"Purple mist coming from the east" cake

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Here is an interesting picture that Francois Dube took today in a cakeshop in Yinchuan, capital of the Ningxia Hui (Muslim) Autonomous Region, People's Republic of China:

Francois comments:

As usual in China, the menu introduces each cake with its name in Mandarin and in English (with plenty of mistranslations). But one cake was different: its very poetic name (紫气东来) was not translated in English, but in what appears to be Malaysian/Indonesian.

Before tackling the baffling Roman letter name for the cake, let's take a closer look at the Chinese name:

zǐqì dōnglái 紫气东来 ("purple air comes from the east" — a propitious omen)

The specific allusion is to the legendary account of Lao Zi ("Old Master") travelling to the west. He is met by the keeper of the pass, Yinxi 尹喜.

Here are some notes on the imaginary encounter for a hanging silk tapestry scroll depicting Lao Zi on his blue ox dating to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) in the National Palace Museum, Taipei:

It is said that when Lao-tzu went through Han Valley Pass, the official Pass Commissioner Yin Hsi felt the presence of a purple mist suddenly appearing in the air. He surmised that a great sage was passing through the area. Not long thereafter appeared Lao-tzu riding on his blue ox emanating from the east. Yin Hsi implored Lao-tzu to write down a book for later generations. Lao-tzu consented and left behind at Han Valley Pass the famous Tao-te-ching in 5,000 characters. After finishing it, he got on his ox and rode off to the west, never to be heard from again.

Now, what to do with "Sabingga sukdun dergici jimbi", the supposed Roman letter "translation" of the Chinese name of the cake? The first thing we must recognize is that it's not sui generis.

Without quotation marks, it yields 1,750 ghits.

Google kindly offers this suggestion:

Did you mean: sabingga sukun dergisi jimbi

That yielded 7 ghits.

Searching with quotation marks:

"sabingga sukdun dergici jimbi" yields no ghits

"sabingga sukun dergisi jimbi" yields the same 7 ghits that it garnered without quotations marks

But what language is it? This may sound strange, but my first intuition was that it is Manchu. I've seen a lot of Manchu material and even studied it a bit, and somehow "sabingga sukdun dergici jimbi" just struck me as Manchu. Before trying to figure out what it might mean in Manchu (if, in fact, it really is Manchu), I thought I'd enlist the help of Google Translate in determining what language it is.

sabingga sukdun dergici jimbi — detected by Google Translate as Malay, but Google Translate doesn't give a suggested reading for all four words together nor for any of them individually, if we take them as Malay

sabingga sukun dergisi jimbi — detected by Google Translate as Turkish, but Google Translate doesn't give a suggested reading for all four words together, if we take them as Turkish, though it does tell us that "dergi" in Turkish means "magazine" in English

Using the detect feature word for word:

sabingga is detected as Filipino (no English translation offered), but I've also found it in Manchu with the meaning "good omen" (that makes me very happy!)

sukdun — Esperanto (no English translation offered)

dergici — Danish (no English translation offered)

jimbi — Swahili ("crew" is offered as the English translation, but I don't put much faith in that, since going the other way, from English "crew" to Swahili, I get " wafanyakazi" [i.e., "staff"])

Based on this analysis, I'm not very sanguine about "sabingga sukdun dergici jimbi" being Malay, Turkish, Filipino, Esperanto, Danish, or Swahili.

The longer I looked at "sabingga sukdun dergici jimbi", the more it looked like Manchu to me, so I contacted several Manchu specialists, and they all agreed with me that it is indeed Manchu, and that it means what the Chinese name of the cake does:

sabi = omen, auspicious
-ngga = adjectival suffix; sabingga = "of good omen"

sukdun = air, spirit

dergi = east, imperial/emperor
-ci = ablative suffix

jimbi = to come

"auspicious spirit comes from the east"

Somebody must have gotten hold of the Manchu translation of Lao Zi's biography in Shi ji (The Grand Scribe's Records) or in the Liexian zhuan (Collected Biographies of Transcendants), which has the fullest rendering of this legend. I'm assuming that there must be Manchu translations of one or both of them.

