Childhood, Theater, and the Taipei Children’s Arts Festival 2000-2011


A review of The Representation of Taiwanese Childhood As Reflected in Taiwanese Theatre for Young Audience of The Taipei Children’s Arts Festival 2000-2011, by Yi-Ren Tsai.

Seeking to expand the discipline of childhood studies in Taiwan, especially in the field of the arts, Yi-Ren Tsai examines specific theatre for young audiences (TYA) artifacts from Taiwan’s largest arts festival, the Taipei Children’s Arts Festival (TCAF), in order to uncover Taiwanese notions of child and childhood. Shining a theoretical lens on Taiwan’s growing TYA field, Tsai’s interpretation of childhood expands Performance Studies scholarship within theatrical performances created for children. This wide-ranging text surveys the history of TYA within large parts of the Chinese world while examining Taiwanese historical and political developments. Utilizing major theories in childhood studies, Tsai offers a unique voice for readers from both East and West as she analyzes the nature of artistic offerings for young audiences.

The work is comprised of eight chapters followed by a catalogue of works cited, a brief appendix listing Taiwanese children’s theatre companies, and the 2011 TCAF playwriting competition and production rules. After introducing readers to the work in a compelling personal narrative and explaining her research methodology, Tsai surveys the history of TYA in Taiwan, introduces the Taipei Children’s Arts Festival, and reviews Western and Taiwanese literary constructions of the child and childhood. Her subsequent analysis of various play scripts, production videos, and TCAF program introductions lead to conclusions that allow for as many avenues for further study as they do rigid verdicts.

Tsai’s personal childhood experiences growing up in Taiwan provide a springboard introduction to early parts of the dissertation. In this circumstance, personal reflection leads to a deeper theoretical analysis as she points out the knee-jerk dichotomy that many make between the East and West, especially as it relates to views on childhood. Tsai contradicts Asian and Chinese stereotypes that Western media and the arts regularly offer, explaining that while she and her brother grew up in Taiwan, they participated in American consumer culture by watching programs such as He-Man, ET, and Back to the Future. By reflecting upon her own unique upbringing, Tsai sets out to interpret contemporary Taiwanese notions of the child and childhood using the field of TYA as her main discourse.

Chapter 2 gives a specific explanation of Tsai’s research methods, introducing the grounded theory of Barney G. Glaser and Anselm L. Strauss, which provides a systemic strategy for her fieldwork. Treating TYA texts as data for analysis within Kathy Charmaz’s guidelines for conducting grounded theory, while also using Johnny Saldaña’s coding manual for qualitative research, Tsai seeks to “turn mundane, familiar material into something fresh and unfamiliar” (p. 14). After introducing the reader to the specific material for analysis – “four TCAF award-winning scripts and their production videos, and thirty-six forewords/afterwords from festival programs or reports” (p. 20) – a brief acknowledgment is given to the challenges of this unique type of data interpretation, particularly since the text is written in English but the majority of the data in question is in Mandarin Chinese.

Chapter 3 charts the history and background of Taiwanese Children’s Theatre, introducing the reader to the numerous political changes that contributed to the larger development of theatre in Taiwan. This chapter follows a chronological timeline of nineteenth century theatre activities for/by children with a particular emphasis given to the development of TYA since the 1980s. According to Tsai’s historical analysis, numerous economic, political, and cultural events allowed for the rapid development of the modern TYA movement in Taiwan. The chapter concludes with an introduction to the larger and more influential professional TYA companies in Taiwan, explaining aspects of their origins while describing their influence on the field.

Tsai’s analytical data for this dissertation comes from scripts, production videos and festival programs associated with the TCAF and Chapter 4 gives an overview of this festival. Although the TCAF includes other artistic offerings such as visual arts, dance, and music, this chapter traces the growing importance of theatre to the festival. The sustained emphasis on theatre for young audiences in the TCAF event is seen in the public workshops offered to teachers, parents, etc. on educational theatre, story theatre, puppetry, and the TYA Playwriting Competition – with several of these award-winning plays forming the basis of Tsai’s research.

