Hide the satisfied store in statue of Buddha

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Elliot Sperling took the following photograph a couple of days ago (July 16) in Reb-gong or Rebkong (Tib.: རེབ་གོང /reb gong / Repkong / Ch.: Tongren 同仁). Reb-gong (Tongren) is about 150 km south of Xining, the capital of Qinghai (Kokonor) Province, and around 200 km to the southwest of Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province, in the northwestern part of the People's Republic of China.

The Chinglish translation at the bottom of the sign reads thus:

"Hide the satisfied store in statue of Buddha in exquisite article in Nepalese art in han."

Such an incomparable specimen of Chinglish might as well have been produced through free association or stream of consciousness. Even James Joyce would have been hard put to come up with a sentence whose syntax is so fractured.

What the sign actually says is this:

Zàng Hàn Níbó'ěr yìshù jīngpǐn fóxiàng rúyì shāngdiàn


"Wish-fulfilling Shop for Tibetan, Chinese, and Nepalese Fine Artwork and Buddhist Statues"

As the following analysis will demonstrate, it is obvious that the mangled English comes from the Chinese, not the Tibetan.

The first horrendous error is that the translator confused the verbal meaning of cáng 藏 (“hide”) with the nominal meaning of Zàng 藏 (“Tibetan”). In fact, the same character 藏 has other meanings that fall under these two pronunciations:

zàng 藏: place to store things; Buddhist or Taoist scriptures / canon; Tibet

cáng 藏: hide; store

The confusion over the verbal and nominal senses of cáng / zàng 藏 could not have occurred with the autonym (endonym) “Bod” བོད་. I have long maintained that the second syllable of "Tibet" represents essentially the same morpheme as "Bod", and that the first syllable is a Tibetan prefix meaning "upper", but there are other competing explanations of the origins of the name "Tibet".

As for how zàng 藏 came to signify Tibet, it is actually a transcription of the name of the Tsang region (around Shigatse). The full Mandarin exonym for Tibet is Xīzàng 西藏 (lit., "West Tsang").

It is very strange that the hàn 汉, which would seem to mean "Chinese", gets stuck on at the end and is left uncapitalized. This may, however, stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the Tibetan, which will be explained below.

Another key term in the Chinese that is not fully grasped by the translator is that of rúyì 如意 ("as you wish"), which has a long and colorful pre-Buddhist history. After the advent of Buddhism, it was co-opted for various Sanskritic notions, for which see this article.

Rendering rúyì shāngdiàn 如意商店 as "satisfied store" presents an odd picture, but it fails to convey the Indic idea of the (often supernatural) fulfillment of one's desires.

Let us see now what the Tibetan says. Here is the standard "revised Wylie" transcription:

Bod rgya bal gsum gyi sgyu rtsal gyi nus pa ’bur du thon pa’i sku ’dra’i tshong khang dgos ’dod kun ’byung

Translation: "'Your Wishes Will Appear’ shop for statues produced in the artistic style of Tibet, India and Nepal"

According to Ronald Davidson,

The translation is almost the reverse order of the Tibetan, but that reflects the differences of standard word order for the two languages. Tibetans typically like to have a florid name for something at the end of the announcement, and the 'Your Wishes Will Appear' echoes the cintāmaṇi/kāmadhenu idea of India, so that it has a strong Buddhist flavor, not unusual for a shop selling religious statuary. A minor question is the meaning of the initial 'bod rgya bal gsum' which normally means as I have translated but in certain contexts could mean Tibet, China and Nepal, since the term for India (rgya gar) and the term for China (rgya nag) are often abbreviated in the same manner (rgya). In this instance, though, it is pretty clear that the shop carries Indo-Tibetan artistry of modern manufacture, and it would appear that they can do orders, big or small as well.

Regardless of what the Chinese and Tibetan versions say, I'm afraid that tourists who come to this shop will be so totally mystified by the Chinglish translation that they might be afraid to enter. In that case, having a Chinglish translation would be worse than having no translation.

