Hermeneutical Conflicts on Zhu Xi: Some Remarks about a late 19th Debate between De Harlez and Le Gall

Yves Vendé


The history of intellectual exchange between China and the West is also the history of translations and commentaries on classical texts, authors and concepts between both traditions. On the Western side, the Jesuit interpretation of Chinese classics was followed by the first steps of a nascent Sinology during the nineteenth century. Catholic and Protestant missionaries and lay men started to do research on China and its culture. Through the creation of specialized reviews and the foundation of chairs for the study of Chinese language and Chinese culture, Sinology became established as a discipline. This evolution can be observed through the debate over Zhu Xi’s ‘atheism’ that took place between Charles de Harlez, a Belgian based in Louvain, and Stanislas Le Gall, a Frenchman who was living in China. Hints of their debate can be traced back to the Rites Controversy in the 17th century, but the political and social challenges of Europe at the end of the 19th century, a paradigm shift in scientific thinking, and a new anthropology illustrated by the modernist crisis, are also elements that explain the oppositions between the two scholars. This debate also illustrates how different approaches to dealing with a foreign tradition, lead to contrary interpretations of Chinese classics.


De Harlez, Le Gall, Sinology, Zhu Xi


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