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The Sound Of Musicals in China

The cast of Broadway Asia’s 2016 production of Jay Chou’s “The Secret.” (Photo by Wang Xiaojing)

In this latest Guest Blog, Laura MacDonald, an Arts & Humanities Research Council funded International Placement Scheme Fellow asks “Japan and Korea have embraced and nurtured Western-style musicals. Can China be far behind?”

The blog post originally appeared in American Theatre and our sincere thanks is given to them for their kind permission to republish.

After a brief out-of-town tryout near Shanghai, the cast, crew, and creative team of the new Chinese jukebox musical The Secret journeyed north to Beijing for opening night last Dec. 23. It was a bad time to travel, as “airpocalypse”—the worst air pollution of 2016—circled the capital city, grounding hundreds of flights. With restrictions on vehicles based on license plate numbers (to reduce road traffic), trucks carrying the physical production of The Secret had to be directed to the outskirts of Beijing, then unloaded and reloaded into vehicles with the right-numbered license plates for the day, before finally arriving at the Tianqiao Performing Arts Center.

Strolling through the Temple of Heaven park opposite the thea­tre the day before opening night, Marc Acito, the show’s librettist, recalled some of the challenges of bringing a new musical from a January table read to a December opening night in a country still in the early stages of adopting such Western musical theatre staples as workshops and previews.

Working initially with Google Translate for the lyrics, Acito wove Taiwanese singer/songwriter Jay Chou’s songs into the loosely adapted narrative of the 2007 film of the same name, which Chou co-wrote, directed, and starred in. Interpolating Chou’s hit song “Nunchucks,” Acito struggled to understand the lyric dong ya bing fu, a derogatory Japanese label for Chinese people that roughly translates as “sick man of East Asia.”

“We’ve already decided we’re going to use this martial-arts song as sort of a war cry during a rugby game,” Acito explained. Working with a translator to unpack the reference, he learned that it appears in the famous scene from the classic movie Fist of Fury in which Bruce Lee smashes a board with the insulting phrase on it; Acito realized that Chou was setting out to name and break this stereotype of national weakness. “So invoking this phrase invokes both the history of being perceived to be weak and the reclamation of strength,” Acito said, marvelling, “and it is one lyric.”

The Secret is a high school romance about gifted music students with a bit of time travel thrown in—Fame meets Back to the Future. At the table read in January at a studio in Shanghai, Acito and director John Rando agreed on Chou’s song “Dream Started” for the musical’s final graduation scene. It’s a song about seizing opportunities, smiling through setbacks, and persevering to achieve one’s dreams—in other words, themes and emotions familiar from Western musical theatre.

“This is very different from what the film was,” said Rando, who directs frequently on Broadway and at U.S. resident theatres. “One of our goals was to create a very uplifting and moving finale to the story that I thought would be much more appropriate for the musical theatre version of the romance.

“Spring Awakening” at Shanghai Culture Square in 2016. (Photo by Shadow Zheng and reproduced with kind permission)

Rando could be describing musical theatre in China in 2017. It’s a forward-looking industry, with a young—albeit not huge—audience that has fallen head over heels for the form. This enthusiasm went a long way when The Secret was work-shopped in April 2016 in Shanghai, in studios above the Daning Theatre, where an English-language tour of My Fair Lady was running. While Rando and choreographer Zach Woodlee, fresh from “Grease: Live!,” worked out the staging of a dramatic ensemble number, Acito quietly typed Chou’s lyrics in Pinyin (the romanization of Chinese characters) into his libretto, so he could understand, down to the last syllable, how Chou’s Chinese lyrics and his own dialogue (translated from English), were landing in rehearsal. With a Chinese counterpart for each Broadway veteran, conversations were flying back and forth in Mandarin and English. Wencong Chen, Rando’s assistant director, felt this doubling up helped “the musical to connect to the locals and also make it feel like it’s not a translated work.”

