Chinese 124: Puppets, Photo Credit: Hsin-hung Yeh
In winter 2020, the UCLA department of Asian Languages and Cultures (ALC) introduced a new course on Taiwanese language and culture into its Chinese program. The course was developed with support from the Asia Pacific Center’s Taiwan Studies Lectureship (TSL), which is funded by the Taiwan Ministry of Education and the UCLA College of Letters and Science Humanities Division.
The new course introduces Taiyu (or Taiwanese, also known as Minnan, Hoklo, or Hokkien) through an examination of different forms of cultural production, including pop music, traditional and modern theater such as gezai opera and glove puppetry, documentary, and other media. The two-quarter sequence on Taiwanese Language and Culture was developed by Dr. Lin-chin Tsai, who received his Ph.D. from ALC in 2019 and served as visiting professor there from 2019 through 2021. The course is currently being taught remotely by Dr. Hsin-hung Yeh, who received his Ph.D. in Chinese linguistics from Stanford University. The prerequisite for enrollment in the course is one year of Chinese language coursework.
About the Course 
Taiwanese Language and Culture aims to demonstrate the multicultural and multilingual features of Taiwan’s society by foregrounding the languages that Taiwanese people use, with a particular focus on Taiyu and its diverse manifestations in cultural production. The 4-unit course meets for a 2-hour lecture plus 1-hour discussion each week. When designing and instructing the course, Dr. Tsai not only provided the students with different types of cultural texts featuring Taiyu, but also examined these texts in a transnational context, comparing Taiyu with the Hokkien used by the Sinophone communities in Southeast Asia (e.g., Singapore, Malaysia, etc.).
Dr. Tsai adopted “student-centered learning” as the core pedagogy of the course. Each student was asked to do one presentation on one of the course topics, based on the readings, and introduce one Taiwanese pop song to the class. According to Dr. Tsai, most of the students greatly enjoyed presenting Taiwanese pop songs, as they were able to understand the significance and diversity of Taiwanese music culture from the perspective of language. In addition to regular lectures, Dr. Tsai also invited guest speakers with different specializations, who brought insightful perspectives in their areas of expertise to the class.
Dr. Yeh, who brings a rich teaching background to the course, began teaching Taiwanese Language and Culture in winter 2022. He considers it a challenging but rewarding experience. He has taught Chinese as a full-time lecturer at Harvard University and is currently teaching Chinese and some core curriculum courses at Santa Clara University. Though the structure of the course had already been established, Dr. Yeh carefully fine-tuned the assessment and class activities based on his observations that students of different backgrounds might perform differently in different learning contexts. For example, non-native speakers and heritage speakers of Chinese might feel more comfortable speaking in front of the class, while native speakers of Chinese might find it challenging to talk about Taiwanese cultures in English. Therefore, Dr.Yeh tried to make the learning environment more inclusive, productive, and effective to reduce the students’ learning anxieties and increase their learning motivations.
To begin with, Dr. Yeh used the concept of “flipped classroom” to design a preview assignment, which pushes students to write a short response to the assigned articles and movies in advance. Meanwhile, he incorporated certain online collaborative writing and editing tools into in-class activities to encourage the students who were unaccustomed to speaking in class to deliver their ideas and comments. Dr. Yeh’s inclusive teaching methodology received positive feedback from the students, who felt highly engaged with the course materials. In general, Dr. Yeh found the quarter memorable: “I believe this experience has injected many more exciting ideas into my teaching and sparked my interests in teaching similar courses in my future academic career.”
Student Experience
The class is fully enrolled every quarter with around 25 students. So far, it has received many laudatory evaluations from students. Liqing Rao, an undergraduate Chinese major, enrolled in the course because she was interested in Taiwanese culture. Even though she had listened to lots of Mandarin songs produced by Taiwanese, she had not had a chance to further explore the history and culture of Taiwan. While taking this class, she learned that Taiwan was influenced by Japan during the occupation period in many aspects. For example, during the Japanese occupation, gezai opera performers were required to wear Japanese clothes and sing in Japanese. In addition, she learned that many indigenous languages, such as Amis and Atayal, are spoken in Taiwan in addition to Mandarin, Hokkien, and Hakka. Last but not least, Rao was very interested in puppetry (霹雳布袋戏), saying it “intrigued me a lot, especially the size of the puppets and how they can be used to make a series of TV shows.”
Ziwei Liu, an M.A. student from the East Asian Studies program, took the course because of her interest in Taiwanese cinema. Liu’s own research focuses on contemporary Chinese-language cinema, but prior to taking Taiwanese Language and Culture, she mostly encountered Mandarin-speaking works. “This course has really broadened my horizon and introduced me to the diversity and uniqueness of Taiyu cinema,” said Liu. As a student from mainland China, Liu has not only learned about Taiyu and its cultural manifestations in relation to the history and society of Taiwan, but also gained new understanding of the intertwined relationship between Taiwan and mainland China.
ALC offers comprehensive instruction in the languages, literatures, and cultures of Asia, including various linguistics courses that explore the intertwined relationship between language and culture. Yet, there were no specific courses that incorporated Taiwanese language until 2020, thanks to the support of TSL. According to Dr. Hongyin Tao, professor of Chinese language, linguistics, and applied linguistics, and coordinator of the Chinese language program in ALC, the department is trying to introduce languages and cultures in an integrated way. The integration gives students both a taste of the language and its culture. sparking their interest in exploring the relationship between linguistics and culture through more specialized courses. “So far I think we have been successful in attracting students to our field and we would like to see this course series not only sustain but grow further,” said Dr. Tao.
Published: Monday, June 13, 2022
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