The effort of scholars in the People’s Republic of China to discredit the claim that the kingdom of Nanzhao (~8th-9th cents.) had been Thai/Tai culminated in 1990 with the publication of a bilingual book (in Chinese and English) called Whence Came the Thai Race – An Inquiry (泰族起源問題研究 – the Chinese title means “Research into the Problem of the Origins of the Thai Race”).
In this work, we can find arguments like the following:
“Grammatically the Nanzhao language and the Thai language are entirely different. In the Thai language, the prince is referred to as “chao fa,” and the king of Chiangmai is referred to as “Chao Nakorn Chiangmai.” However, in the Nanzhao language, there were terms like “Mengxi Zhao” [The Chinese text has Yuexi 越析 instead of Mengxi 蒙嶲] “Mengshe Zhao,” etc., which would have been written as “Zhao Mengxi,” “Zhao Mengshe” if we were to write them in accordance with the Thai language word order of putting the modified before the modifier. This shows that there is a very marked difference between these two languages.” (pgs. 189-90)
One problem in this brief passage is the assumption that there was a “Nanzhao language” (南詔語). If Nanzhao was a multi-ethnic polity, as many scholars argue, then why would there be a Nanzhao language? Wouldn’t it have been the case that people were multi-lingual? In which case, what is this “Nanzhao language”?
Another problem is that the scholar here is assuming that a term in one language would get transferred into another language without any alteration. Therefore, if the ruler, or zhao, of Mengshe, is written in Tai languages as “Zhao Mengshe” (“ruler of Mengshe”), then it should pass unaltered into Chinese as 詔蒙舍/Zhao Mengshe. However, since Chinese texts contain the term Mengshe Zhao, which is in the Chinese word order (“Mengshe ruler”), this author concludes that such a term could not have been referring to someone who was Thai/Tai.
While it’s problematic to assume that terms would pass unaltered from one language to another, in the case of a term like “Mengshe Zhao,” part of the term did. “Meng” appears very frequently in works about Nanzhao, and it is clear that it is the same term as “muang” in Tai languages, meaning a “polity.”
As such, “Mengshe” is probably “Muang She.” And “Mengshe Zhao” is “the ruler of Muang She.” “Mengshe” is in Tai word order.
So what a term like “Mengshe Zhao” represents is cross-cultural partial communication, which is, I would argue, exactly what we should expect to see when Chinese wrote about non-Chinese peoples over 1,000 years ago.
It also suggests that there were Tai-language speakers in Nanzhao. PRC scholars do not want to recognize this, but the way that they have sought to deny this has been too simplistic. It’s time for someone to look through the sources on Nanzhao again. What that person will probably find is that while it may not have been a Thai/Tai kingdom, there were definitely Tai-language speakers there.