Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are venerable faiths, but Chinese culture is so ancient that there are much older religious beliefs which are still part of the social framework. Some of these gods and legends have become part of the newer religions of East Asia (particularly of Taoism, with its mystic animist bent); other figures endure in popular culture and folklore—like Chang‘e, goddess of the moon; and some of the truly old legends have become hopelessly confused. Such a figure is Hundun, an ancient featureless chaos god, whose blandness and confused nature have made his name a synonym for a hopeless muddle.
There are several conflicting myths about Hundun, but the most ancient is the most powerful. It serves as a troubling warning to do-gooders everywhere. The story was told in the Zhuangzi, a collection of writings made around 370 BC during the tumultuous warring states period. The Oxford handbook of Chinese mythology describes how the story “portrays Hundun as the god of the central region who has not a single aperture. Shu (literally meaning ‘fast’) was god of the south sea while Hu (‘swift’) was the god of the north sea. They often met each other at the central region reigned by Hundun. Hundun treated them very well so Shu and Hu hoped to pay a debt of gratitude to him.” The two gods decided that a being who did not have any orifices would certainly want a mouth for eating and ears with which to hear and nose for breathing and so forth. The gods surprised their quiet friend by chiseling a new orifice for him every day for a week. Unfortunately on the seventh day Hundun died from the massive trauma. It’s a gory and effective version of the “physician, do no harm” injunction!