More likely, though, whoever is responsible for equating zǐqì dōnglái 紫气东来 ("purple air comes from the east") with Manchu "sabingga sukdun dergici jimbi" ("auspicious spirit comes from the east") probably knew about it from a bilingual collection of set phrases (chéngyǔ 成语).

That would indeed come in very handy for those who wanted to come up with a poetic, literary name for some dish or product, since it would provide both the fancy Chinese and what looks like an international, Roman letter translation.

There is one last matter to take up, though, and that is why we find all or parts of "sabingga sukdun dergici jimbi" / "sabingga sukun dergisi jimbi" scattered around on the internet. It seems fairly popular among online marketers (e.g., Aliexpress) and is applied to a variety of products, including wallpaper (both "cheap" and "quality") and jewelry. Sometimes, however, it seems almost as though it were functioning as a filler text like lorem ipsum, but scattered about haphazardly amidst bits of English and other Western languages, including Greek.

Just as I was about to put this post to bed, I noticed that "sabingga sukdun dergici jimbi " has its very own Wiktionary entry, which tell us that it is Manchu and that it means the same thing as zǐqì dōnglái 紫气东来 ("purple air comes from the east").

[Thanks to Pamela Kyle Crossley, Leopold Eisenlohr, and Mark Elliott]


  1. Jonathan Badger said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 4:14 pm

    sukdun — Esperanto (no English translation offered)

    It could be interpreted as a dune composed of juice, although that seems rather unlikely word. I wonder if Google Translate simply says anything made out of Esperanto radicals is a valid Esperanto word.

  2. Gregory Kusnick said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 4:29 pm

    I gather north is down on this cake.

  3. Rubrick said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 4:36 pm

    That's just silly. Everyone knows dunes are composed of spice.

  4. P'i-kou said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 5:28 pm

    I blame overeager corpus-based machine translation, with the corpus being some online instantiation of A Hundred Phrases in Manchu (《满语一百句》) by Manchu specialist Guan Jialu 关嘉禄. A Hundred Phrases in Manchu is a Manchu phrasebook that hopefully contains some other information beyond those hundred phrases because these can just be found online.

    Guan Jialu's phrasebook progresses at a somewhat faster pace than other works in the genre:
    #4 What's your name?
    #38 Please drink tea. Please don't smoke.
    #43 Happy birthday!
    #58 The girl is quite pretty.
    #98 World cultural heritage.
    #99 Purple mist coming from the east.

    Other Manchu phrases from Guan's phrasebook seem to have been fed to the crawling translating monsters, as they pop up in random places just like the one that motivated this post. If I may quote:

    "[B]elongings of husband and wife agreed notarization can effectively protect the lawful rights and interests of ZaiHunZhe and successors, be helpful for social stability, gurun taifin irgen elhe. "

  5. K. Chang said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 10:48 pm

    @P'i-kou — sounds like some of those translator dictionaries in China incorporated the phrase books without checking the actual language. Wouldn't be the first time.

  6. Mark Mandel said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 11:52 pm

    Jonathan Badger suggested "a dune composed of juice". That would be sukduno, or else end with an apostrophe, sukdun', to indicate the missing final -o for a nominative singular noun.

    Otherwise, I can't imagine why this got labeled as Esperanto. The only Esperanto-y characteristic it has is that it ends in V+n, which marks the accusative case, singular number… except that the vowel in an accusative form is never "u", always "o" (noun), "a" (adjective) or sometimes "e" (adverb with accusative of direction) or "i" (pronoun).

    Oh, waitaminnit. There is one set of words that ends in "-u" and can take accusative "-n": the correlative series referring to individuals, which can function as modifiers or pronouns:
    tiu: that (one) : demonstrative
    iu: some (unspecified individual) : indefinite
    ĉiu: every, each : universal
    kiu: which/who, which?/who? : relative or interrogative
    neniu: none, no __, no one : negative

    But that's a damn small basis from which to extrapolate to the nonexistent "sukdun".