In promoting the musical to Chinese audiences, the show’s American producer, Marc Routh, said that they are trying “to explain to audiences that this is a unique opportunity to experience a homegrown musical with the craft and experience of a truly A-list Broadway creative team.” Conceiving, developing, and producing an original Chinese jukebox musical may have been the logical next step for Routh, co-executive producer (with Simone Genatt) of Broadway Asia. Routh has watched the progress of musical theatre in China for more than 20 years, while licensing American musicals in Asia and presenting English-language tours of titles such as The Sound of Music. In a long courtship process, he pitched treatments of Chou’s catalogue to the pop star’s manager before lining up a commitment to adapt The Secret. It was then that he recruited Acito.

Many Chinese people keen to enter the musical theatre business acknowledge that the form is still relatively new here. Despite a supply of talented and well-trained performers, there is not yet a wealth of Chinese artists versed in writing, directing, or designing for Western-styled musical theatre. Assistant director Chen, who also worked on Sleep No More  in Shanghai, thinks that collaboration with foreigners is what Chinese musical theatre needs to become more commercially and artistically successful.

“Especially for the creative talents, it takes time to grow and mature,” said Chen. “There still needs to be some more international collaboration to find talents across the globe and then to train the Chinese counterpart, and hone their skills.”

To further that cross-cultural education, Richard Fei, programming director of Shanghai Culture Square —a 2,000-seat theatre on the site of a former greyhound racetrack popular with Westerners in the 1920s and 1930s—has been programming a musical theatre development symposium every spring since 2014. Inviting experts from Europe, North America, and more established musical theatre industries in nearby Japan and South Korea, Fei programs seminars on topics such as producing, casting, marketing, and ticketing musical theatre. He also programs showcases of new musical theatre, seeking to stimulate the industry’s progress as much as possible.

Fei started out in the business at Shanghai Grand Theatre , translating and operating the subtitles for tours of CatsPhantomThe Lion KingMamma Mia!HairsprayHigh School Musical, and The Sound of Music before taking on his current position. Those touring productions gradually enjoyed longer runs in Shanghai and had a major impact on developing the audience now attending foreign tours at Shanghai Culture Square, where upcoming productions include GhostWickedSister ActLegally BlondeWest Side Story, and The Producers. Fei also produces one local production per season.

“This theatre is for the young generation,” he explained. That may explain why, in 2016, Shanghai Culture Square produced Spring Awakening, already popular with amateur student musical theatre groups. In 2017, Shanghai Culture Square will produce the Mandarin-language premiere of a Korean musical, My Bucket List, adapted from the 2007 Rob Reiner film The Bucket List. The musical version, which recasts characters created by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as young men, was part of a road show of Korean musicals promoted last year during the Shanghai Performing Arts Fair.

Fei also brings in British, American, and French musical theatre stars in revue shows, and collaborates with foreign producers such as Austria’s Vereinigte Bühnen Wien to bring original productions of globally successful musicals including Elisabeth and Mozart! to China, where they are performed in German with Mandarin subtitles.

Decades after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms reoriented communist China as a market economy, musicals—with their typically aspirational narratives—may seem a natural fit for a society that has increasingly embraced capitalism. Though foreign brand names punctuate Chinese cityscapes, the screening of foreign films is highly limited by government quotas, perhaps giving live foreign musicals an edge for Chinese consumers seeking a foreign cultural experience. With ample examples of successfully imported foreign musicals being regularly (and profitably) performed in neighboring Japan and South Korea, it is no surprise that savvy Chinese producers would seek to establish a musical theatre market in China, home of the world’s largest middle class.

Since George C. White, founder of Connecticut’s Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, directed a Chinese cast in The Music Man in Beijing in 1987, the Western musical has been popularized in China through productions of classics such as Man of La Mancha (first in English, later translated into Mandarin), but also through productions of more contemporary shows, like a replica staging of Mamma Mia! in 2011 and a localized production of Avenue Q in 2013. While Chinese producers, actors, and fans regularly travel to sample the wares in nearby Japan and South Korea, original Korean musicals are also being presented in China. The long-running Korean musical Laundry, about working-class neighbors pursuing their dreams in Seoul, was presented in Beijing with Chinese subtitles in 2016, and will be produced in Mandarin this year. From its Shanghai office, the Korean producer CJ E&M is also testing out Korean production models in China. These range from producing Stephen Dolginoff’s edgy, small-scale 2005 Off-Broadway musical Thrill Me to bringing a large-scale, star-vehicle Jekyll & Hyde from Korea, translated into Mandarin and directed by David Swan, an American.

