shī wú dá ɡǔ 诗无达诂
Poetry Defies Fixed Interpretation.
This term originally referred to the absence of a universally accepted interpretation or explanation of The Book of Songs. It was first put forward by the great Han Dynasty Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu (179-104 BC). Later, it came to be used as a general term in literary criticism, which suggests that as the result of the changing historical conditions and different life experiences of readers there bound to be varied interpretations or explanations of the same literary work. The idea that poetry defies any attempt at fixed interpretation derived from the traditions of the Spring and Autumn Period, when poetic lines were recited to express one’s view, stance, or emotion. To justify themselves politically or diplomatically, politicians at the time would quote from The Book of Songs, yet without bothering to find out the exact meaning of the quotes, sometimes even distorting their meaning. Confucian scholars of the Han Dynasty interpreted The Book of Songs in several different ways due to different academic orientations. Dong Zhongshu raised this idea to provide theoretical support for such divergence. As a view of literary theory, it is concerned with different readers’ divergent interpretations of a text and its aesthetic values. This view argues that as poetic terms are suggestive, ambiguous, and intricate, readers should not settle for a superficial understanding of a poem. Instead, they should delve into the poet’s heart and develop their own understanding, interpretation, and insight of his poem. The argument that there is no fixed interpretation of poems is valid, because it shows that poetic language can be ambiguous in meaning and that interpretations can therefore vary. However, this does not mean that one should interpret a poem too freely.
I hear that there is no fixed interpretation of The Book of Songs, no fixed divination in The Book of Changes, and no unchangeable wording in The Spring and Autumn Annals. We should obey principles flexibly and capture the underlying messages of classics. Then, we should merge these two aspects into one without violating the way of heaven or sages’ moral instructions. (Dong Zhongshu: Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn Annals)
I once said that The Book of Songs was different from other Confucian classics. So it should be read in a different way. Poets in the book probably used certain things in life to make allusions about things. Their wording was nuanced and their message was profound. Yet, they often said something but meant quite another. Therefore, we should not be too strict in interpreting the lines of the book. (He Liangjun: Academic Notes from the Four Buddies Studio)