A technique or style in creating literary works, it refers to the use of concise language in portraying a simple artistic image, whose rich feelings and implications are elicited in a subtle manner, so that readers can intuit multiple hidden meanings. One finds a straightforward and factual manner of expression in early literary and artistic works in China, as well as the subtle mode of expression. Because this technique originally evolved from Daoist thought and, in the early period, was employed as a means of criticizing powerful individuals in poetry, it stresses the expression of emotion in a subtly suggestive manner, such that the depiction of images should be supported by a rich undertone or hidden meaning that can appeal to readers. The language should be simple and plain but still leave sufficient room for readers to seize upon hidden meanings. Sikong Tu, a literary critic in the Tang Dynasty, listed it as one of the twenty-four styles of poetry writing. Subtle suggestion imparts a high degree of unity to a writer’s cultural attainments, creative technique, as well as his literary style and imagery.
Without penning down a word about it, yet it is overfilled with what it intends to express. Without mentioning the writer’s own sorrow, yet one can feel it there. It is because the genuine and natural feelings reside there, that one’s mood rises and falls with the work that conveys them. (Sikong Tu: Twenty-four Styles of Poetry)
The merit of expressing oneself lies in presenting one’s opinions with subtlety. Su Dongpo once said, “There is a limit to the words one can use in writing a poem, but there is no limit to the meaning a poem may deliver. This is universally acknowledged.” (Jiang Kui: The Poetry Theory of Baishi Daoren)
The key to writing great ci lyrics is the subtle suggestion of limitless meaning. Subtle suggestion means that the meaning is never simply obvious, yet the words will forever echo in one’s mind. A line should leave enough room for further thought, and a poem enough meaning for readers to ponder. The beauty of this method lies in expressing unlimited subtle meaning in simple language. (Shen Xianglong: Essays on Ci Poetry)