  7. Graeme said,

    May 24, 2015 @ 1:11 am

    The image looks decidedly like a pavlova. A meringue-like cake, typically decorated with fruit, over which Australians and Kiwis squabble for credit. (And whose name honoured a visiting Russian ballerina). It is devilishly difficult to whip from scratch but approximate efforts can be made from packet mixes. Could the light/airy/ness of meringue, and the fact that Australasia is east of China have inspired the poetic name?

  8. julie lee said,

    May 24, 2015 @ 7:42 pm

    Did I miss something? The picture with the cake is from the Ningxia Muslim Autonomous Region of China. Did they expect anyone to be able to read the Manchurian words there? Are there still people who can read Manchurian in Ningxia?

  9. Jeffrey Willson said,

    May 25, 2015 @ 2:32 pm

    Based on P'i-kou's observation, it seems that what we've got is a Manchu version of a Chinese saying, which made its way into a Chinese-Manchu phrasebook and from that into the corpus of a Chinese-English machine translator.

    What is unresolved is whether the person who created the sign had any idea that the phrase is not English. I wouldn't bet on it.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    May 25, 2015 @ 5:14 pm

    Exchange between Pamela K. Crossley and myself:


    i'm only a bit worried about this "purple" –not whether that is meaning, i suppose it is, but exactly how this is working. i know that in both the cases of 紫 and sabingga, purple (or "vermilion") is explicit or implied, and that in both cases it is related to some kind of plant i am not familiar with, that is either purple/vermilion in color or can be used to produce the dye. norman cites "sabingga sence i s[hacek]us[hacek]ngga saracan," which means something like "purple parasol [in the shape of] a sabingge mushroom." he only says "purple" there because of s[hacek]us[hacek]ngga, which means purple explicitly. the word sabingga itself doesn't have any real connotations of "purple." if means auspicious or propitious. i think what i'm missing here is the etymology/connotations of 紫。i can't find that it has any meaning other than purple/vermilion, but i think it must have, because the Qing scholars chose sabingga to translate it in this phrase. is there some meaning of 紫 that connotes lucky or auspicious? i originally thought there must be a meaning of sabingga that parallels 紫 as purple/red/vermilion/the color of the sky at dawn, but can't find it in available dictionaries. now i think the question is 紫. does it have some special meaning in daoism?


    in Buddhism, it is the color of the robes awarded to the highest ranking monks.

    in Byzantium and other western traditions, it is the color of royalty


    yes, i understand the auspicious associations of the colors –with the dawn/east (both elevation and east are united in manchu dergi), with the clothing of the highly-ranked, with the gates used for imperial entrance at Beijing (and perhaps at Chang'an?). but how does purple and rank get this association across eurasia? is it because this color was the earliest vivid color to be extracted from the plants that produce it? or, was it associated with a quality of the mushrooms or worts that produce it? or, was the some kind of homonymous association between the color or the plants and words for elevated rank in early languages of eurasia? there was some specific reason that qing scholars chose sabingga to use in this phrase (they did not use the same word to refer to 紫禁城, which they just called dabkûri dorgi hoton or "innermost city." there must have been specific reference that would draw these translators to translate 紫 in this particular case as sabingga, and it must be in chinese –either daoist or buddhist tradition.


    your questions about why sabingga was chosen to translate 紫 are very much to the point.

    purple was the royal color because it took thousands of murex shellfish to extract enough dye for one robe.

    I wrote this on the Indo-Eurasian Research list ten years ago:


    One of the reasons for the high value placed upon purple cloth was its
    sheer beauty, but the economic reality of requiring thousands of murex
    shellfish to make a small amount of the dye (employing a smelly,
    difficult process of extraction) could also have contributed to it worth.



    Wonderful! Fantastic. all i have to do is wonder about now is why the manchus wanted to use that particular word for purple (there are others) in that context.

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