CHIANG RAI – Mu Tianfeng, a 16-year-old high school student in northern Thailand, does not remember the last time he arrived home from school before sunset.
For the teenager, who is of Chinese origin, the pursuit of knowledge is more painstaking than most of his peers, as he doubles his studies by attending two schools in one day.
At his regular Thai school, Mu stays until 4 p.m., when most of his fellow students happily call it a day and go home. But without a break, Mu continues on to his second educational stop: a Chinese-language school.
Ranging from the study of Chinese classics like Lun Yu (The Analects of Confucius) and Di Zi Gui (Standards for Being a Good Student) to modern mathematics and physics, all of the courses offered by Da Tong High School are taught in Chinese. Mu and his classmates usually study at the school until 9 p.m. on weekdays and are also required to spend the whole weekend there.
“It is painful, but totally worth it,” said Mu in fluent Chinese.
For the 1,000 students currently registered at the school, which was established 30 years ago, Chinese is not a foreign language, but more like a mother tongue.
Most people living near the school or in the Man Xingdie village, which literally translates as a place covered with layers of stars, are descendants of a group of Chinese with a particular background. In the 1940s, their grandfathers, mostly Chinese soldiers, went to the border areas of Thailand and Myanmar from Yunnan in southern China. Their offspring, though born and raised as Thai citizens, were encouraged to remember that their roots lay in China.
Seven decades have passed, but the bond still exists. In northern Thailand, there are now about 90 Chinese-language schools like Da Tong, with more than 20,000 students and 1,000 teachers.
Located in Chiang Rai, the northernmost province of Thailand, the somewhat remote Da Tong High School has fostered generations of bilingual Thai-Chinese talent.
Some of the teachers at Da Tong are locals and some are volunteers from Hong Kong or Taiwan. Most of the students graduate with a high level of proficiency in Chinese and a good understanding of Chinese culture.
For more than 30 years, the school has carried on a unique tradition: all the students must learn Di Zi Gui by heart. Those who fail to do so will not receive their graduate certificate.
For Zhang Mingguang, director of the school, the reason to hold on to the Chinese identity is both historical and practical.
“For people who live in those mountainous areas, they don’t have plenty of career choices. But the ability to speak Chinese has greatly enhanced their competitiveness,” said Zhang.
“After graduation, many of our students go to China for further study, or do business in trade or tourism in both countries. The Chinese language offers them a better future,” he added.
The booming Chinese economy and the increasingly close relations between China and Thailand have led to a craze for learning Chinese across the Southeastern Asian nation. Nearly one million Thais are now studying Chinese and more than 3,000 schools provide courses on Chinese language and culture, according to the Thai Education Ministry.
A lack of qualified teachers has prompted Thailand to cooperate with China, resulting in 12 Confucius Institutes having been established since 2006 and more than 1,000 volunteer teachers sent from China each year.
The desire to learn Chinese has grown in tandem with thriving tourism in Thailand. In Phuket, the most popular tourist destination in the country, the soaring number of Chinese visitors is estimated to top one million this year, and has required local people to learn some simple Chinese. As a result, Chinese-language schools and training centers are springing up like mushrooms.
Chaturon Chaisang, the country’s newly appointed education minister, said he has been learning Chinese for the past five years. He even released three solo albums of Chinese songs.
“Chinese is one of the most popular foreign languages for Thai students and our ministry encourages schools to open Chinese language courses,” Chaturon told Xinhua.
The minister said Thailand needs to further improve the quality of Chinese-language education and put more emphasis on practical skills such as listening and speaking.
“I hope those Chinese-language talents will become a driving force behind the ever growing Thailand-China friendship,” he added.