If many of these musicals are still directed by foreigners, producers are increasingly coming from local ranks. Ivy Yang, who learned about musical theatre at Peking University, was working as a venture capital analyst in Tokyo, and noticed that musical thea­tre tickets were on sale in convenience stores. Recognizing an opportunity to develop the market at home in China, she returned in 2011 and reconnected with a director she met at Peking University, Joseph Graves, eventually forming the production company Seven Ages with her own savings.

Their first show was to be Man of La Mancha, which had been a hit in Japan and Korea. But when Music Theatre International asked for a license fee Yang could not afford, she flew to New York to personally persuade the musical’s composer, Mitch Leigh, to give them the license at a much reduced rate. Yang went on to produce Man of La Mancha in 2012 in English with Mandarin subtitles, then in translation. Avenue Q followed, with many tweaks in the script helping young Chinese spectators relate to Princeton (renamed Tsinghua, after the Beijing university) as he struggles to find a job after graduation. Graves also directed Seven Ages’ productions of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and The Sound of Music.

Chinese musical theatre is dominated by women like Yang, educated at elite Chinese universities, often studying abroad for a period (in her case, at Harvard), and initially working in banking or finance. While Yang’s employees in Seven Ages’ Shanghai and Beijing offices are clearly inspired by their boss, she hesitates to call herself a role model.

“Women hold up half the sky,” she points out, citing a famous pronouncement of Chairman Mao, and suggesting that it’s simply in the nature of Chinese women to work hard. With little initial funding, Yang has relied heavily on social media platforms to market her musicals and sell tickets. Julia Yuan, the company’s marketing director, started her career as an attorney but eventually quit law to work for Seven Ages, running its new media platforms, including Douban, Weibo, and WeChat, as the company prepared the Chinese premiere of Avenue Q. Like many working in musical theatre in China, Yuan doesn’t come from a theatre background, but she’s long been a passionate fan. Her primary task: to educate potential  ticket buyers on what musicals are exactly, and how they’re different from traditional Chinese opera and spoken drama.

To achieve this marketing goal, Yuan posts synopses and production histories on social media platforms, generating enthusiasm among musical theatre fans, whose positive comments are crucial to buzz around Seven Ages musicals. Seeking to connect musicals with other pop culture entering the Chinese market, Yuan has written articles and produced lighthearted videos about stars of Marvel films who also appear in plays and musicals, and has begun to attend Comic Con gatherings in Shanghai and Beijing, hawking pins and T-shirts emblazoned with the Avenue Q song title “If You Were Gay.” Seven Ages also collaborated with a Chinese LGBTQ group, promoting Avenue Q on its WeChat and Weibo accounts. Given the musical’s central theme of post-college aimlessness, Seven Ages also reached out to Chinese college musical theatre clubs, offering lectures and previewing some of the work that went into Avenue Q. As a result, that show is now among the most popular with Chinese student musical clubs.

Social media isn’t just good for marketing—it’s also how actors find out about auditions, often via a group chat on WeChat. The small, close-knit Chinese musical thea­tre industry is divided between the capital Beijing and the cosmopolitan finance center, Shanghai, requiring actors to shuttle between the cities for auditions and rehearsals.

Jenny Ding graduated from the musical theatre program at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and was quickly cast in the Chinese company of Mamma Mia!. She went on to appear in Cats in Korea and Miss Saigon in London. Rather than waste time off between jobs, last year she opened a suburban dance studio in Shanghai, where she teaches ballet. Even on the Dragon Boat Festival public holiday, Ding was at work, in case anyone found her dance studio via reviews on the social networking site Douban and wanted to tour the facilities.

