Inner Sanctum
 Derek's Private Study

Misconception About P'u

Most people who study the Tao have heard of p'u, the uncarved block. What they probably don't know is that "uncarved" is a made-up word. You can't use "uncarved" when you play Scrabble - it isn't a real word.

We can all figure out what "uncarved" means, but try looking it up in the Webster or the American Heritage Dictionary. You won't find it. Princeton Wordnet does have the word, but that's because it isn't so much a dictionary as a collection of all words in common usage, whether correct or not.

So who invented this word? Maybe some glib "teacher" of New Age stuff? I don't know.

What I do know is this: p'u doesn't mean "uncarved block" either. The Chinese word simply means plain, unadorned, unrefined, unsophisticated. That's it. There is no uncarved and no block in its meaning. None.

P'u is not a noun. You can't give someone p'u. It's an adjective. If I say p'u shi, that means a plain piece of rock; if I say p'u yu, that would be an uncut piece of jade. I can use p'u to describe someone dressed plainly or someone with a down-to-earth personality, but I cannot say someone has a piece of p'u. Grammatically it would make no sense.

I see this whole misconception as yet another manifestation of the language barrier. There are many translations like this - casually accepted as correct and authentic, but are in fact mistakes.

In fact, I'm pretty sure no other web site has this information. The misconception is very, very widespread.