Classifications, Hans Kuhn and Jorge Luis Borges

Two catalogs coexisted at the Bibliothèque Sino-Internationale: ancient Chinese books made use of the classical Chinese classification into four categories: classical works (jing 经), historical works (shi史), philosophical works (zi 子) and literary collections (ji 集). Post-1911 Chinese books, and books in Western languages, were classified by author. 1Tsi Lun, Catalogue des livres sinologiques en langues autres que le Chinois de la Bibliothèque Sino-Internationale, Geneva, 1939

The question of the classifaction of knowledge fascinated Li Shizeng, who had developed an early interest in Diderot and his encyclopedia. In the 1940s, he launched the project for a universal encyclopedia based on the model imagined by H.G. Wells (World Brain 1937), a model that remarkably prefigures the great online encyclopedias Wikipedia and Baidu-Baike.
For this grand project, Yang Jialo (楊家駱 1912-1991) published a first volume in 1946: Encyclopedia Quatuor Bibliothecarum = 四庫全書學典.
A 1953 reprint included a lengthy preface by Li Shizeng, in which he links this encyclopedic project with his vision of a World Confederation:
The Encyclopedia is the World Confederation of knowledge, while the Confederation is the practical application of the Encyclopedia to the promotion of a better world.2The World Encyclopedia and The Complete Works of the Four Libraries / by Yi Yu-Ying and Yang Chia-Lo. World Book , Taipei, 1953

In the tradition of Francis Bacon’s and Diderot’s classifications of knowledge, revisited by Elisée Reclus’ conceptions, Li Shizeng imagines a pyramid-shaped classification of the world into three subjects: 1) general, philosophical and encyclopedic knowledge, 2) mathematics, physics and natural sciences 3) sociology, socio-technology, politics, etc.

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was also fascinated by classifications. In his 1942 essay El idioma analítico de John Wilkins, Borges details a taxonomy of animals supposedly taken from an ancient Chinese encyclopedia: the Emporio celestial de conocimientos benévolos.
The list includes 14 categories of animals:

(a) pertenecientes al Emperador: belonging to the Emperor;
(b) embalsamados : embalmed;
(c) amaestrados: trained;
(d) lechones: suckling pigs ;
(e) sirenas: sirens;
(f) fabulosos: fabulous;
(g) perros sueltos: unleashed dogs ;
(h) incluidos en esta clasificación: included in this classification;
(i) que se agitan como locos: stirring like mad;
(j) innumerable : innumerable;
(k) dibujados con un pincel finísimo de pelo de camello: drawn with a very fine brush of camel hair;
(l) etcétera: et coetera;
(m) que acaban de romper el jarrón: who have just broken the vase;
(n) que de lejos parecen moscas: which, from a distance, look like flies.

Although Jorge Luis Borges lived many years in Geneva, there’s no reason to believe that he knew the Sino-International Library. But there’s an amusing indirect link: Borges attributes (again supposedly) the discovery of the Emporio to the translator Frank Kuhn, a very real character.
Born in 1884, died in 1961, Franz Kuhn is best known for his translation of Midnight (子夜) by Mao Dun (茅盾 1896-1981), a work recommended to him by Hu Tienshe 胡天石 3Franz Kuhn, preface to Midnight, the director of the Sino-International Library.
A photograph by Franz Kuhn is now part of the BSI collection held by the Taiwan Central Library. Undated, it bears the inscription : Franz Kuhn Ihr ergebener. Mit guten Wünschen für Ihr Institut u. freundl. Empfehlungen Yours sincerely, Franz Kuhn, with best wishes for your Institute and best regards.

  • 1
    Tsi Lun, Catalogue des livres sinologiques en langues autres que le Chinois de la Bibliothèque Sino-Internationale, Geneva, 1939
  • 2
    The World Encyclopedia and The Complete Works of the Four Libraries / by Yi Yu-Ying and Yang Chia-Lo. World Book , Taipei, 1953
  • 3
    Franz Kuhn, preface to Midnight

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