Glove puppetry, also known as Budaixi (or Potehi in Taiwanese Hokkien), which literally translates as cloth sack theater, is a type of Taiwanese opera using cloth puppets. It originated in China but later developed and established itself as a national art form in Taiwan. It is one of the representative traditional cultures in Taiwan and also part of the precious collective memory of middle-aged and elderly Taiwanese.
By cohesion of puppet manipulation, poetic dialogue, traditional Chinese music and special effects, glove puppetry is a combination of art, literature, music, animation and creativity. A unique characteristic of glove puppetry that is one puppet master can take on all roles, from a little child to an elderly man.
Imagine a situation: What will iGEM become lacking of enthusiastic organizers and participants? It could be difficult to continue.
Just like iGEM, any outstanding concept has to be handed down for continuous development, and this requires groups of people to work on it from generation to generation.
During our interview with Mr. Jia-Min Tzeng, the head of the glove puppetry troupe known as Wu Zhou Sheng Yi Ge, we realized that glove puppetry is facing struggles and frustrations in passing down its skills. With the prevalence of technologies and new entertainments, glove puppetry is gradually disappearing from the public. The current generation has had less chance to be in touch with this traditional craft, not to mention learning and promoting it. This results in difficulties of carrying on glove puppetry and passing it on to the next generation.
Another reason that glove puppetry does not gain popularity among current generation is the language problem. Taiwanese Hokkien is the core element of glove puppetry. However, just like what we mentioned in the Taiwanese Hokkien audio recording activity (More information on Media), this language is widely used in past generation but not in current generation. This causes to lack of spaces for survival of this folk art too.
Inclusion: Integrating Traditional and Contemporary
Under the challenge of maintaining this traditional art, most glove puppetry troupes will try to fit into contemporary mainstream culture in order to attract the new generation. They have tried various innovations and reforms by adding advanced elements like technologies, special effects, and modern music. They also pay attention to how the content of the performance relates to our daily lives or current issues.
That is the reason for our collaboration. We wanted to bring innovations to both science communication and glove puppetry, so we incorporated science into glove puppetry, turning it from conveying stories and traditional values into a platform for disseminating science. This kind of deduction was not only a breakthrough of art, but also a breakthrough of science as we brought something new to glove puppetry thorough science and maximized our impact of disseminating science thorough glove puppetry. We hope that at the same time we popularize scientific knowledge, we could also offer an avenue for glove puppetry to show the charm of this distinctive culture in Taiwan on the world stage. (See our outcome on Science Communication!)
Just like glove puppetry passes on the traditional craft by keeping pace with developments in the world, we realized that science communication is also a continuous process. During this process, we have to link up with more communities representing different fields and perspectives. We should be willing to accept and work with those from diverse perspectives, including them in consideration of science. By this, science could embrace elements that make it more widely recognized.
Essentials for the Glove Puppetry Show
Script: a story about dengue composed by us in Taiwanese Hokkien.
Puppets: wooden heads with woven clothes and bodies. Generally, the puppet master places the index finger inside the head while the thumb and middle finger operate the arms.
Scene: outdoor and indoor scenes included. To show the texture and delicate movement changes, black screen and stage lightning were needed.
Manpower: as one person can only manipulate two puppets at maximum, manpower was required to manipulate the puppets simultaneously when taking a shot of many puppets. Everyone should be careful not to expose heads and arms to the camera (it was pretty hard!).
Photographic equipment: professional photographic equipment is required to capture the best shots showing the motions and emotional expression of the puppets.
Post-production: included video editing, background music and subtitles. Background music is an important part of glove puppetry.
Ming Yang High School
Life in a Juvenile Correction School
As of 16th October 2020, there were 117 students in Ming Yang High School, ranging from 18 years old to 23 years old. About 40% among them had committed a drug-related crime, while 20% were related to sexual harassment. Due to their prison terms, many of them have to stay in the correctional school for more than three years.
No electronic products or personal belongings are allowed; educational materials had to be checked and approved before we could bring them in. The class was constantly monitored by teachers or instructors during the whole lesson, which was a source of pressure for us. But that’s what the students experienced 24 hours a day.
