Monday, February 28, 2005

The Chaos Question

From reader Jeffrey Berthiaume:

"Long time fan, first time caller… Just wondering what you thought about this painting – I’ve seen it over and over for the past few years, and have always wondered whether it was accurate [means "chaos"] or not…"

I have seen this character before as well. Even though, the translation for it has always been "chaos", I never knew if it is indeed correct or not.

One thing for sure, the character was originally in the oldest Chinese classical text "Yi Jing" (or "I Ching"), the "Book of Changes" (also called "The Book of Wisdom"):

In Yi Jing, hexagram 03, depicted |:::|: is named (chún), Sprouting. Other translations: R. Wilhelm, Difficulty at the Beginning; G. Whincup, Gathering Support; E. Shaughnessy (Mawangdui), Hoarding.

The modern day meaning of is "village, hamlet; camp; station". In Japanese, the word for "chaos" is . If the character is indeed , in Japanese this character has the meaning for "gather" but is mostly used nowadays as the symbol for "ton" as in "the cargo weighed in at two tons." According to the Chinese cultural section of, "chaos" is as well. (thanks Rex)

The word "chaos" originally comes from Greek and stood for "the confused unorganized state of primordial matter before the creation of distinct forms" according to Merriam Webster and is the opposite of "cosmos" which is "an orderly harmonious systematic universe".

As of right now, I still do not know if is "chaos" or not. Anyone?

Update: While trying to get more information regarding the true meaning of , I had email correspondences with Larry, who sells replica painting of on his website for $25.

When I mentioned to him that I have checked in "I Ching", which states means "sprouting", that is a little far off from "chaos".

He replies:

"Japanese and Chinese has many interpretations of kanji . The statement you made above is the representation of the kanji entitled chaos, "from chaos sprouts new life a new beginning . In its smallest form everything moves fast from neutron to proton... Chaos that begins life . As a forest is engufled by fire , life starts anew . As we stumble in life ... We find the good and move forward."

If that is indeed the case, wouldn't it be more appropriate to translate as "sprouting" or "birth", rather than "chaos"? Also, I asked him if he happen to have a literary source that can verify his statement.

Larry responds:

"I guess I could explain these thoughts on my site. And no , no source. As educated in the language as you seem. Most characters for Chinese and Japanese were from a simple drawing as a start. I would guess by the way the kanji is it is representing life starting."


  1. In Japanese, 屯 alone has the reading "tamuro," which means "(for soldiers) to be stationed; be quartered; be encamped; also, gather; assemble" according to Kenkyusha's New College Japanese-English Dictionary, 5th Edition. Kanjigen says the character itself has several meanings:
    1. a. To be stuck
    b. One of 64 symbols relating to fortune telling from the Yi Jing (?). Something about life force (陽気) being all stuffed up in one place.
    2. a. Same as "tamuro" above
    b. A village where people have gathered

  2. As far as I know, it doesn't mean "chaos" unless it's written with the water radical. Wenlin's definition doesn't mention "chaos" (though it also doesn't mention any connection to the Yijing, so it could be incomplete), and a full dictionary search for all words containing a 屯 turns up 33 items, from 屯子 ("<topo.> village") to 驻屯军 ("stationed military force"), most of which deal with garrisonned soldiers. Nothing about chaos.

  3. A ha! First time coming here and found interesting here. I am Chinese, know only kana about Japanese. Maybe I can answer your question.

    屯,pronouncing tún in pinyin, has many meanings in Chinese. As a verb, it means assembling,gathering or blocking. Usually it's used as a verb when concatenating another character to form a word or phrase. When used as a noun singly,屯 means a small village. Also 屯 can used as a adjective. It means hard or slow. But this usage is used very little in modern Chinese especially in spoken language.

    At last,talk about I Ching hexagram. I Ching hexagram is a picture forms of 8 trigraphs. 8 trigraphs represent 8 natural elements. They are heaven, earth, water, fire, thunder, wind, mountain and swamp. People thought the world consists of these 8 elements. Two I Ching hexagram holding together, there are 8*8=64 states. These 64 states describe the route where the society originates from. At first, there is nothing, no heaven, no earth. Everything is unorganized. This is 混沌(chaos). Then, there are force and field. Force means heaven and field means earth. A word (混沌初开,the chaos is broken initially)describes this state. The heaven and earth are seperated from the chaos. After this, there are sprouting and envloping. This means everything starts to wake but still not yet fully open...The sprouting state in Chinese is 屯。 So 屯 does not means chaos, at least not accurate. Ordinary people know little about I Ching. They think it's a book full of superstition although they didn't read it. So they don't know 屯's meaning in I Ching.

    To be honest, if you don't tell me the character in the painting is 屯,I can't recognize this character without the context.

  4. I'll just reconfirm that Japanese uses 混沌 for 'chaos,' and that I cannot find anything which uses 屯 for that meaning, either alone or in compounds.

  5. Without the benefit of having read Yi Jing, I have always thought "混沌" means "chaos" in Chinese, as well.

    But that may have been an influence from the Chinese translation of the Bible, in which the first two verses of Genesis were translated thusly:

    起初上帝創造天地。地是昆空虛混沌, 淵面黑暗.上帝的靈運行在水面上。

    (In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. -KJ)

    As one definition of "chaos" is "the formless state of matter before the creation of the cosmos," I think that particular defintion does fit. But I suppose the translators probably got the term for Yi Jing.

