Chinese Loanwords Record Cultural Fusion – From Chiang Rai to Chengdu and Back: Wangsantiphap Phisonlaya Returns to Thailand with PhD in Comparative Linguistics

Interview with Naomi Thurston

June 2018: Daughter of ‘post 90’s’-generation Wang Xiangli graduates with a PhD in comparative linguistics

CHENGDU, 24 July 2018. Sichuan University is among China’s leading comprehensive universities enrolling full-time international PhD students in a growing number of fields and academic disciplines. Increasingly, Chinese universities are offering MA programs fully taught in English. SCU, for example, offers engineering and some humanities courses, as well as medical programs taught by international and Chinese faculty members who provide English lectures, course materials, and testing as a service to classes of international students from all around the world. For many PhD programs, however, students from overseas do what most students going abroad for degree programs do: they learn the language of their host country and do their course work in the primary language of their host institution. Graduate students courageous enough to tackle the course work for advanced degrees entirely in Chinese must commit themselves to intensive language study. As students like Wangsantiphap Phisonlaya from Thailand will confirm, however, the time and perseverance invested are not without reward. Wangsantiphap Phisonlaya – or Wang Xiangli, as her friends in China call her – has spent the past seven years in Chengdu, completing her M.A. at Sichuan Normal University in Chinese as a Foreign Language and her PhD degree at Sichuan University in comparative linguistics. For her doctoral dissertation, she examined Chinese loan words in modern Thai. Her experience of studying in China, by her own account, has been both tough and rewarding. The close friendships built during her rigorous studies here, however, mean more to her even than the degrees she is taking home with her this month.


June 2018. Wang Xiangli (left) after passing her PhD defense

June 2016. Wang (back-center-left) celebrates with graduating friends

What’s your impression of the classes you’ve taken here at SCU?

I really love my classes here: the professors are extremely well prepared for class, they’re all very “renzhen,” “meticulous and conscientious.”

Do you ever encounter difficulties with the language in class?

I took a class about the origins and development of the Chinese language, “Hanyu de laiyuan fazhan” which was rather challenging for me as an international student. But I’m really interested in the material, so I just asked the professor question after question. He was always prepared to answer my questions and took the time to explain things. The professors at Sichuan University are very patient and helpful, which makes learning fun, even when it’s challenging…

I also really appreciate my PhD supervisor. He realized that my PhD studies here might take me longer than the three years common for full-time Chinese PhD students, but he never gave me undue pressure. He was helpful and gave good advice. I also relied on the explanations of my Chinese classmates when I needed help with the language. I really appreciate my Chinese classmates here too.

Dr. Wang may be humble about her limitations in written Chinese when it comes to some rarely used characters or uncommon expressions. The fact is, however, that Wang wrote a 250,000-Chinese character dissertation and passed her oral defense with flying colors. Her dissertation is a tightly organized exposition on modern linguistic borrowing that meticulously categorizes the various types and forms of Chinese loanwords in modern Thai and, in light of the historical settings and background, examines how all of this came about.


At the SCU library: Wang Xiangli before and after defending her PhD dissertation,

“Chinese Loanwords in the Thai Language”

Why did you choose this field for your PhD research?

I have Chinese ancestors who came to Thailand from the south of China several generations ago. My grandfather even spoke some Chinese with us when we were growing up, although we never learned the written language when we were children. I’m interested in cultural contacts between Thailand and China. China is becoming more and more influential, both economically and culturally in in Southeast Asia and worldwide – some call this phenomenon “Chinese craze.” In Thai we use borrowed words like “kuaidi,” or “mala,” sometimes just altering the pronunciation a bit, sometimes changing the word class – from noun to verb, for example – and sometimes changing the meaning: the ways in which these changes happen is interesting. Why do these expressions make their way into Thai in the first place? It’s quite fascinating.

Oct. 2017. Wang’s hobbies in China: travel, soccer, basketball, and cheering on her favorite teams

Wang Xiangli isn’t only a researcher: she also loves Sichuan and the people of Sichuan. When asked what her favorite regional dishes are, she was quick to respond: Huoguo (“Chinese hotpot”) and Ganguo (“Chinese dry pot”). She appreciates the pace of life in Chengdu, the fact that people know how to enjoy themselves and life is more relaxed than in other Chinese megacities. While living in Chengdu, Wang did not just bury herself in books – her language fluency owes no small debt to countless hours she spent in recreational activities from playing team sports to travel and photography, to her participation in cultural and educational events and competitions, including her participation in “Chinese Bridge,” probably the world’s largest international Chinese proficiency competition sponsored by Hanban. Wang has also appeared on Chinese television and was the Chinese-Thai translator for a major Chinese TV show with a cult following in Thailand.

To supplement her academic scholarship, Dr. Wang also gave Thai classes at Sichuan Normal University, where she was much loved by her students, but gave up teaching after several semesters to concentrate fully on her PhD research and writing. Most of all, Wang Xiangli was a good friend to many Chinese and international students alike: a scholar and adventurer with personal courage and ambition, who also understood the need for human compassion. Her decision to return to Thailand to care for aging family members was met with sadness in her community of friends here in Chengdu. “You always introduced yourself like this: ‘My name is Wang Xiangli, “xiang” as in “fragrant” and “li” as in “beautiful.”’… It’s so hard to say goodbye. But I fully expect you to come back…,” writes one friend.

Dr. Wang plans to continue her studies in comparative linguistics with further research on language contact and borrowing after delving into other foreign languages she wants to compare to her native Thai – including English. In a sense, her dissertation already dealt with multiple languages, as she not only examined modern loanwords from standard Mandarin, but also Cantonese, as well as the Hokkien and Hakka dialects, which are quite different from spoken Putonghua. Upon returning to Thailand, Wang Xiangli will not just be taking her diplomas back with her, but also the necessary intellectual preparation and cultural experience in order to play a meaningful role in cross-cultural understanding between China and her home country.


“Goodbye, my beloved Chengdu.”

- Wang Xiangli, international student from Thailand, graduated in June 2018 with a PhD in comparative linguistics from SCU’s College of Literature and Journalism