They showed great interest in everything we brought in. For instance, we brought in nearly spoiled fruits that had been stored for one week, in preparation for the fruit DNA extraction experiment. The teacher told us that they would probably eat the fruit if it was not nearly spoiled. This is because things from outside the school, which they called ‘from society’, they almost never see daily in school. They were also full of curiosity about us, who ‘live in the society’. They would surround us and chat with us during break of classes to know more about us, our university life, and things happening in society.
This made us wonder about their connection with society. From the teacher, we knew that many things that are normal in our life, such as fruits, are normally prohibited in the school. Without any other communication tools, their connections to society were limited to only one hour of watching news, listening to radio, or reading newspapers. With the walls around them, they were rejected and isolated from society.
Distance from Science
Apart from deprivation of freedom and distance from society, they are also limited in education opportunities, particularly access to science.
We raised a question before the lesson: Do you think that science is useful for you? Some replied no, while most of them were silent. It seemed that they had never thought about this question before.
Why? Perhaps science is absent from their experience.
We found in interviews with teachers from Ming Yang High School that science occupies only a small proportion of their curriculum. Apart from MOE (Ministry of Education) mandated curriculum like Chinese, English and Mathematics, most of the courses taught at Ming Yang High School focus on hands-on operation and skill training, like woodwork, ceramics, car repair or cooking. Those skills are considered more helpful than academic knowledge in order to help them master life skills for the future. Even the students themselves have never thought about what science could bring to them. Most of the students will look for jobs after leaving school, while a few will continue their study. However, no matter which path they chose, science is not under consideration. Their possibilities are limited, and they have very few options for their future.
We understood their learning situation better after the first week of class. Having left formal education for a long time, the disparity in education level and learning ability between them and normal teenagers was huge. They could not concentrate for long during a lesson and would become restless or refuse to participate if they found the lesson too theoretical. That is why science was excluded from their curriculum. The school reckoned science to be a theoretical subject which was too hard to understand and not as practical as skills.
This situation is similar to what other underrepresented communities experience in science. If they don’t feel included in the science community, they will leave and the opportunities for science will continue to be inequitably distributed.
However, science is not what they thought. Science is not just theories. It can be everywhere, easy and fun to understand, and even practical. We wanted to break their conventional thinking by revealing the approachable side of science and showing them how science could provide a further perspective for their future as well.
Taking their starting point into consideration, their low understanding of science, we thought that starting from synthetic biology, which requires lots of basic biology knowledge, might not be a feasible way to show the accessibility of science. Thus, rather than disseminating synthetic biology, we wanted to promote basic scientific knowledge that was practical and close to their life.
Various pictures and videos were used to make the lesson accessible and understandable as visuals are always a good way to simplify complex concepts. Examples that are close to their lives could make knowledge transfer easier. We hosted discussions to encourage them to participate in science. We also tried to catch their attention with educational tools like bacterial plates, children’s books and hands-on activities. (More details on Science Communication)
From this activity, we realized that science communication should not be a top-down or one-way transmission. We have to humble ourselves and understand the situation of those underrepresented communities. By finding out their difficulties and barriers to science, we could adjust our teaching, finding engaging ways to break those barriers and bring science closer to them. Only when the relationship between us is more equal, can communication of science be done successfully.
Moreover, we found out that sometimes the problem of inclusivity is due to the conventional thinking of underrepresented communities. They have to overcome their thoughts that science is too difficult or “not their thing but only for experts”. Science may be complicated, but it can also be simple and intriguing. They should try to step out of their world and participate in science too without being limited by their own thoughts.
We have to admit that a two-day course does not provide enough evidence to declare that we successfully let them step into the world of science, as it was impossible to transform their opinions of science in such a short time.
However, what we discovered was the society is still prejudiced and suspicious of people who committed a crime before, which makes it difficult for them to re-enter society. Through our efforts, we hope that they could realize that they do not have to struggle to find a place in science. Science will not exclude them but accept them unconditionally, as science is for everyone, including them.