The Young Head of the Family

play adapted from a Chinese folktale by Edel Wignell , illustrated by Stephen Axelsen

Learning Intention:

I am learning how to recognise aspects of social, historical and cultural context so that I can have a deeper understanding of texts.

Success Criteria:

  • I can define social and cultural context.
  • I can recognise the written aspects of the text that reveal cultural elements such as beliefs, traditions and customs.
  • I can consider the traditional components of Chinese theatre and how these impact upon the performance of the script.

Essential Knowledge:

More information about how social, historical and geographical factors influence the construction of a text can be found in the English Textual Concepts video Context.

In depth information on the historical, social and cultural context of Chinese Theatre can be found in the online chapter Chinese Theatre from the Routledge Handbook of Asian Theatre.

Before reading, or introducing the text, introduce two elements of frontloading:

Introduce students to the concept of context. A good starting point is the Australian Curriculum Glossary:

An environment in which a text is responded to or created. Context can include general social, historical and cultural conditions in which a text is responded to and created (context of culture) or specific features of its immediate environment (context of situation).

Explain that knowing more about the social, historical and cultural context of a text deepens our comprehension of the text overall. Explain that texts can also sometimes teach us about social, historical and cultural context and that reading teaches us about the world.

Also, before reading the text, draw students’ attention to the byline. After the author’s name it says: “adapted from a Chinese folktale”. Ask students if they have heard of the word folktale.

Provide students with the characteristics of a folktale. (Suggested resource: Collins dictionary entry for folktale.)

  • A tale or legend that is traditional among a group of people.
  • Often passed down through oral retelling.
  • Usually, the original author is unknown.

Assign students roles and read the play as a class. Alternatively, you can listen to a recording of the text on The School Magazine website.

After reading, explain to students that the play contains lots of information about what life was like in China a long time ago. We can learn details about the social and cultural context from the play. Ask students to identify what life was like in China. They may identify the following points:

  1. Daughter-in-laws moved in to live with their husband’s family.
  2. Mothers were the head of the family.
  3. Jade was a valuable stone that people would spend money on.
  4. Mandarins were the names given to government officials. They had a lot of power and could order families to do things.

Remind students that, because this is a folktale, some of the information may be unreliable. Students may like to cross-check or confirm these contextual details through research on Ancient China. (For example, it was generally fathers, not mothers who were the head of the family). Suggested resource: DK Find Out! Ancient China.

Explain to students that sometimes research or prior knowledge of social, historical and cultural context enhances understanding of a text. Provide students with contextual information about traditional Chinese theatre:

  • Chinese Theatre contains many examples of symbolism
  • Chinese Theatre often told stories with strong moral messages for the illiterate masses
  • Chinese Theatre had a strong musical component
  • Chinese Theatre contained chanting as part of the performance (in fact most lines were sung or chanted, rather than spoken)

Then show students a clip providing examples of Chinese Theatre staging, Cultural performance: Highlights of Chinese Theater.

Keeping these contextual details in mind, read through the play again. After reading, ask students to comment on what they noticed about the play this time and how contextual details enhanced their understanding of the play.