard that on their own. The source is easy to read and pretty dramatic. (The last episode is the shooting of a young protester in the face by Hong Kong police.) At the workshop, for the sake of time, I just told that story, too. 

The coolest way to let students lead on Question Two is to have them nominate targets of inquiry: identify the actor in the story whose decision or action is the most complicated, peculiar, or puzzling. Depending on time and student ability, you could let students gather their own primary sources and try to interpret them. In fact, I prepared two document packets, one excerpting statements by protesters, the other containing passages from two speeches by President Xi Jiping related to Hong Kong, once very recent, and one from a 2017 speech on the twentieth anniversary of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy that has governed Hong Kong, at least until now. At the workshop, we focused on Xi’s most recent comments. 

For Question Three, always the most challenging to prepare and teach well, I was lucky to find a terrific short article in the Financial Times called “Hong Kong since the turnover in charts.” Charts and graphs: those are solid clues that you’re in Q3 territory. That part was rich and efficient in the workshop. Participants came up with lots of ideas about the implications of changes in the economic relationship between the mainland and Hong Kong. As one participant noted, the economic dependency has shifted pretty dramatically. A less-dependent mainland could plausibly be expected to pursue a more muscular policy of integration. Meanwhile, there’s a housing crunch in Hong Kong, largely driven by the influx of mainland investment in the Hong Kong real estate market. The young people protesting in defense of their independent legal institutions may have literally been squeezed onto the streets. 

We concluded, as I would in class, with a discussion that, ideally, students could run themselves. The issues are clear enough: the protesters are defending their civil rights and staking a claim for political voice in running the territory they view as their homeland. The Chinese Communist Party considers Hong Kong an integral part of China and the British legacy of rule of law a vestige of imperialism. What do we think about that? At the workshop, it took a little prodding to get past interpretation and into judgment. (It’s always tempting, particularly in a room full of strangers, to avoid first-person arguments and instead offer up what others might think.) Once we broke the ice, we mostly supported the Hong Kongers’ demand for rights and democracy. But, as a room full of history teachers, we were aware that the “Century of Humiliation” is real to the Chinese leadership, and Hong Kong a key symbol of that history. The point, in any case, is less to settle the question than to cultivate a keener sense of the issues involved in the judgment. Judgment is easy — too easy — when we reduce conflicts to a single value or principle. The trick is to acknowledge the right level of complexity.    

The takeaway of the day for me and Jon was that people want to see the 4QM in action. Content lessons help people see what we mean when we say that history teachers should teach students to ask and answer the Four Questions. And doing new material increases the likelihood that keep old friends coming back for more. So stop by and visit us at the next NERC or MCSS. We promise to have something new to share!