THE DEATH OF CHAOS I

This series is inspired in part by my recent reading of N. J. Girardot’s Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism in terms of both agreement and disagreement.

The death of Chaos (hun-dun) is related in the closing story of the Inner Chapters:

The Emperors of the North and South would often meet in the Kingdom of the Emperor of the Middle whose name was Chaos. Chaos showed them such hospitality that these two decided to repay him for his virtue (de). “‘All men have seven holes in them, by which they see, hear, eat, and breathe,’ they said. ‘But this one has none. Let’s drill him some.’ So each day they drilled him another hole. After seven days Chaos was dead” (Ziporyn 7:15).

Though Zhuangzi is here making use of ancient folk lore, we have to be careful not to interpret him strictly on the basis of past meanings. He frequently takes the conventional and turns it to his own purposes, whether it be cosmology (qi, yin-yang) or personages (Confucius, Laozi, the madman Jieyu).

Chaos is hun-dun, a well-known mythological figure, found in many guises, usually faceless and sometimes anus-less. It represents the cosmos before there was differentiation and things. For Confucians the term was largely negative, representing the disorder present before the advent of (Chinese) civilization. The barbarian tribes represent chaos. For the Daoists it has a decidedly positive connotation in that it represents the ever-present “something left out that is the most important thing of all.” In this contrast alone we see the radical departure of Daoism from the conventional anthropocentric preoccupation with human yang-ing. Daoism suggests that our yang-ing, though necessary and affirmable, also does us (and the environment) harm when not placed in the context of yin, chaos.

Daoism emphasizes yin, not because it is “better” than yang, but because in our single-minded pursuit of knowledge and progress we have forgotten the equalizing valuation of yin wherein all things are affirmable just as they are. Yang informed by yin is yang off the debilitating treadmill of wanting to be other than we are.

This, in any case, is one slice of it.

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