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Hundun (Chinese: 混沌; pinyin: Hùndùn; Wade–Giles: Hun-tun; literally: "muddled confusion") is both a "legendary faceless being" in Chinese mythology and the "primordial and central chaos" in Chinese cosmogony, comparable with the World egg.
Hundun 混沌 was semantically extended from a mythic "primordial chaos; nebulous state of the universe before heaven and earth separated" to mean "unintelligible; chaotic; messy; mentally dense; innocent as a child".
In modern Written Chinese, hùndùn "primordial chaos" is 混沌, but Chinese classic texts wrote it either 渾沌 ( in the Daoist classic Zhuangzi, etc.) or 渾敦 (Zuozhuan). Hùn "chaos; muddled; confused" is written either hùn 混 "abundantly flowing; turbid water; torrent; mix up/in; confuse; muddle through; drift along; thoughtless; senseless" or hún 渾 (Simplified Chinese character 浑) "sound of running water; muddy; muddled; turbid; concealed; confused; dull; stupid; unsophisticated; whole; all over". These two are interchangeable graphic variants readable as hún 混 "muddy; dirty; filthy" (e.g., Mandarin slang húndàn 渾蛋/混蛋 "filthy egg"; bastard; scumbag") and hùn 渾 "nebulous; stupid" (hùndùn 渾沌). Dùn "dull; confused" is written either dùn 沌 "dull; confused; stupid" or dūn 敦 "thick; solid; generous; earnest; honest; sincere".
Isabelle Robinet outlines the etymological origins of hundun.
Semantically, the term hundun is related to several expressions, hardly translatable in Western languages, that indicate the void or a barren and primal immensity – for instance, hunlun 混淪, hundong 混洞, kongdong 空洞, menghong 蒙洪, or hongyuan 洪元. It is also akin to the expression "something confused and yet complete" (huncheng 混成) found in the Daode jing 25, which denotes the state prior to the formation of the world where nothing is perceptible, but which nevertheless contains a cosmic seed. Similarly, the state of hundun is likened to an egg; in this usage, the term alludes to a complete world round and closed in itself, which is a receptacle like a cavern (dong 洞) or a gourd (hu 壺or hulu 壺盧). (2007:524)
Most Chinese characters are written using "radicals" or "semantic elements" and "phonetic elements". Hùndùn 混沌 is written with the "water radical" 水 or 氵and phonetics of kūn 昆 and tún 屯. Hùndùn "primordial chaos" is cognate with Huntun (húntun, 餛飩, 馄饨) "wonton; dumpling soup" written with the "eat radical" 食. Note that the English loanword wonton is borrowed from the Cantonese pronunciation wan4tan1. Mair (1994:16) explains hundun and wonton, "The undifferentiated soup of primordial chaos. As it begins to differentiate, dumpling-blobs of matter coalesce. … With the evolution of human consciousness and reflectiveness, the soup would have been adopted as a suitable metaphor for chaos."
Hundun 混沌 has a graphic variant hunlun 混淪 (using lún 淪/沦 "ripples; eddying water; sink down", see the Liezi below), which etymologically connects to the mountain name Kunlun 崑崙 (differentiated with the "mountain radical" 山). Robinet (2007:525) says, "Kunlun and hundun are the same closed center of the world."
Girardot (1983:25) quotes the Chinese philologist Lo Mengci 羅夢冊 that reduplicated words like hundun "suggest cyclic movement and transformation", and speculates.
Ritually mumbling the sounds of hun-tun might, therefore, be said to have a kind on incantatory significance that both phonetically and morphologically invokes the mythological and ontological idea of the Tao as the creatio continua process of infinitely repeated moments of change and new creation.
The Shuowen Jiezi does not enter dun 沌 (which apparently lacked a pre-Han Seal script). It defines hun 混 as fengliu 豐流 "abundantly flow", hun 渾 as the sound of hunliu 混流 "abundantly-flowing flow" or "seemingly impure", dun 敦 as "anger, rage; scolding" or "who", and lun 淪 as "ripples; eddies" or "sink into; disappear".