Ding starred as Wendla in Spring Awakening last fall at Shanghai Culture Square and was due to play Lucy in the upcoming Jekyll and Hyde, but left that production before rehearsals began to play Nala in The Lion King, now entering its second year at the Walt Disney Grand Theatre at Shanghai Disneyland. “Every time I audition for a European or American director, they choose me as the first leading female, but if I audition for an original Chinese musical, I never get the job,” Ding said of her casting fortunes. A charming actor who radiates joy in performance, it’s easy to see how Ding appeals to directors and audiences. But in a young industry still experimenting with longer, even open-ended runs, her experience performing eight shows a week in Korea and London sets her apart from performers with less stamina and experience.

For now, even many Chinese musical theatre fans remain skeptical of homegrown efforts. Said Yuan, “Some Chinese artists, they think they can do musicals, and they try…” she trailed off. Wencong Chen concurred, explaining, “I think a lot of musicals right now in China—they write the script and write the music all separately, then create the choreography, then bring the actors together at the end, when all is created.” This can lead to storytelling redundancy, as each element may end up repeating points that have already been made, rather than integrating elements into a forward-moving whole. But while Broadway-style integrated musical theatre storytelling takes time, in China, Routh pointed out, relatively quick fundraising means projects also move quickly. The Secret has been completed in about a year.

Michael Rubinoff, producer of the Canadian Music Theatre Project that incubated Broadway’s Come From Away, is also contributing to the development of a new musical in China called Bethune. He’s recruited Canadian writers Neil Bartram, who will write music and English lyrics, and Brian Hill, who will pen the English book and direct, as well as Chinese playwright Nick Rongjun Yu, who will write the Mandarin lyrics and book. The musical is inspired by the life of Norman Bethune, a Canadian physician who helped bring Western medicine to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War in the late 1930s. “The team is collaborating to create a more Mandarin version to be presented in Shanghai, and a more English version to be presented in Canada,” Rubinoff explains. The first workshop will take place at the Canadian Music Theatre Project in September, followed by a workshop at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts ­Centre in May 2018, and a Chinese premiere in Shanghai in 2019.

Back in Shanghai in December, university students wrapped up amateur mountings of Mamma Mia! and Legally Blonde. The Leopold-and-Loeb-inspired Thrill Me was in its second run, having enjoyed a successful premiere in the summer of 2016. Across town, The Sound of Music was struggling to fill the 1,000-seat People’s Theatre, and there were technical glitches: The venue’s limited technical facilities and slow cuing meant drops representing the Alps or Nonnberg Abbey had to be raised and lowered mid-song to ensure they were in place in time for subsequent scenes. Bracing for another touring season, the production also had a banner prominently displayed in the lobby to recruit additional von Trapp children. Stage moms are few and far between in family-focused, academically minded China, making for an added challenge in casting and maintaining a full complement of von Trapp types. For their part, Chinese children and their parents have shown more interest in another Austrian import, as they’ve flocked to the musical Mozart!, performed in German with Mandarin subtitles at Shanghai Culture Square.

Despite these challenges—from air pollution to imperfect venues, from linguistic and casting hurdles to inconsistent audiences—Chinese musical theatre producers, performers, and spectators remain bullish on this popular Western form’s future in China. The potential is there: Institutions such as the Beijing Dance Academy and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music are training triple-threat performers, and new venues are under construction, such as the five-theatre Dream Center in Shanghai. The private equity fund China Media Capital is backing this building project, as well as producers like Seven Ages, and they’re also investing in Broadway imports like Something Rotten! through Kevin McCollum’s Broadway Global Ventures. And this spring AC Orange International, a Chinese entertainment company that has also invested in such Broadway musicals as Waitress and Sunset Boulevard, will present 85 performances throughout China of a touring production of Wicked.

