Amidaworld has a post called “The Lazy Man’s Guide to Classic Asian Literature” that moves from the discovery of Amazon’s Statistically Improbable Phrases (provided for many books) to the insight that they can serve as a handy thumbnail sketch of the book itself:

But let’s use this to save some time and read some massive works in, say, 10 seconds or so. I love this one: The Tale of Genji‘s SIPs: saffron flower. Yep, that’s it. “Evocative,” no?

How about those massive Chinese novels? Journey to the West (vol. 2—1 was unavailable): hooped rod, two little fiends, auspicious luminosity, poled the luggage, travel rescript certified, vast magic powers, his muckrake, brazen ape, white jade steps, cloudy luminosity, subdue the fiend, his iron rod, great snow fall, ginseng fruits, bronze mallet, various fiends, iguana dragon, preparatory mass, steel crop, immaculate vase, our rescript, treasure staff, gloomy complexion, testimonial poem, reverted cinnabar. Could you give a better summary in 4 lines or so?…

Sum up Confucian thought as portrayed in the Analects in 10 words: accordance with the rites, ceremonial cap, benevolent man, loving learning. Thanks, Amazon!

I was going to try it on The Man Without Qualities, but alas, no SIPs were provided.


  1. And apparently Statistically Improbable Phrases have bitten the dust…

  2. As it happens, my wife and I are now reading Monkey, the good old Waley version of Journey to the West (it’s a great read, and frankly, I don’t mind that he omitted most of the poetry), so I enjoyed that list of SIPs much more than when I made this post.

  3. Stu Clayton says

    The examples of SIPs don’t, for the most part, seem improbable to me. What is the idea anyway – that improbable phrases are a measure of innovative prose, and that what’s innovative must be not merely interesting but worthwhile to read ? I remember that frame of mind from adolescence. Is it a grown-up thing now ?

  4. No, it just means they occur more often than you’d expect for the average book.

  5. Having been raised on the Waley version, I am now going through the complete Yu translation. At first having approached it with trepidation, I’m enjoying it quite a bit. Skipping the poems is like skipping the background descriptions in, say, Gogol. It doesn’t affect the plot, but you’re really missing something. There are also a lot of tangent stories that Waley took out. According to Yu, Waley’s greatest reduction, inspired by the scholar Hu Shi, was to cleanse the book of religious allegory. Yu felt very strongly that religious allegory was central to the conception of the book.

    Yu himself produced an abridged version, The Monkey and the Monk.

  6. According to Yu, Waley’s greatest reduction, inspired by the scholar Hu Shi, was to cleanse the book of religious allegory. Yu felt very strongly that religious allegory was central to the conception of the book.

    I’m sure it was, but I have very limited tolerance for allegory of any kind. I may well give the Yu translation a try sometime (especially since you, a fan of the Waley, recommend it), but I’m enjoying this one tremendously.

  7. Most of the allegory passes me by anyway, along with who knows how many cultural and religious references, but it’s a good read. As Yu says (and I judge from his preface that he was a very thoughtful and kind person), in his preface to The Monkey and the Monk:

    Therein [the preface to Waley], Hu asserted that “freed from all kinds of allegorical interpretations by Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucianist commentators, Monkey is simply a book of good humor, profound nonsense, good-natured satire, and delightful entertainment.” My own encounter with this marvelous work since childhood, under the kind but skillful tutelage of my late Grandfather, who used Journey as a textbook for teaching me Chinese during the terrible years of the Sino-Japanese war on the mainland, had long convinced me that this narrative was nothing if not one of the world’s most finely wrought allegories. The thirteen years of studying and translating the text together with the subsequent decades of teaching it at Chicago and elsewhere have also made me a happy witness to the new turns in scholarly research and interpretation. The distantly collaborative result of our studies has made it clear that religion is not only crucial to the novel’s conception and formation, but also that its nearly unique embodiment in this work need not clash with “good humor, profound nonsense, good-natured satire, and delightful entertainment.”

    I’ll add that I don’t (yet) see in what way this is an allegory. It certainly is not a pervasive one, like Piers Plowman or the like.

  8. Ah, that’s good to know. You’ve moved it up on the potential reading list.

  9. Thus Tolkien in 1965: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.” And yet this is the same fellow who wrote “The Monsters and the Critics” in 1936, expressing his view of the “Beowulf industry” of his day thus:

    A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.

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