Much contemporary democratic political theory in the West takes collective action for shared goals as emblematic of non-coercive self-rule, assuming that the terms, categories, and practices of such action are self-evident and accessible. Perhaps because this theory is produced by scholars who reside in already-mature democratic regimes, little attention has been paid to the incremental but nevertheless necessary steps that must be taken before collective action around a shared goal is even possible. Hannah Arendt, for example, has suggested that the promise of public life can be recovered from our shared past as a kind of “lost treasure.” But Zhang's dilemma—indeed, the dilemma of many non-democratic societies around the world—demonstrates that this strategy is not universally applicable. What of societies and contexts that do not possess a cache of relevant democratic sentiment available for invocation by the theorist or activist? Zhang is not simply claiming, as much recent “Asian values” literature does, that there are normatively justifiable differences between Chinese and “Western” political perspectives. Rather, he underscores the reality of these differences to ask how culturally unprecedented forms of politics can be actualized within entire communities.
In the process of advocating a “Western” political regime for post-imperial China, Zhang realizes constitutional democracy is not simply an idea localized in individual minds, but a way of life which requires the spontaneous participation of an entire community to give its institutional forms meaning and effective force. Without an existing, historical acceptance of these forms, establishing a self-ruling polity means founding a particular kind of community that did not yet exist. This project uses Zhang's response to this dilemma to interrogate what in political theory literature is called founding: namely, how may individuals and small groups found a new political regime or set of institutions, when that task demands the coordination of an entire society around a particular set of norms that are not yet shared, or even widely understood?
Zhang confronts this task of founding by negotiating a series of paradoxes: Which comes first, people committed to self-rule or the institutions that make self-rule possible? Why wasn't elite-led, top-down reform effective in fostering democratic practice among China's masses—and what was the alternative? How can taking political action make sense as “political” (or democratic, or liberal, or anything else) before the communities that could underwrite or legitimate such action exist? Zhang calls these acts of founding “making the political,” ( wei zheng ) and he insists that this capacity “lies in individuals”—not institutions, already-existing communities, or emergent historical characteristics. With this statement, Zhang directly alludes to the neo-Confucian text The Doctrine of the Mean and analogizes everyday citizens to the sagely founders of that text. These sage-founders act by setting a law that is binding not because it is an expression of universal reason or consent, but because it is an exemplary act that compels through its virtue. Accordingly, the founding Zhang envisions turns most crucially not on spontaneous consent, as in social contract narratives, but persistent resonance and ongoing acts of exemplariness that unfold across time and inaugurate new, unpredictable contexts for action.
These acts, Zhang believes, begin from “self-awareness” ( zijue )—not of the already-existing, but of a better future and our place within it. Once persons become sensitive to how the world can change, they can decide for themselves where their specific capacities best fit. To Zhang, this “self-use of talent” ( ziyong cai ) not only sharpens the capacity to work upon the external world, it also offers a platform for challenging where and how each person's contributions to wider society are valued. Rather than rely on a central authority to deploy talents, as under the Chinese dynastic system, self-aware persons use their own abilities to found and sustain local self-ruling institutions. Interacting with others, individuals accommodate differences ( tiaohe )—of expertise, opinion, and personal background—to forge incremental commonalities that eventually culminate in more diverse political communities. Finally, by attending carefully to personal relationships as much as to public ones, these individuals acknowledge and act upon the cumulative and often unintended consequences of their everyday acts, which Zhang demonstrates are as necessary as are political institutions for constructing a shared, democratic regime. Redrawing the domains of political action around an internal-external, rather than public-private, axis, Zhang rebukes contemporary challenges to the value of self-ruling government by explaining how individuals can call political community into being as they take non-coercive action in personal, social, and institutional realms.
This project demonstrates how Zhang's vision of change makes several unique contributions to political theory. First, he expands the domains of effective action, challenging the boundaries of the “political.” He shows how and why effective, world-changing action can occur within as much as between persons; in “private” spaces that have strong public resonances; through the deliberate use of personal talents that rebuke stifling social norms even as they work to transform external realities; and in negotiations of difference on personal, social, and institutional registers.
Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
“‘Rule by Man' and ‘Rule by Law' in Early Republican China: Contributions to a Theoretical Debate,” Journal of Asian Studies vol. 69 no. 1 (February 2010).
“Theorists and Actors: Zhang Shizhao on ‘Self-Awareness' as Political Action,” Political Theory 38 (April 2008): 213-238.
“Individuals, Institutions, and Political Change: The Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao,” PhD dissertation accepted by the department of Political Science, University of Chicago, June 2007.