In modern Written Chinese, hùndùn "primordial chaos" is 混沌, but Chinese classic texts wrote it either 渾沌 (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.
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 (cf. Japanese Kamaitachi), 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".
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.
Two other Zhuangzi contexts use hundun. Chapter 11 has an allegory about Hong Meng 鴻蒙 "Big Concealment", 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 "Mr. Hundun's techniques/arts".
"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).
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.
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.
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."