[Thanks to Donald Lopez, Robbie Barnett, and Nathan Hill]


  1. Julien said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 1:59 am

    All these shop owners should just stop caring about trying to convey the meaning of fancy names into foreign languages. For tourists something like "Souvenir shop" or "Gift shop" is probably the best choice. Despite not being very subtle, this is probably the most appealing sign to tourists.

    Actually, local governments should just hand out freely short sentences like this in an effort to avoid chinglish…

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 7:16 am

    One reader has sent in this comment:


    A fun post and an amazing translation.

    I want, however, to register my disagreement with Davidson about rgya. He would seem to presume an original Tibetan where rgya was mistranslated 'han'. In general, however, on shop signs it is the Tibetan which is derived from the Chinese. Also, I would argue that 'Chinese' is the default reading of rgya, and you need the -gar there to mean 'Indian'. In the Old Tibetan inscriptions and in cultural revolution newspapers (i.e., the things I happen to like to read) rgya _always_ means Chinese. Indo-Tibetan statues all come from Nepal anyhow and not from India.

    Incidentally, I think rgya is a transcription of a Chinese word, but I can't remember which. I know that Xia, like Xixia, is 'ga' — for better or worse.


    To this I may add that Axel Schuessler's Old Sinitic reconstruction for xià 夏 is *grâʔ. This is most intriguing!

    As for Xixia (Western Xia 西夏), it is the name of a dynasty that ruled over an area that covered roughly what is now Ningxia, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia. It lasted from 1038-1227, and its leaders, interestingly enough, were drawn from Tibetan Tangut tribes.

  3. Brian T said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 7:18 am

    I agree that "Gift Shop" would be an improvement, but I don't think it's the optimal option. If an English-speaking tourist turns up in this location, you can bet he or she has a taste for the exotic or wants to discover "the real China." So add the promise of a rare find and a good story with something like "Eight Treasures Gift Shop" or "Dragon's Egg Gift Shop." You can catch more flies with thousand-year mulberry blossom honey than with water. (I don't think the Chinglish version or the generic version qualifies as vinegar. Are tourists flies? Case-by-case basis.)

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 7:31 am

    Here are some alternative translations of the Tibetan that have been sent in:


    "Shop of Statues, Source of Whatever You Need or Desire, Where the Potency of Tibetan, Chinese, and Nepalese Art Emerges"

    The term that I have translated as “emerges” more literally means “protrudes” or “comes out of the ground.”


    "The wish-fufilling shop of statues that is stocked with (?) handicrafts of the three: Tibet, China, Nepal."

    nus pa 'bur du thon pa is the only hard part and i may have misread what I have as 'bur du

    nus-pa 'be able'
    'bur 'elongate' (?)
    thon-pa 'emerge'

    "Source of all desires and needs, the shop of three-dimensional statues, the powerful art of Tibet, China and Nepal, all three."

    Or it could be "statues that are produced prominently" by the art of those three places.

    4. (I include the transcription because the person who sent this version in — unlike other commenters — pays attention to the use of dashes)

    Bod-Rgya-Bal-gsum-gyi sgyu-rtsal-gyi nus-pa ’bur-du thon-pa'i sku-’dra'i tshong-khang dgos-’dod kun-’byung

    “The All-Wish-Fulfilling shop for images that project the power of the artistic skills of the three: Tibet, China and Nepal”

    I'm a bit literal; on my own I'd omit things like "the three," but inasmuch as the point is to see how the English on the sign diverges from the original meaning a more literal rendering is called for.


    Perhaps, from the various English renditions of the Tibetan that are being contributed, a consensus will emerge.