These Western tours, of course, only raise audience expectations for the quality of Chinese-authored musicals. But Wencong Chen seems confident that with enough time, Chinese producers and artists can unlock this form in a new way. “There’s a lot of hot money coming to the market,” he said. “I think we just need to have some more patience to create small-scale, medium-scale, and large-scale musicals.”

Laura MacDonald is a senior lecturer in musical theatre at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K.  Information on the AHRC International Placement Scheme for 2018 is available on the website , which also contains details of regional events.  This years scheme closes for applications on 25th January 2018.

A version of this story appears in the May/June 2017 issue of American Theatre.

The Seven Ages staging of “Avenue Q,” which opened in 2013 and continues to tour. (Photo by Sun Yuqian)

 

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Emoji, Texting and Social Media: How Do They Impact Language?

In this latest Guest Blog, Alex Loktionov, AHRC International Placement Scheme Fellow at the Library of Congress, talks Emoji’s Texting and Social Media.  Join him in his discussions with Dame Wendy Hall, during her time as Kluge Chair in Technology and Society , and  Jessica Lingel, Kluge Fellow, Assistant Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania .

This Blog Post originally appeared on the Library of Congress Blog on 15th June 2017, and our thanks is given for their kind permission to re-produce.

I’m here with Dame Wendy Hall, Kluge Chair in Technology and Society, Regius Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton and early pioneer in web protocols; with Alexandre Loktionov, AHRC Fellow at the Kluge Center and an expert on hieroglyphic and cuneiform legal texts; and with Jessica Lingel, Kluge Fellow, assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on social media.

We ventured into talking about emoji and social media during a hallway conversation and thought it would be fun to pursue this further via blog.

The text of our Google Docs conversation was edited for length and clarity.

DT: There is much to explore, but it began with emoji, so let’s start there: elevated art form or corruption of language?

AL: For me, they’re essentially hieroglyphs and so a perfectly legitimate extension of language. They’re signs which, without having a phonetic value of their own, can ‘color’ the meaning of the preceding word or phrase. In Egyptology, these are called ‘determinatives’ — as they determine how written words should be understood. The concept has been around for 5,000 years, and it’s remarkably versatile because of its efficiency. You can cut down your character count if you supplement words with pictures — and that’s useful both to Twitter users today and to Ancient Egyptians laboriously carving signs into a rock stela.

DT: How does everyone feel about using emoji to write literature? The Library of Congress acquired an emoji version of none other than “Moby Dick” just a few years ago.

AL: I think you can definitely write literature with emoji — the question is, who will be able to read it? Do we have enough standardization in sign deployment? I think a full emoji dictionary/sign list would be necessary, unless, of course, we want to create a literature with multiple strands of interpretation (in a literal sense — where people see the same signs but interpret them in different ways).

JFL: I think part of it is about a fascination with how technology may be reshaping cultural production. I’m thinking of games around Twitter and literature, for example; the Guardian ran a challenge asking authors to write a story in 140 characters or less. (There’s a long and wonderful history of literature produced through challenges/games like these; I’m thinking of Shelley and Hemingway.) At the root, I think, is an anxiety around what it means to make art and how technology is making art better or worse.

DT: I’m optimistic because I see technological innovations opening up the range of what is possible artistically — Gutenberg, and so forth. On the other hand, certain technological turns have been very specific in their application. Think of Morse code: incredibly useful in certain contexts, but unlikely that we will ever write a novel in Morse.

AL: I think that gets to the heart of it — we have to think of the purpose of the means of communication, and in the case of emoji, we as a culture need to decide what they are: do we want them to be a bona fide script with full capability, or are they just a tool reserved for very specific purposes (alongside conventional means of writing)?

JFL: I don’t know about Morse Code novels, but Morse code poetry is definitely a thing.

AL: It’s also worth thinking about canonicity — can emoji become canonical, in a way in which originally purely utilitarian hieroglyphs could after several millennia? Are we in this for the long run?

DT: Right, will there ever be an emoji dictionary? Perhaps there is already?

WH: There is a crowd-sourced emoji dictionary. It’s not very helpful at the moment, but then, neither was Wikipedia initially.