English chaos is a better translation of hundun in the classical sense of Chaos or Khaos in Greek mythology meaning "gaping void; formless primordial space preceding creation of the universe" than in the common sense of "disorder; confusion". The latter meaning of hundun is synonymous with Chinese luàn 亂 (Simplified 乱) "chaos; disorder; upheaval; confusion; turmoil; revolt; indiscriminate; random; arbitrary". Their linguistic compound hùnluàn 混亂 (lit. "chaos-chaos") "chaos; disorder; confusion" exemplifies the "synonym compound" category in Chinese morphology.
Early textual usages
In the Chinese written record, hundun first appears in classics dating from the Warring States period. The following summary divides them into Confucianist, Daoist, and other categories, and presents them in roughly chronological order, with the caveat that many early textual dates are uncertain.
Hundun only occurs in one Confucian classic, the Zuozhuan commentary to the Chunqiu. Most early Confucianist ancient texts (Lunyu, Shujing, Yijing, etc.) do not even use hun, with four exceptions. One, the Mengzi, uses hun in its original meaning "sound of flowing water". Mencius explains why Confucius praised water, "There is a spring of water; how it gushes out!" (tr. Legge 1872 2:324). The other three use hun as what Girardot (1983:119) calls "a term of opprobrium and condemnation related to the suppression of the "barbarians" or the "legendary rebels"." The Shijing (237) mentions Hunyi 混夷 "ancient Hunni tribe in Turan". When King Wen of Zhou opened up the roads, "The hordes of the Keun [sic] disappeared, Startled and panting. (tr. Legge 1872 4:441). The Chunqiu mentions the Luhun 陸渾 tribe of the Rong 戎 people, "the Jung of Luh-hwăn" (tr. Legge 1872 5:293, 667). The Zuozhuan commentary to the Chunqiu notes they were originally from western Gansu and forced into northern Henan.
The ancient emperor Hung [Hwang-te] had a descendant devoid of ability [and virtue]. He hid righteousness from himself, and was a villain at heart; he delighted in the practice of the worst vices; he was shameless and vile, obstinate, stupid, and unfriendly, cultivating only the intimacy of such as himself. All the people under heaven called him Chaos. … When Shun became Yaou's minister, he received the nobles from the four quarters of the empire, and banished these four wicked ones, Chaos, Monster, Block, and Glutton, casting them out into the four distant regions, to meet the spite of the sprites and evil things. (tr. Legge 1872 5:283)
The other "fiends" are Qiongqi 窮奇, Taowu 梼杌, and Taotie 饕餮. Legge notes this passage "is worthy of careful study in many respects."
Girardot (1983:129) contrasts these rare Confucian usages of hundun pejoratively suggesting the forces thwarting civilization, "the "birds and beasts," barbarian tribes, banished ministers, and legendary rebels)" with the common Daoist usages in a "paradise lost theme".
Hundun commonly occurs in classics of philosophical Daoism. The Daodejing does not mention hundun but uses both hun graphic variants. One section (49, tr. Mair 1990:17) uses hun 渾 "bemuddle": "The sage is self-effacing in his dealings with all under heaven, and bemuddles his mind for the sake of all under heaven." Three others (14, 15, 25, tr. Mair 1990:74, 76, 90) use hun 混 "bound together," "muddled," and "featureless":
- "These three cannot be fully fathomed, Therefore, They are bound together to make unity."
- "plain, as an unhewn log, muddled, as turbid waters, expansive, as a broad valley"
- "There was something featureless yet complete, born before heaven and earth."