  5. Elliot Sperling said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 11:13 am

    The "Rgya" in the sign is indeed China. In this situation there's really no doubt about it. In addition to the common use of "Rgya-Bod" and "Bod-Rgya" as "Sino-Tibetan" or "Tibet-China," etc., in so many of the circumstances of modern life in Tibet, the shop (like many in the area) does include some clearly Chinese forms of Buddhist deities. (I will forego discussing the poltically mandated use of "Han" for "Rgya," a usage considered critical to the official delineation of Tibetan history: if "Rgya" were to be understood [correctly] as China it would indicate [again, correctly] that Tibetans have not considered the notions of Tibet and China to have overlapping fields of meaning). As for the tourist angle, Reb-gong (at least these days) sees very small numbers of western tourists but considerable numbers of Chinese tourists. As such, the English on the shop sign is, in practical terms, of limited commercial significance; its presence on the sign seems more like something that accords the establishment a little bit of "class." I'm not so sure that the Chinese text preceded the Tibetan. For any certainty about that one would really have to ask the owner, which I failed to do, not imaging that the sign would elicit such interest.

  6. julie lee said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

    @Victor Mair gives Axel Schuessler's Old Sinitic sound for 夏 "name of the earliest dynasty in Sinitic history" as *gra(HA in Cantonese, XIA in Mandarin) , and gives the Tibetan sound for Xia 夏 as ga。 I think the Old Sinitic sound for 胡 "northern barbarians" (HU in Mandarin) is *ka. Would ga, *gra, ka, and ha be cognate, and 夏 and 胡 originally meant the same thing, "northern barbarians"? Has Victor Mair already written about this?

  7. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 6:14 pm

    On the relationship of rgya/xia4, the question is a tricky one, and Wolfgang Behr has written an article about it for Asiatische Studien in German several years ago (LXI.3, 2007, pp. 727–754, at 734-7). The article is available open access here:


    Wolfgang was unable to post this comment himself because he is presently in the border areas of Ukraine and Poland with only very intermittant mail access from his mobile.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

    Now that the question of RGYA and XIA4 has come up, it has prompted me to unearth an old paper entitled "Was There a XIA4 Dynasty?" that I wrote back in 2002-2003. Looking it over, I see that this paper was a fairly thorough discussion of the etymology, phonology, and orthography of XIA4, so I have decided to publish it in a forthcoming issue of Sino-Platonic Papers, probably within two months.

  9. julie lee said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

    @Victor Mair:

    Thank you for the link to Wolfgang Behr's article. I look forward to your article on XIA dynasty in the Sino-Platonic Papers. I should have said "the putative earliest dynasty" in Chinese history.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    July 20, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

    By coincidence, Jonathan Smith defended his Ph.D. dissertation last Thursday, and it deals extensively with the prehistory of the term XIA4:

    "The Ethereal Band: Time, Cosmos and the Birth of Writing in China," Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2012.
    Chapter 2 Sections 2 & 3, running ~pp. 75-120, deal with 夏.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 2:33 am

    Yet another version of the Tibetan from a specialist:


    transliteration: Bod rgya bal gsum sgyu rtsal gyi nus pa 'bur du thon pa'i sku 'dra'i tshong khang dgos 'dod kun 'byung

    Something like: The Wish-fulfilling store of elongated emersion statuary, the potent art of the three [lands] Nepal, China and Tibet

    I am not sure what the ('bur du thon pa'i) "elongated emersion" part means and just gave the literal translation from an online dictionary. These might be art terms I don't know or they might be wild translations generated from some other online dictionary. Or elongated might modify "potent" and refer to the long lasting effects of such potency.

    In any case, since i did this so quickly, please don't credit me with this off the cuff translation!

  12. Chau said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 3:32 pm

    Thank you Victor Mair for the link to Wolfgang Behr’s article, and I look forward to your forthcoming article on the Xia dynasty.

    I would like to chime in on the word 夏 xià. Aside from the name of the first putative dynasty of China, the usual meaning of ‘summer’ and as Victor has mentioned, the name of a medieval kingdom 西夏 Xixià, xià also was the name of an ancient Central Asian kingdom Bactria, 大夏 Dàxià in Chinese. This kingdom is mentioned in the first three classic histories of China, Shiji, Hanshu and Hou Hanshu. The name 大夏 Dàxià, however it was pronounced in Old Chinese, is in all likelihood a transliteration of Bactria. Let me explain from the perspective of Taiwanese pronunciation of Chinese graphs.