AL: Yes, exactly — I know there’s a grammar (of sorts), but not sure about a dictionary. And the trouble is, you can write a dictionary or a grammar, but it then has to gain acceptance on a wide level to actually be of any use.

WH: Absolutely, this is all about evolution. If anyone took the trouble to formalize emoji at the moment, the emoji world would have completely changed by the time any formalization was agreed on. I’m not aware of a grammar for emoji. Shows you how little I use them really.

JFL: Well, in a very literal sense there is definitely an emoji dictionary, in that for emoji to function across different devices, they need to exist in unicode, which includes definitions of what each character/image/symbol means. But these definitions have little to say about the different cultural appropriations of symbols. Part of what Wendy and Alexandre are talking about here is the way that the flexibility of emoji has allowed for their popularity.

AL: Very true — maybe computers can standardize them in a way we humans struggle to at the moment. Computers communicating among themselves one day, maybe? With all the talk of artificial intelligence.

DT: It would be constantly updated and crowdsourced, so this would be a very different, rapidly evolving way of canonizing.

AL: Absolutely, and especially because levels of preservation are probably going to be very low. We probably don’t have as many printed emoji as we have hieroglyphs, alphabetic words or whatever else. They get used, and then so often just disappear into the ether. And (traditional) dictionaries rely on being able to collate attestations. So does canon, at least in conventional form.

DT: I’m curious about use. To play into stereotypes, my sense is that men use emoji less than women. This is coming from someone who can barely use a semicolon at the end of a sentence to indicate mirth;

DT: That is about my range of emoji use. What do you think, have men embraced this form of communication, or is it still uncharted territory?

AL: I definitely haven’t. I feel like I can maybe comment on it in an academic sort of way, but personally I’m very attached to our tried-and-tested alphabetic way of doing things.

JFL: Meh. I think this is very culturally dependent. My sense is that emoji use is somewhat bimodally distributed in terms of age. My undergrad students love emoji, but so does my mom. There is definitely a cultural preoccupation with whether or not men can or should use emoji. And then, of course, there’s a longstanding set of generalizations about women being better at communication than men, or perhaps more precisely, the idea that communication is a feminine skill, as opposed to hyper-rational thinking, which is typically (in the West) coded as a feature of masculinity. (Insert skeptical comments regarding women’s preoccupation with feeding families as somehow frivolous and men’s preoccupation with sports as manly, etc.)

DT: Perhaps there is an irony here, in that emoji originated, if I’m not mistaken, out of a corporate context, with a preoccupation with marketing and brand identity. And now, social media companies are seeking to measure emoji use to quantify emotional states and produce commercially useful data.

AL: That’s essentially the notion of the “determinative,” which is a central pillar of Ancient Egyptian. A single sign determines an emotional state, but the difference is that the sign accompanies a word for that state which is spelt out. Here it’s more complex and harder to quantify, I would imagine —  there are fifty types of happy emoji or whatever, with fluid meaning, how exactly do you quantify the intensity or “type” of happiness being felt? We’re back to the challenge of operating without a dictionary or standardization — effectively just power of the crowd. I think they are also very useful to non-native speakers (I’m thinking of members of my family in Russia, who try to express themselves in English, fail, and then convert to emoji-speak to get their message across).

DT: I’ll venture emoji are still looked upon with some suspicion, as in they are best used in frivolous types of conversation. Are they simply a parallel form of language, useful in some social contexts, or with new technological developments, are we moving toward greater standardization and perhaps a more formalized use?

JFL: Arguably, this goes back to the discussion of gender. Are emoji considered frivolous because they’re used to convey emotion, and thus feminized? There are also parallels to Twitter here, where early Twitter users were characterized as pointless and frivolous, even though these records of everyday life are deeply constitutive of who we are as a society.

DT: A great point. And now Twitter drives public opinion, policy and elections.

WH: Dan — here is the reference I sent yesterday that talks about the different ways men and women do and don’t use emoji.

JFL: Also, here’s an academic study (from 2000) about men vs. women using emoticons.

