2006 PhD graduate, Si Jia, passes away

Si Jia, a 2006 graduate of the PhD program in EALC, passed away on October 11 after a brief illness.  A remembrance of, and tribute to, Si Jia from her advisor, Dr. Victor Mair (below) conveys the deep sadness with which we report this news.  Our most sincere condolences go to her family.


I was stunned and deeply saddened when I heard the news that Si Jia had passed away on October 11, 2020.  Her death was completely unexpected.  She was so young, only 42, and the last few times I saw her in recent years, she seemed happy and healthy.  Si Jia was a tenured professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, a position to which few can aspire.  She was at the peak of her young career, so the news of her passing struck me as a bolt of lightning.  It is especially heartbreaking that she leaves behind an eight-year-old daughter whom she dearly cherished and her husband, a distinguished classicist, who was the love of her life.

The cause of Si Jia's death was pericardial mesothelioma, a very rare form of cancer that affects the lining of the heart.  She became aware of her disease on the morning of June 3rd, 2019 when she was hospitalized and underwent surgery for it.  By mid-July, it seemed that she had recovered, but the relapse came suddenly and took her away from her friends and family.

Si Jia came to Penn in the Fall of 2001.  I'll never forget the evening when Wang Jiajia, who had arrived at Penn in 2000, the year before Si Jia, brought her to my office.  They knocked on my office door.  When I opened it, they marched in and announced, with broadly beaming smiles on their faces, "Hi, I'm Jia!  And I'm Jiajia!  We're Jia Jiajia!"

There are many other indelible moments that I recall from the years when Si Jia was at Penn.  One in particular was when she participated in a high level Buddhist text reading class.  Surrounding a long table, there were about twenty-five graduate students, visiting professors, auditors, and other serious attendees who participated in the three-hour seminar once a week.  Si Jia sat to my left near the head of the table.  She often nibbled on snacks, but I didn't mind because I was actually concerned that she needed to put on some weight.  With her eyes wide open, she was always alert and attentive, but when I called on her to recite or respond to a question, her face would flush red and she would break out into a sweat.  Sensing that she was far too tense for her own good, I had a chat with her one day and said, "Si Jia, you need to calm down.  Why don't you try to take some yoga classes?"

Several weeks later, I noticed that she looked much more relaxed, so I asked her how she did it.  She replied, "Professor Mair, I followed your advice and signed up for yoga classes."  "Great!" I exclaimed.  "What kind of yoga are you doing?"  "Hot yoga!" she said merrily. "I'm cool now."  We had a good laugh over that.

Si Jia graduated from Penn with a PhD on August 4, 2006. The title of her dissertation is "The Circulation of English in China, 1840-1940: Historical Texts, Personal Activities, and a New Linguistic Landscape."  I was her supervisor, and her committee members were Harold Schiffman, Susan Naquin and Michael Lackner.

All of her teachers were proud and pleased to watch Si Jia as she became a mature, productive scholar.  Her official bio page on Fudan's History Department website lists her many publications in English and Chinese, the lectures she gave all over the world, her academic exchanges, and the many research projects in which she was engaged.  One that impressed me the most was her intensive investigation of Robert Morrisons's (1782-1834) epochal Dictionary of the Chinese Language  (1815-1823), including its lexicograhical principles and impact.  Si Jia spared no effort to trace the history of the massive dictionary's printing and reprinting, visiting libraries, archives, and rare book collections in numerous cities in different countries.

At the same time she undertook such profound scholarly research, Si Jia also paid attention to the role of language in daily life.  When she came back to Penn in 2017, Si Jia gave a lecture in Grace Wu's CHIN 231 class about "dialect, culture, and identity". She told the students the story of her daughter reciting Shanghainese nursery rhymes, and explained that, when people are young, they are naturally sensitive to their own language environment and gradually form a unique cultural identity.

The ability to balance academic inquiry with personal insights and feelings is the mark of a genuine humanist.  Si Jia was certainly one.  She will be sorely missed.