China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Certain passages in the Shiji are extremely difficult and ambiguous. The reason is not just that modern readers lack the correct context for understanding them. We know this because some passages in the Shiji lead to divergent interpretations even among skillful traditional readers who are near contemporaries of one another.
This paper first briefly surveys passages that fit these criteria in an attempt to gain some more general perspective on the phenomenon of ambiguity within the Shiji. Are there specific topics that seem to promote ambiguity? What textual features generate the ambiguity and on what level (linguistic, terminological, moral, etc.) does this occur? Insofar as ambiguity can be seen as a forking of interpretative paths, are there clear ideological differences between or among the different choices?
My inclusion of passages is based on the presence of interpretative disagreements among traditional readers or, in some cases, on explicit uncertainty expressed by a single traditional reader. An important aspect of my method is that I will deliberately avoid a too-easy explanation of these ambiguities in terms of speculation about authorial intent and Sima Qian’s biographical details.