AL: We could end up with parallel scripts, perhaps. That’s historically very common — in my field, Ancient Egypt, there was a period, for example, when there were three scripts in operation simultaneously — one for carving on stone, and mainly to do with death; one for high-order literature, some royal administration and other important tasks done in life (written with a brush on papyrus); and a shorthand for routine tasks, like counting cattle or whatever.

AL: And again here, it’s noteworthy that these multiple scripts are a reflection of the different material forms of writing — on a stone surface with a chisel, or with a brush or reed pen on papyrus. The material on which you write is so important — in that sense I firmly believe that it’s natural for something like a smartphone to give rise to a new script.

AL: I love the emoji grammar. The sign list is basically essential to early Egyptological textbooks developed back in the Thirties, like this one, for instance (obviously it was digitized more recently).

WH: Don’t forget how the Chinese language has developed over the years and how they are using cartoons/pictures now to escape censorship. This is developing (I believe) into quite a sophisticated language that defeats the machines (at the moment).

JFL: Absolutely. Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick have written about how teens use cultural references to hide messages from people (read: parents) who are in their social networks but can’t follow cultural references. For what it’s worth, I’ve written a paper with Aram Sinnreich about different modes of hidden communication used by people who are incarcerated and how that could inspire forms of protest among media activists.

WH: There is ongoing discussion about when machines will actually be able to “understand” the words/pictures/concepts they are manipulating. When will machines be able to understand emoji? Will the evolution of emoji make cognitive AI easier or harder to achieve?

DT: Wendy can you say a bit more about cognitive AI? What do you mean by this?

WH: It has been defined as the fourth wave of AI (the first being Turing and Minsky in the 50s and 60s — can computers think; the second being the rule-based expert systems of the 70s and 80s; the third being the machine learning/deep learning systems that we can build today because there is so much more computing power than there was when AI was first conceived). We will have cognitive AI when machines actually understand the information/concepts they are dealing with. At the moment they appear intelligent (e.g . Siri) but without actually “knowing” what they are talking about. This is years away —  it will take another radical evolution in computers to achieve.

DT: It sounds like we are all optimistic about the creative potential of emoji — and perhaps alternative forms of communication in general. What I am hearing from Alex is that we have historical precedents in ancient language. Wendy and Jessa, you are pointing out their subversive nature — how activists and others are using new forms of language to circumvent traditional authorities.

AL: From a historical perspective, we’re certainly very rich in precedent — and in that sense I always feel a little surprised when people talk about modes of communication like emoji, or text-speak for that matter, as being somehow “new.” No — the technology driving them may be new, but the phenomenon of parallel scripts or using pictures to convey emotion (pictograms/determinatives) has been around for millennia. Society is currently adjusting to a new writing medium — the phone/tablet, or indeed even just the computer. In historical terms, even the computer is incredibly new. When paper first appeared in China, or papyrus in Egypt, there was a floruit of new written expression (it being a much more versatile medium than the stone surface which preceded it). Now we’ve got another medium which is more versatile than paper and, importantly, which has the capacity for instant deletion. In that sense, of course, emoji (or indeed anything typed on a computer) can afford to be more frivolous as its creator can send it back into the ether with one hit of the backspace. You can’t do that with an inscription.

DT: Well said, Alex. Jessa, Wendy, concluding thoughts?

JFL: 💁😃😂😆😐😕😦😪💀👀👌

WH: 👏

DT: Thanks everyone. It’s been super;

The Arts and Humanities Research Council International Placement Scheme  that Alex Loktionov applied for is likely to be open for applications between Mid Nov – Mid Jan 2018.  Check our website and twitter feeds for more information. And if you follow @ahrcpress and #ahrcips on twitter, you can then tweet back, adding an emoji…

We asked Alex about the application process:

‘I’d strongly advise people to apply to this scheme – and especially if initially you think you’re not the ‘right fit’. The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library and as such I’m sure it has something to offer almost any humanities scholar.