The Zhuangzi (ca. 3rd-2nd centuries BCE) has a famous parable involving emperors Hundun 渾沌, Shu 儵 "a fish name; abrupt; quick", and Hu 忽 "ignore; neglect; sudden". Girardot (1983:89) cites Marcel Granet that Shu and Hu synonymously mean "suddenness; quickness" and "etymologically appear to be linked to the images of lightning and thunder, or analogously, flaming arrows." The "Heavenly Questions" chapter of the Chu Ci uses Shu and Hu as one name: "Where are the hornless dragons which carry bears on their backs for sport? Where is the great serpent with nine heads and where is the Shu-Hu?" (tr. Hawkes 1985:128)
The emperor of the South Sea was called Shu [Brief], the emperor of the North Sea was called Hu [Sudden], and the emperor of the central region was called Hun-tun [Chaos]. Shu and Hu from time to time came together for a meeting in the territory of Hun-tun, and Hun-tun treated them very generously. Shu and Hu discussed how they could repay his kindness. "All men," they said, "have seven openings so they can see, hear, eat, and breathe. But Hun-tun alone doesn't have any. Let's trying boring him some!" Every day they bored another hole, and on the seventh day Hun-tun died. (7, tr. Watson 1968:97)
Compare Watson's renderings of the three characters with other Zhuangzi translators.
- Change, Suddenness, Confusion (or Chaos) — Frederic H. Balfour
- Shû, Hû, Chaos — James Legge
- Change, Uncertainty, Primitivity — Yu-Lan Fung
- Shu, Hu, Hun Tun — Herbert Giles
- Immediately, Suddenly, Undifferentiation — James R. Ware
- Light, Darkness, Primal Chaos — Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English
- Fast, Furious, Hun-t'un — A.C. Graham
- Lickety, Split, Wonton — Victor H. Mair
- Change, Dramatic, Chaos — Martin Palmer
- Helter, Skelter, Chaos — Wang Rongpei
Two other Zhuangzi contexts use hundun. Chapter 11 has an allegory about Hong Meng 鴻蒙 "Big Concealment" or "Silly Goose", who "was amusing himself by slapping his thighs and hopping around like a sparrow", which Girardot (1983:110) interprets as shamanic dancing comparable with the Shanhaijing below. Hong Meng poetically reduplicates hunhun-dundun 渾渾沌沌 "dark and undifferentiated chaos" in describing Daoist "mind-nourishment" meditation.
"You have only to rest in inaction and things will transform themselves. Smash your form and body, spit out hearing and eyesight, forget you are a thing among other things, and you may join in great unity with the deep and boundless. Undo the mind, slough off spirit, be blank and soulless, and the ten thousand things one by one will return to the root – return to the root and not know why. Dark and undifferentiated chaos – to the end of life none will depart from it. But if you try to know it, you have already departed from it. Do not ask what its name is, do not try to observe its form. Things will live naturally and of themselves." (tr. Watson 1968:122)
Chapter 12 tells a story about the Confucian disciple Zigong becoming dumbfounded after meeting a Daoist sage. He reported back to Confucius, who denigrated Hundun Shi zhi shu 渾沌氏之術 "the arts of Mr. Chaos [Hundun]":
"He is one of those bogus practitioners of the arts of Mr. Chaos. He knows the first thing but doesn't understand the second. He looks after what is on the inside but doesn't look after what is on the outside. A man of true brightness and purity who can enter into simplicity, who can return to the primitive through inaction, give body to his inborn nature, and embrace his spirit, and in this way wander through the everyday world – if you had met one like that, you would have had real cause for astonishment. As for the arts of Mr. Chaos, you and I need not bother to find out about them." (12, tr. Watson 1968:136)
The Huainanzi has one occurrence of hundun 渾沌 in a cosmological description.
Heaven and earth were perfectly joined [tung-t'ung 洞同], all was chaotically unformed [hun-tun wei p'u 渾沌為樸]; and things were complete [ch'eng 成] yet not created. This is called [the time or condition] of the Great One. [t'ai-i 太一]. All came from this unity which gave to each thing its differences: the birds, fish, and beasts. This is called the lot [or division, fen 分] of things. (14, tr. Girardot 1983:134)
Three other Huainanzi chapters use hun, for example, the compound hunhun cangcang 渾渾蒼蒼 "pure and unformed, vast and hazy".
