Borges’ Chinese Encyclopedia

Jorge Luis Borges famously invented a “certain Chinese encyclopedia” which, he asserts, divided all the beasts of the world into the following categories:

  1. Those that belong to the emperor
  2. Embalmed ones
  3. Those that are trained
  4. Suckling pigs
  5. Mermaids (or Sirens)
  6. Fabulous ones
  7. Stray dogs
  8. Those that are included in this classification
  9. Those that tremble as if they were mad
  10. Innumerable ones
  11. Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  12. Et cetera
  13. Those that have just broken the flower vase
  14. Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

The obvious intent of this list, besides merely being amusing, is to upset the reader’s conception of firm categories of animals, and question whether there is such a thing as an objective taxonomy, with the heavy implication that all taxonomies are arbitrary, language is relative, things do not exist, and there is no realm of Being. Michel Foucault was in fact inspired to write an entire book about this passage, which he prefaces with:

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of thought—our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old definitions between the Same and the Other.

A conservative historian, Keith Windschuttle, conversely complains that this is an improper conclusion to draw from fiction.

In May 1995 I gave a paper to a seminar in the Department of History at the University of Sydney, Australia. Although most of the postmodernists in the department declined to attend, they deputized one of their number, Alastair MacLachlan, to reply and, they hoped, to tear me apart. My respondent opened his remarks by citing Foucault and the Chinese taxonomy. Didn’t I realize, he chided, that other cultures have such dramatically different conceptual schemes that traditional assumptions of Western historiography are inadequate for the task of understanding them?

There is, however, a problem rarely mentioned by those who cite the Chinese taxonomy as evidence for these claims. No Chinese encyclopedia has ever described animals under the classification listed by Foucault. In fact, there is no evidence that any Chinese person has ever thought about animals in this way. The taxonomy is fictitious. It is the invention of the Argentinian short-story writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges.

This revelation would in no way disturb the assumptions of the typical postmodernist thinker, who believes that the distinction between fact and fiction is arbitrary anyway. Foucault himself openly cites Borges as his source. The example is now so frequently cited in academic texts and debates that it is taken as a piece of credible evidence about non-Western cultures. It deserves to be seen, rather, as evidence of the degeneration of standards of argument in the Western academy.

That is, this has nothing to do with real Chinese knowledge demonstrating the relativity of the West, but is rather about the West [via South American urbanite] proving a point to itself through its own fiction. I am not claiming that Foucault himself was trying to make this rather inane argument for relativism, but those who read Foucault religiously are making that argument, as Windschuttle attests. They do this for a reason.

The argument then hinges on this point: is there in fact a culture so foreign that their categories make no sense to us? I have a suspicion that Borges’ Chinese encyclopedia was based on the categorization of an actual Chinese encyclopedia, which had its headings translated in 1911. One of the subheadings for its categorization system reads as follows:

‘Various Manifestations’ rather vaguely indicates the contents of this section, and Klaproth and Mayers have been misled into translating the title [as] ‘Divination’ and ‘Natural Phenomena’ respectively. As a matter of fact, the phenomena recorded are all of a strange or unusual character, departing from the ordinary course of nature. They include prodigies of various kinds, eclipses, plagues, floods, droughts, dreams, and so forth.

Borges almost certainly read this document or something much like it. It all sounds very mystifying and exotic, demonstrating the relativism of truth… until you read the next sentence.

The first four sections form a group conceived as relating to Heaven and its manifestations, as a contradistinction to Earth on one hand, and Man on the other.

Wait, there is nothing exotic about this at all! It is simply an elaboration on the traditional Chinese system. Here are the 32 subdivisions of this encyclopedia:

  1. Heavens/Time: Celestial objects, the seasons, calendar mathematics and astronomy, heavenly portents
  2. Earth/Geography: Mineralogy, political geography, list of rivers and mountains, other nations (Korea, Japan, India, Kingdom of Khotan, Ryukyu Kingdom)
  3. Man/Society: Imperial attributes and annals, the imperial household, biographies of mandarins, kinship and relations, social intercourse, dictionary of surnames, human relations, biographies of women
  4. Nature: Proclivities (crafts, divination, games, medicine), spirits and unearthly beings, fauna, flora
  5. Philosophy: Classics of non-fiction, aspects of philosophy (numerology, filial piety, shame, etc.), forms of writing, philology and literary studies
  6. Economy: education and imperial examination, maintenance of the civil service, food and commerce, etiquette and ceremony, music, the military system, the judicial system, styles of craft and architecture

It is not the way we would write an encyclopedia today, but a medieval European division of knowledge would not be terribly different from this. The terms “economy” (経済) and “society” have even undergone the same modern transformations in Europe and China. The differences arise from different focuses: the triad of heaven, earth, and man being paramount in the medieval Far East.

What this appears to demonstrate is not that all cultures are the same, which is Windschuttle’s vague point, but that differences in culture arise from an implementation of traditional principles which are not “arbitrary” but metaphysical in nature and perfectly comprehensible. Borges, who either did not understand the structure of the Chinese encyclopedia or wished to obfuscate it to make his point, represents perfectly not any actual knowledge about the impossibility of knowledge (as Foucault would claim), but the modern alienation from Tradition and the way of seeing it as confused and meaningless.

Posted: January 21st, 2013 | Tradition 1 Comment »

One Comment on “Borges’ Chinese Encyclopedia”

  1. 1 Avery said at 7:21 am on February 15th, 2013:

    “Tokyo meanwhile reminds us that the rational is merely one system among others.” Roland Barthes, disorientalist