In ancient Chinese poetry, there’s one literary technique called “Yong Dian“(用典). By using the methods, poets write down in poem a word or a very short phrase, which represents a story, an event, or an anecdote having been — or should be — very well-known among all readers. The words or short phrases can be a name, a place, a “Nian Hao” (年号, a phrase decided by each emperor to label the period of his reign), or a short combination of Proper nouns and verbs. These words or combinations, called “Dian Gu”(典故), can represent either something did happen in history, or fiction ones created by former writers, or just a very personal moment or concept recorded by famous previous poets in their works.
This technique was so commonly used in ancient Chinese poetry. It saves poets a long passage to express some complicated meanings or emotions, thus expanding the range of content a piece of poem can cover and convey. For example, a very early, famous piece of Chinese poetry talks about how the author feels so sad when seeing that the site used to be a gorgeous palace of his past country is now full of “Shu Li” (黍离, a kind of weed), for a new dynasty conquering the old one. After that, all poets only need to mention the word “Shu Li” in poem, then readers will get the meaning of someone losing his homeland and all feelings related to this event.
In this case, “Shu Li” in all literature is not a kind of plant any more. Readers will unconsciously relate this word with the background of war and the change of dynasty, as well as a depressed tone of emotion. In fact, in no case that this word can just be understood as a kind of plant in the whole history of Chinese literature, even if the author intends to.
According to Peirce’s theory, “sign-responses are frequently expressed in other signs/symbols, interpretants generate further development of meaning expressible in future interpretable signs”. In the case of ancient Chinese poetry, many such kind of words like “Shu Li” are the sign generated from some original signs (plants, country, war, time passing by) by one or several poets’ creation. With continuous literary activities of inventing new signs and passing by from one generation to another, the “prototype” words are invented, or may gradually altered, and then form a dynamic meaning system. This meaning system, however only makes sense in a limited space, which may broadly defined as Chinese Literature. After all, “Shu Li” would still only be related with the object of the plant in a botanical context. To some certain extent, it is the combination of these dynamically generated signs, not only in the space of literature but other intelligent activities, that defines so-called “culture”.
It should be clarified that “Shu Li” is quite an extreme example. The earliest piece of creation about it, which generated new meanings that used in the following 2000 years, was so strong that there’s no other options. But in most cases, new generated meanings are also inconstant, or many poets would create their own meanings in one sign, which all become well-known, at least for some time among some certain readers, then different levels of meanings are formed.
That is what will happen in Peirce’s “interpretant” process, when all kinds of responses to signs appear in people’s minds when receiving the signal to “decode” a symbol. Different levels of meanings are all presented in front of the reader in that moment, then different kinds of understandings are made, and as a result, diversity emerges in the analysis of literature. Of course, each school has their own theories on how to explain literature works. Some claim it’s exclusive because signs in literature have certain explanations, while others indicate the writer has done all his job when finishing his works, and readers have all rights and freedom to explain it.