The world was a unity without division into classes nor separation into orders (lit: a disorganised mass): the unaffectedness and homeliness of the natural heart had not, as yet, been corrupted: the spirit of the age was a unity, and all creation was in great affluence. Hence, if a man with the knowledge of I [羿 A mythical person of great powers] appeared, the world had no use for him. (2, tr. Morgan 1934:46)
The Liezi uses hunlun 渾淪 for hundun, which is described as the confused state in which qi 氣 "pneuma; breath", xing 形 "form; shape", and zhi 質 "matter; substance" have begun to exist but are stilled merged as one.
There was a Primal Simplicity, there was a Primal Commencement, there were Primal Beginnings, there was a Primal Material. The Primal Simplicity preceded the appearance of the breath. The Primal Beginnings were the breath beginning to assume shape. The Primal Material was the breath when it began to assume substance. Breath, shape and substance were complete, but things were not yet separated from each other; hence the name "Confusion." "Confusion" means the myriad things were confounded and not yet separated from each other. (1, tr. Graham 1960:18-19)
There is a god here who looks like a yellow sack. He is scarlet like cinnabar fire. He has six feet and four wings. He is Muddle Thick. He has no face and no eyes. He knows how to sing and dance. He is in truth the great god Long River. (2, tr. Birrell 2000:226)
This "great god Long River" translates Di Jiang 帝江 "Emperor Yangtze River", which is identified with Huang Di 黄帝 "Yellow Emperor". Toshihiko Izutsu (1967 2:19, cited by Girardot 1983:82) suggests that singing and dancing here and in Zhuangzi refers to shamanic trance-inducing ceremonies, "the monster is said to be a bird, which is most probably an indication that the shamanistic dancing here in question was some kind of feather dance in which the shaman was ritually ornamented with a feathered headdress."
The Shen yi jing 神異經 "Classic of Divine Wonders" records a later variation of Hundun mythology. It describes him as a divine dog who lived on Mt. Kunlun, the mythical mountain at the center of the world.
It has eyes but can't see, walks without moving; and has two ears but can't hear. It has the knowledge of a man yet its belly is without the five internal organs and, although having a rectum, it doesn't evacuate food. It punches virtuous men and stays with the non-virtuous. It is called. Hun-tun. …Quoting the Zuozhuan Hun-tun was Meng-shih's untalented son. He always gnaws his tail, going round and round. Everyone ridiculed him. (tr. Girardot 1983:188)
How pleasant were our bodies in the days of Chaos, Needing neither to eat or piss! Who came along with his drill And bored us full of these nine holes? Morning after morning we must dress and eat; Year after year, fret over taxes. A thousand of us scrambling for a penny, We knock our heads together and yell for dear life. (78, tr. Watson 1970:77)
Note the addition of two holes (anus and penis) to the original seven (eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth).
Hundun myths have a complex history, with many variations on the "primordial chaos" theme and associations with other legends.
The sociologist and historian Wolfram Eberhard analyzed the range of various hundun myths in his book (1968:438-446) on local cultures in South and East China. He treated it as a World egg mythic "chain" from the southern Liao culture, which originated in the Sichuan and Hubei region.
- Hundun creation myths involving humanity being born from a "thunder-egg" or lump of flesh, the son of an emperor, the Thunder god represented as a dog with bat wings, localized with the Miao people and Thai people.
- The animal Lei (the rare character combines the "dog radical" 犭with a lei 雷 "thunder" phonetic) "is a creature like a lump, without head, eyes, hands, or feet. At midnight it produces noises like thunder." (1968:440)
- The hundun dumplings, etymologically connected with "round", "unorganized; chaotic", and perhaps the "round mountain" Kunlun.
- The world-system huntian 渾天 in ancient Chinese astronomy conceptualized the universe as a round egg and the earth as a yolk swimming within it.
- The sack and the shooting of the god connects sack-like descriptions of hundun, perhaps with "sack" denoting "testicles", legends about Shang Dynasty king Wu Yi who lost a game of chess with the god Heaven and suspended a sack filled with blood and shot arrows at it, and later traditions of shooting at human dolls.
