A site called Test Your Vocabulary was a small hit on Hacker News today. The test takes only a few minutes, and you get an estimate of the breadth of your English vocabulary as the approximate number of words you know. In other words, it’s the perfect Sunday entertainment for all of us who get strange kicks from having our intellectual capacity rated and quantified…
The site got me thinking about the last time when I encountered an English word that was completely unknown to me. This was a few days ago; the word was contumacy, and it appeared in a particularly famous telex written by George Kennan. An online search revealed that ‘contumacy’ is the stubborn refusal to obey orders, and more specifically refers to contempt of court in modern English-speaking law practice.
Well, nothing particularly interesting there. But thanks to the wonders of hypertext, the word led me to discover the Ten Abominations, of which contumacy is one. These Abominations are a list of offences that were considered most serious under traditional Chinese law. They were regarded as the most abhorrent and hence necessitated the gravest penalties, even including the omission of some legal processes that were otherwise given to an accused. The list of abominations derived mostly from the writings of Confucius and even older archaic Chinese tradition. For over two thousand years of Imperial rule, the Ten Abominations were recognized as a moral baseline for justice, not unlike the role of the Ten Commandments in Judeo-Christian tradition.
What’s striking about the Ten Abominations is how precisely described and entirely non-abstract these offenses are. The ancient Chinese certainly didn’t practice relativistic handwaving when it came to morals. Specifically listed offences include damaging royal palaces, murdering government officials, having fun during grief periods, and having a sexual affair with one’s grandfather’s concubine… At least you can’t say you weren’t warned if grandpa catches up.
If the Ten Abominations were rewritten as “commandments”, it seems to me that they would come down to a mere three:
- Don’t rise against the crown. (Abominations 1, 2, 3, 6 and 9)
- Don’t rise against your family. (Abominations 4, 7, 8 and 10)
- Don’t be a serial killer or a witch. (Abomination 5)
I’m quite fond of Abomination #5. It’s like a tossing bin for sins that are undoubtedly really big, yet don’t quite disrupt the Confucian order of unwavering respect for authority and elders, so they don’t deserve an abomination of their own:
Depravity (曰不道): to murder three or more innocent people; to disembowel a victim’s body after committing a murder; to produce gu and use it to cast curses.
One must deduce that murdering two innocent people is not an abomination – unless of course those people were your elder relatives or superiors, in which case it counts as contumacy or unrighteousness.
The Abominations may strike us as ridiculously archaic and imprecise in their specificity. That’s because we are so used to the notion of axiomatic law: the more fundamental and unchanging a law, the more abstract it should be. This applies to both institutional law – the American Constitution being the canonical example – but equally to the laws of science. Newton’s law of gravitation is so important in science history because it’s simple yet universally applicable. Before Newton, there had been other attempt to formulate the laws of gravity. But those attempts by Ptolemy and other classical Greek thinkers ended up being more akin to the Ten Abominations of gravity: a list of special cases that actually managed to explain the movements of planets pretty well, but lacked the elegance and consistence of an axiomatic solution.
Because my blog has an implicit programming bent, I need to end this with a coding analogy, so here it comes. Think of the program or system you’re working on. Its operation is determined by a set of laws that are intrinsic (your code) or extrinsic (the APIs you link to, for example). Working on the system, you must evolve the system within the existing laws, while usually also trying to “meta-develop” the laws themselves – for example by codifying shared modules into clearly defined frameworks, or even modifying the programming language you’re using.
Is your system more like Chinese traditional law, with your code’s primary aim being to work around a mysterious set of possibly contradictory “abominations” that are taken as given? Or is your system more like the laws of physics, with a set of axiomatic principles from which everything is derived? I think the Haskell and Lisp guys would confidently put themselves under the latter banner. For the rest of us, it’s probably somewhere in the grey area in-between.
(Out of curiosity, I tried to see what Google’s image search would come up with for the Ten Abominations. Here’s the closest thing I got, and I’d like to share it for your pictorial entertainment: Ugly Chinese Cakes.)