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  • Introduction
  • Wang Ning

As literary scholars, we are often puzzled by these questions raised from among the reading public: What is the meaning of this literary work? How does the author express his/her intention to portray the characters or narrate the story? How shall we as literary critics interpret the meaning of the literary work? Can a certain literary work have only one meaning? Obviously this is not the case. In order to answer the above questions, we present this special cluster of articles to readers.

Péter Hajdu says pertinently in his essay, "We may suppose that the meaning of a literary text comes from somewhere, but we should not imagine that there is only one source it comes from." Thus, to Hajdu, meaning can have many possible sources if we take into consideration various factors in the process of writing, reading, understanding, and interpreting a literary work. If this is not the case, as any given literary work has more than only one meaning, how shall we find its implied meaning and even its possible significance?

Zhou Xian goes a bit further on this point. His essay also deals with different sources of meaning. To him, however, since the author is thought to be dead by many, the monistic author dies in exchange for the birth of countless readers who can interpret the plural meanings of the text in numerous ways. But how does this phenomenon occur? Zhou holds that there are three important factors: first, "textual meaning is pluralistic and open, and any monist or essentialist interpretation is [End Page 80] problematic"; second, textual meaning is productive and could produce more meanings (significances); and third, since meaning is born out of a certain reading or interpretative process, literary theorists must switch their focus from asking "what is meaning?" to "how is meaning produced?"

In this sense, the meaning of a literary work is not fixed but rather is always in the process of being produced and creatively constructed. Obviously Zhou believes that pluralistic orientations of meaning exist in a literary work. For him, there are at least three sorts of meaning: textual meaning, authorial intent, and readerly meaning making. Only by putting all these together can we reach a complete understanding of the meaning of a literary work. I think this is both interesting and important, especially in the current era when many think of literature and literary studies as being "dead." But to all the authors of the articles in this section of Philosophy and Literature, literature is still alive and energetic, playing an inevitable role in our intellectual life. That is one reason why I have taken the initiative to edit this special symposium.

The symposium explores the meaning or meanings of literary works from different theoretical perspectives. All the invited contributors answer these questions from their own theoretical perspectives. Readers may well find that some of the authors' ideas are contradictory and challenge each other while complementing each other. But after reading the articles, we can reach a relative consensus: there is no such thing as a literary work with only one fixed meaning. Zhang Jiang, who is strongly against the so-called "imposed interpretation," still does not deny that a literary work possesses multiple meanings. He wants to find what the author originally intended when he created his work.1 He does not believe the interpreted meanings or significances by critics and interpreters. But all excellent and sophisticated literary works deserve to be discussed and analyzed from different angles, and sometimes invite discussion and even debate. The more discussion and debate we have over a literary work, the closer we may approach the original meaning of that work.

Zhang, the major organizer of a symposium held in Beijing in October 2016 dealing with the meaning of literary works, maintains in his essay that over the past one hundred years or more, the central topics of Western literary theory have undergone multiple evolutions and changes, with the latter denying and insulating the former, shifting from the author oriented to the theory oriented; from vulgar, sociological criticism void of literature to literary criticism void of literature. As a [End Page 81] result, literary...


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