- Pangu 盤古 is the mythological creator of the universe, also supposedly shaped like a sack, connected with dog mythologies, and who grew into a giant in order to separate Heaven and Earth.
- Heaven and earth as marital partners within the world-egg refers to the theme of Sky father and Earth Mother goddess.
- Zhongli 重黎 or 融黎 is identified with Zhu Rong 祝融 "god of fire", which is a mythology from the southern state Chu, with variations appearing as two gods Zhong and Li.
- Zhongli 重黎 clan, which has variant writings, originated in the Ba (state), near present-day Anhui.
- The brother-sister marriage is a complex of myths explaining the origins or mankind (or certain families), and their first child is usually a lump of flesh, which falls into pieces and populates the world. In later mythology, the brother Fu Xi and sister Nüwa, who lived on Mt. Kunlun, exemplify this marriage.
Norman J. Girardot, professor of Chinese religion at Lehigh University, has written articles and a definitive book on hundun. He summarizes this mythology as follows.
- The hun-tun theme in early Taoism represents an ensemble of mythic elements coming from different cultural and religious situations.
- The symbolic coherence of the hun-tun theme in the Taoist texts basically reflects a creative reworking of a limited set of interrelated mythological typologies: especially the cosmic egg-gourd, the animal ancestor-cosmic giant, and primordial couple mythologies. The last two of these typologies are especially, although not exclusively, linked to what may be called the deluge cycle of mythology found primarily in southern local cultures.
- While there may also be a cultural connection between the southern deluge cycle and the cosmogonic scenario of the cosmic egg (i.e., via the "thunder-egg," "origin of ancestors [culture hero] from egg or gourd," and "origin of agriculture and mankind from gourd" myths), the fundamental linkage for all these typologies is the early Taoist, innovative perception of a shared symbolic intention that accounts for, and supports, a particular cosmogonic, metaphysical, and mystical vision of creation and life. (1983:209)
Interpretations of Hundun have expanded from "primordial chaos" into other realms. For instance, it is a keyword in Neidan "Chinese internal alchemy". Robinet (2007:525) explains, "Alchemists begin their work by "opening" or "boring" hundun; in other words, they begin from the Origin, infusing its transcendent element of precosmic light into the cosmos in order to reshape it."
- Birrell, Anne, tr. 2000. The Classic of Mountains and Seas. Penguin Classics.
- Eberhard, 1968. The Local Cultures of South and East China. E.J. Brill.
- Girardot, Norman J. 1983. Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism: The Theme of Chaos (Hun-Tun). University of California Press.
- Graham, Angus C., tr. 1990. The Book of Lieh-tzǔ: A Classic of Tao. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Hawkes, David. 1985. The Songs of the South: An Anthology of Ancient Chinese Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets. Penguin.
- Legge, James. 1872. The Chinese Classics. 5 vols. Trubner.
- Mair, Victor H. 1990. Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way, by Lao Tzu; an entirely new translation based on the recently discovered Ma-wang-tui manuscripts. Bantam Books.
- Mair, Victor H. 1994. "Introduction and Notes for a Complete Translation of the Chuang Tzu." Sino-Platonic Papers 48.
- Morgan, Evan S, tr. 1934. Tao, the Great Luminant: Essays from the Huai Nan Tzu. Kelly and Walsh.
- Robinet, Isabelle. 2007. "Hundun 混沌 Chaos; inchoate state," in The Encyclopedia of Taoism, Fabrizio Pregadio, ed., Routledge, 523-525.
- Watson, Burton, tr. 1968. The Complete works of Chuang Tzu. Columbia University Press.
- Watson, Burton, tr. 1970. Cold Mountain: 100 Poems. Columbia University Press.
- Chaos: A Thematic Continuity between Early Taoism and Taoist Inner Alchemy, Paul Crowe
- In a Calabash, A Chinese Myth of Origins, Stephen Field
- HUN-DUN, God Checker entry