As an Egyptologist, I was a little bit unsure whether this opportunity would be right for me, as this place is not usually connected to ancient history. However, this has turned out to be a great benefit – I’ve discovered things in the collection which nobody in my discipline has looked at before, allowing me to situate my own research on Egyptian law within a broader framework of African and Middle Eastern justice.

The setting is extremely interdisciplinary – discussing, collaborating and networking with leading scholars in fields like computing and social media has proved really uplifting. I’d never thought that my subject could actually be this ‘relevant’ to the modern world before!’ Alex Loktionov

 


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Film: China: Cultural Encounters

To coincide with the GREAT Festival of Creativity, the latest film from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) looks at how the AHRC is leading the way in the bringing together of UK/Chinese academic partners in the arts, humanities, and creative industries.

The GREAT Festival of Creativity (2 to 4 March 2015, Shanghai) supports British businesses looking to secure opportunities and growth in China. More than 500 world-leading British companies will showcase the best of British creativity and the role it plays today’s world.

The Festival will be attended by business and thought leaders including Professor Rick Rylance, CEO of the AHRC. In this short film we hear from Professor Rylance about several projects, funded by the AHRC, involving partnerships with Chinese Universities and cultural institutions: from the ‘Ming: 50 Years That Changed China’ exhibition at the British Museum, to the ArtsCross project which brings together academics and artists from UK, China and Taiwan, to cross cultural, national and artistic borders.

The film also looks at the economic boom being experienced in the creative industries and how China is looking to the UK for models on how to understand and harness the value in practice based research in the arts and humanities.


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A Flurry of AHRC International Opportunities

International Placement Scheme (IPS)

The IPS call is open – as well as continuing with opportunities to visit some fantastic organisations in the USA and Japan, this year we have an exciting new host – the Shanghai Theatre Academy. The IPS scheme enables doctoral students, doctoral level researchers and Early Career Researchers to undertake a fellowship of 2-6 months. More information is available on the AHRC website and the deadline is 15th January 2015.

If you want to know what being a IPS fellow is like, we have several blog posts from previous award holders about their experiences, just click on the International Placement Scheme Tag to read more . We are always open to new suggestions of hosts, if you have a suggestion of somewhere that should be a part of this scheme, please do comment. One our current hosts, Harry Ransom center was previously suggested via a comment so it can work!

Cultural Heritage and Rapid Urbanisation Workshop in India

The AHRC, Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) and the British Library are organising a workshop on ‘Cultural Heritage and Rapid Urbanisation in India’. Funding is available for 20 UK based researchers to attend. Expression of Interest must be submitted by 4pm 30th January 2015. For more information please see the AHRC website.

International Co-Investigator continues

The AHRC pilot for International Co-investigator (Co-I) has been extended until 31st December 2016. We are very pleased with how this is progressing and have extended this to allow us to fully review all aspects of international Co-I on a grant through both application and award. International Co-Investigators are eligible on research grants, research networking and follow on fund applications (other schemes may also allow this but this is decided on a case by case basis so please consult call guidance).

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British Academy International Partnership and Mobility scheme

The British Academy has recently announced a new round of its popular ‘International Partnership and Mobility’ Scheme.  The scheme aims to support development of partnerships where research excellence would be strengthened by new, innovative initiatives and links.  The idea is that long term and ‘vigorous’ links will be forged through the scheme.  Its good to note that they highlight that ‘all partners’ should gain from the collaboration, suggesting perhaps that one sided bids won’t be looked on favourably.  This year, the scheme will support development of partnerships between the UK and a range of regions, including Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, South Asia, East and South East Asia.  Up to £10,000 per year is available per application. 

 Note that co-funding is available in China and Taiwan through funding organisations in those countries, if your research ideas and links happen to be relevant to those countries.  Although the funder in China (the Chinese Academy of Social Science) understandably sounds like it funds only social science, many of their institutes in fact cover disciplines that might be considered to be humanities.

 The deadline is 6th February 2013  and our understanding is that competition is usually fierce –  40 awards are to be offered in total.