Chapter 5 explores the various philosophical theories regarding Western and Taiwanese constructions of the child and childhood. Tsai places classic Chinese philosophies alongside several proposed Western models of the child. These include “the evil child, the innocent child, the immanent child, the naturally developing child and the unconscious child” (p. 77). The implied dialogue between Western theorists (Freud, Piaget, Locke, and Rousseau) and Chinese intellectuals (Xunzi, Mencius, and Confucius) provides an engaging cross cultural understanding about the theoretical nature of childhood. Moving from this broader theoretical examination of childhood to specific case studies in Taiwan, Tsai surveys several additional cultural aspects of Chinese and Taiwanese attitudes towards childhood. This aside includes an absorbing look at the many Mandarin Chinese words for children with Tsai concluding that “the quantity of these terms potentially indicates a more complicated relationship between adults and children in Taiwan when compared to the constructions of the child and childhood in English speaking countries” (p. 98). She also introduces aspects of corporal punishment, family structure, a declining fertility rate, and filial piety as important elements in the backdrop to her specific data.

Chapters 6 and 7 provide the results of the coded analysis from the TCAF scripts, production videos, and festival programs and reports. After a thorough summary of the four main scripts in question, Tsai offers a number of categories for interpreting the data that offer various constructions of meaning regarding children and childhood. Some of these interpretations include the capacity of children to learn and grow, the nature of childhood fun and play, the vulnerability of children, the constructed memory of childhood desired by adults, and contrasts between the capability and agency of children at times with their powerlessness and need for care in other instances. Numerous examples from the material (i.e. quotes, descriptions of production details, acting choices seen in production videos, etc.) ground these interpretations.

Chapter 7 furthers these constructions of childhood by examining the forewords and afterwords from festival programs or reports. These writings are treated as interviews, written primarily to an adult audience (i.e. Taipei city mayor to adult patrons or festival organizer to parents) and heighten the ability to interpret attitudes as they provide direct statements on the nature of children and childhood from adults who have utilized their positions of power to construct a festival celebrating children. Some of the possible interpretations that emerge from these interviews include the childhood need for love and protection from adults, the balance between the need for children to learn with a desire on the part of adults to allow their children to flourish, and the need for adults to develop a deeper connection to their inner child by focusing on activities such as TCAF.

Chapter 8 summarizes the findings of Tsai’s data where she seeks to provide an overarching categorization in her goal of examining current Taiwanese attitudes toward children and childhood. “This single category explains adults’ desires to preserve children’s positive innate qualities, to enhance their agency, teach virtue, ensure their happiness, and to provide children access to the arts through lessons and new experiences that cultivate them as ideal future citizens” (p. 164). Despite the strength of this comprehensive summary, the text wisely indicates that many important aspects of Taiwanese childhood – familial relationships, peer friendships, gender issues – are not included here, thus allowing for Tsai’s call for further study.

By asking – “What factors contribute to the lack of sociological and philosophical studies of the Taiwanese child and the childhood in academia?” (p. 184) – Yi-Ren Tsai’s The Representation of Taiwanese Childhood As Reflected in Taiwanese Theatre for Young Audience of The Taipei Children’s Arts Festival 2000-2011 should come as an important new addition to this emerging field. Tsai cites Taiwanese historian’s Ping-chen Hsiung’s work in the 1990s and Cantonese author, Sin Yee Cheung as contemporary scholars working to uncover the historical precedents in Chinese/Taiwanese notions of childhood. However, Tsai’s dissertation can offer a new avenue for continued study, drawing on the growing field of TYA as valuable data in better understanding current Taiwanese constructions of the child and childhood – especially in light of the fluidity of our modern world.

Mark Branner
Assistant Professor
Department of Theatre and Dance
University of Hawaii, Manoa

Primary Sources
Analytical data comes from four Taipei Children’s Arts Festival (TCAF) award- winning scripts and their production videos, and thirty-six forewords/afterwords from festival programs or reports.

Dissertation Information
Arizona State University. 2012. 216 pp. Primary Advisors: Roger Bedard and Stephani Etheridge Woodson

Image: Taiwanese child, 2015. Photography by Yen Lung Chen and used with creative commons licensing.

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