Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge

A Google search reveals that this book isn’t nearly as well known as I would have thought (only 16,000 hits), and Amy hadn’t heard of it either so it must needs be posted here. Don’t ever say that my cognitive science degree never brought you any joy.

So I guess it was in one of my philosophy classes – ontology maybe, or philosophy of mind – that I first heard about it, but in a 4 year cog sci degree you can’t avoid hearing about this book half a dozen times. It comes up virtually any time you get into a conversation about classifications, taxonomies or crazy people.

The book, Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, is an extremely old Chinese encyclopedia, or so the legend goes, and was translated by a guy named Franz Kuhn (no, not the Structure of Scientific Revolutions guy, that’s Thomas). It might have been lost to antiquarian irrelevancy if it were not for one crucial section which set out the categories of animals in the world. Keep in mind, this is centuries if not millennia before the whole Linnean classification was developed (Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species – my mnemonic was Kings Play Chess On Fine Green Sod – what was yours?) and yet it is absolutely enrapturing. How, you ask, does an animal classification system rise to the level of rapture? The 13 categories it outlined are as follows:

(a) those that belong to the Emperor,
(b) embalmed ones,
(c) those that are trained,
(d) suckling pigs,
(e) mermaids,
(f) fabulous ones,
(g) stray dogs,
(h) those that are included in this classification,
(i) those that tremble as if they were mad,
(j) innumerable ones,
(k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush,
(l) others,
(m) those that have just broken a flower vase,
(n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

Tell me that isn’t beautiful. I absolutely adore that list, and revisit it because its crazy randomness breaks you out of any structure you might be building up around yourself. And yet, it isn’t random, quite. There’s an almost deliberate lack of overlap, a perverse balance.

Or maybe not – in any event I had always loved the list and had to share for those who might not yet have encountered it.

PS – It goes without saying, of course, that lo these thousands of years later, with the advent of the internet, Web 2.0, folksonomies, and tagging, that we have come full circle and can now have a cat which is classified, at once, as fabulous, embalmed, and drawnWithVeryFineCamelHairBrush.

4 thoughts on “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge

  1. I am delighted by mermaids, those who have just broken a flower vase and those who tremble as if they were mad. No particularly reason to be delighted by those, except that perhaps…I am mad. Grin

  2. Ha… I have a cat that fits into category i – those that tremble as if mad, and another cat that fits into d – the suckling pig classifiaction. I truly ove the randomness of this list…

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