    I think maybe the artist who made this painting was trying to simplify the 混沌 to just 屯... unless it held that meaning at some point in classical Chinese.

  6. Oops, I accidentally typed an extra word in the Chinese verse. It should be "地是空虛混沌" and not "地是昆空虛混沌"

  7. Regarding etymology, he's more or less right. Here's what Karlgren has to say about 屯:

    "...To sprout, grow; (hard soil:) hard... cultivation of land by soldiers, military tenure, military colonists; garrison, camp; village; assemble -- a 屮 sprouting plant breaking through 一 the surface" --Karlgren.I can't find my copy of the 汉字源流字典, but my copy of 说文解字 says essentially the same thing. ("難也象艸木之初生屯然而難從屮貫一一地也尾曲易曰屯剛柔始交而難生.") I couldn't find anything on 沌 in 说文, but that doesn't mean much; I've never really gotten the hang of the lookup system for that. The online searchable etymology page doesn't have anything either, other than that 沌 is 氵 plus 屯.

  8. Vh stated: To be honest, if you don't tell me the character in the painting is 屯,I can't recognize this character without the context. I agree. This handwriting may not be 屯, considering the way the first and last strokes are written. It may equally possibly be a 衷, 专 (simplified 專), or 走. None of these, including 屯, means chaos. Perhaps this is a chimera of words, to convey the idea of chaos.

    The word 沌 in 混沌 is pronounced dun4, but 屯 is different, pronounced tun2.

    BTW, the science of chaos, it seems, has been translated as 混沌学, though I wish there was a better translation, something like 无序学 or 多向学.

  9. Re: Larry's response:

    "I guess I could explain these thoughts on my site. And no , no source. As educated in the language as you seem. Most characters for Chinese and Japanese were from a simple drawing as a start. I would guess by the way the kanji is it is representing life starting."Well, that still doesn't tell us where the 'chaos' thing comes from; in fact, it seems to just confirm Tian's 'sprouting' hypothesis, more than anything.

    Also, those last two sentences reek of the pseudo-philosophy of people who think they know all about Chinese and Japanese writing, but who have never been asked to decipher a character like 蝋.

  10. all chinese characters grew out of pictograms, but they are no longer pictograms, and haven't been for thousands of years. rather, they are ideograms or logograms and often are far removed from the days when the chinese still used pictures to form words. plus, the characters we have inherited today from the kingdom of qin were anything but simple. if chu or yan had conquered china, our characters might just be a little bit easier to write.

    also, if everyone looked at what characters kinda looked like to determine the meaning, well, i guess 東 might mean cockroach, 山 is obviously a middle finger, and 學 is a woman with a wide face and very big hair (tang dynasty anyone?).

    however, i have heard this explanation before that "life sprouts (屯) from chaos," but i have never understood why chaos is chosen as the "meaning" of the character in these calligraphic prints, when all my dictionaries say that in classical chinese, it meant "sprout." i am guessing that this may be a very very old mistranslation that no one has bothered to correct. imagine in 20 years, when people are still getting 宦官 tattoos and think it says "bravery."

  11. But his description of the character as "representing life starting" is in fact correct. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with "chaos" other than having been homophonous a couple thousand years ago -- unless dun4 is an arbitrary expansion of tun2, which I guess is possible.

  12. I've seen the hexagram 屯 pronounced most often as "zhun1", rather than "tun2" (although this seems to be the one hexagram with multiple pronunciations), and certainly never Wikipedia's "chun2" (could this be the result of problems with the Wade-Giles conversion? or is there another reference for that?)

  13. zhwj - Wenlin gives 屯 as [zhūn] [...] Difficulty at Beginning.

    (Wenlin's hexagram glyphs don't copy; it's

    = =
    = =
    = =
    = =

    for those who care.)

  14. If you had to pick a single character for "chaos", it would probably be 乱, (ja="ran") which looks kinda-sorta like the depicted character. This was also the title of one of Kurosawa's big war epics. But it's not generally used as a standalone word in Japanese--for that, people would use 混乱 (ja="konran").

  15. In other words, Larry is a pretentious illiterate moron. HI, LARRY!

  16. Larry might be pretentious and illiterate but if he is managing to sell these bits of paper with one character written on them for $25 each, I wouldn't call him a moron!

  17. 屯 is the first character in the name of the town Tuen Mun (屯 門) in Hong Kong.

    Now, the traffic on the Tuen Mun highway is often very chaotic, so maybe the psychic vibrations from the bad traffic influenced the artist and.....

  18. Well I bummed after reading all of the comments. I got a tattoo of this (singular)kanji symbol when I was 21. I went off of a framed print that basically gave the definition of it as to live, to learn, & to prosper. "a star is born" At the time my life was completely I thought it was perfect. It actually gave me hope that a new life would in fact begin. Through my lessons learned via the madness.

    Now what meant so much to me is now in question...this stinks. Because now it looks like I only have half of the actual true meaning. Not to mention its a good size & smack dab in the middle of my back. So adding the other symbol will look completely unbalanced!

    I guess this is a clear case that I should've done my own research instead of trusting a print purchased at a box store! What a lesson to learn...but I'm gonna have to stick with what I first knew about it & rock it just the same! Because I have prospered from those days & a star has been born! But I will certainly thoroughly research everything from now on.