Western and Confucian Concepts of Political Representation: Normative and Aesthetic Models
Political representation is an inescapable feature of government, and indeed a necessary conceptual tool in the understanding of modern democratic states and practices. In the West, arguably since Hobbes' Leviathan, and despite Rousseau's apparent rejection of "representative government," the notion of representation, both formally and figuratively, has been understood as the foremost procedure of legitimate sovereignty. While it is generally agreed that representation constitutes a key institutional component of modern democratic governments, the nature and meaning of representation, and therefore of the relation between represented and representatives, remains a much-vexed question for political theorists.
In this paper, I aim to explore the fundamentals of political representation, in order to understand what it means to represent, and to be represented. In particular, I focus on an aesthetic or constructivist conception of representation, one that emphasises the creative, dynamic and performative aspect of political representation, and that in my view provides a more apt description of the 'gap' between political power (the political reality created by the act of re-presenting) and political freedom (the preferences, interests, and needs of the people that are represented). In other words, by acknowledging the fact that the nature of representation in politics is never absolute replication, exact identification, or ideal unification of state and society, it is also easier to appreciate the (aesthetic) difference between modes and theories of representation in a comparative and cross-cultural perspective.
In this article, I hope to show the potential and the relevance of an aesthetic theory of representation for Confucian political thought. While the case for 'Confucian Democracy' is obviously an extremely controversial and hotly contested one, it is undeniable that classical Confucian philosophers regarded representation, and the relationship between ruler and ruled, as a fundamental, if not constitutive, aspect of government and instrument of political ordering. In particular, I ask to what extent the 'gap' between a preoccupation with the preservation of political order (understood as stability or harmony) and a concern with the people's - physical and moral - well-being and development (commonly expressed by the idea of 'minben'), is in fact created by mechanisms of representation and can be filled by a variety of societal groups and relationships that are usually excluded by formal processes of representation, power and political judgement. In order to do so, I argue, is necessary to adopt a complementary understanding of political order that aims at reconciling an aesthetic conception of order (for instance, investigating the crucial implications that in Confucian political thought the 'Mandate of Heaven' has on legitimate authority and representation), and a rational, normative dimension that puts emphasis on virtuous government and on the satisfaction of the people's basic needs and aspirations.