Since 1893 several Chinese scholars, who were also active political men, promoted a Confucian exegesis in Western languages. Because of their need to translate the words of Confucius, their apologetic work implied new hermeneutic approaches to the canonical texts, but also a reorientation of the purpose in their inquiries. Instead of only transmitting holy words from the past, those scholars were often fostering arguments to prove that China was worth being considered as civilized. This was notably the case at the very end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th. The term ‘civilization’ would then progressively be set aside, but the idea of defending Confucianism as either a genuine religion or philosophy whose values and practices ought to be respected remained a key issue for scholars who wrote about it in the West, notably in universities growingly populated by Chinese natives.
By considering a series of Confucian promoters in the West, their personal and institutional trajectories, as well as the different media they used to diffuse the words of past Saints and Sages, this paper will describe how Chinese scholars tried to reclaim a legitimate voice in the debates about their own tradition, and how this process was affected by the political context of the time. This paper will also try to propose a typology to clarify the different attitudes and practices of these scholars who often walked a fine line between apologetics and a temptation to clearly proselytize Confucianism.