    In Taiwanese the graph 夏 is pronounced hā. There is a sound correspondence between ancient European b- and Taiwanese b- (occasionally after devoicing, p-) or h-. For examples, L. boō ‘I cry/roar aloud’ > Tw. ho· 呼 ‘to call aloud’ and via o > au sound change, hau 哮 ‘to cry/roar aloud’ and pàu 咆 (id.), the latter two forming a pleonastic combination pàu-hau 咆哮 (id.); Gk. βασιλεύς ‘king, chief’ > ba- > Tw. pà 霸 as in pà-ông 霸王 ‘king of kings’ and pà-chú 霸主 ‘one who reigns supreme’; L. basilica ‘a public building with spacious halls and porticoes’ > ba- > Tw. hā 廈, usually preceded by an adj. ‘great’ as in tāi-hā 大廈 (id.); L. balatrō ‘a sorry or worthless fellow’ > bal- > Tw. han and bān, which are recombined to form a disyllabic word ham-ban (id. but used as adj.); Gk. βαρβαρος/L. barbarus ‘foreign, stranger, uncivilized’ > bar- > Tw. bân 蠻 ‘uncivilized, barbarous’ and hoan 蕃 ‘foreign’ (with insertion of a glide -o-). [Note that the final -r or -l in European words/syllables often becomes -n in Taiwanese (also in Old Chinese, see Schuessler, ABC Etymol. Dict. Old Chinese, p. 85ff).]

    Sometimes European words with an initial consonant cluster bl- or br-, after simplification of the cluster, also show the b- to b-/h- correspondence. For examples, Old Norse brunnr (German Brunnen) ‘spring, well’ > Tw. bùn ‘to well up’; Old English bryne ‘burning’ > Tw. hûn 焚 ‘burning’; Old Norse blað (German Blatt) ‘leaf of a plant’ > Japanese ba 葉 (id.) as in Chiba 千葉 (a place name) and Taiwanese hā 葉 (id.) as in chàng-hā 粽葉 ‘the bamboo leaves used for wrapping a special kind of glutinous food’ as well as Japanese ha 葉 as in hacha 葉茶 ‘leaf tea’ and Yamaha 山葉 (a brand name).

    Armed with this pattern of sound correspondence, it is easy for us to see that Bactria (> Ba-) is rendered Hā 夏 in the classic histories. The Dà 大 in Dàxià 大夏 obviously signified that Bactria was a large country as compared with so many small city-states or principalities in the Western Regions (西域). John E. Hill suggests in his monumental Through the Jade Gate to Rome (p. 319, p.553) that the Dà 大 is an integral part of the name Dàxià and sees that Dàxià is a reasonable transcription of *Toga(ra). However, one needs to be careful here because it has been customary to add Dà ‘Great’ to a country name when it is considered large, such as Dàyuan 大宛 (Fergana) and Dàqín 大秦 (Roman Empire). The practice of attaching ‘Great’ to a country name is still seen today as in Daehan Minguk 大韓民國, the official name of South Korea, and of course, in Great Britain.

  13. Alan Shaw said,

    August 4, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

    I got the idea that rather than calling itself 'Wish-fulfillment Shop' it was announcing that it was also offering ruyi scepters.

  14. Dan said,

    November 2, 2012 @ 10:11 am

    'bur-du thon-pa means 'emerged in relief,' or just 'come through clearly' as if etched or sculpted or something. i.e. These items clearly display the powerful artistic abilities of the three named countries.

    Example: 'bur-sku means an image sculpted in relief, a frieze or the like, as distinguished from a (truly) three-dimensional image.

    Not that the other translations offered already are all that bad, they're not. I just think they miss the nice nuance.

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