Court Hall (Themiclesia)

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The Court Hall (朝堂, n′rjaw-′dang) is the seat of the Council of Correspondence, the executive branch of the Themiclesian government. It is, culturally, one of the most important locations in Themiclesia, representing the Civil Service in relation, and sometimes opposition, to the throne. While each royal palace technically had a court hall, the Court Hall invariably refers to the one in the 'Kên'-ljang Palace, the main residence of the Themiclesian sovereign.

Building

Archaeological finds suggest the oldest parts of the foundations of the court hall were laid down in the 2nd century, but the newer sections date to the 5th century. This reveals that the court hall was torn down and rebuilt, possibly enlarged, over the centuries. The oldest section had a layout of 9 by 5 pillars, while the modern layout is 11 by 6, making it the second largest hall in the palace, only slightly smaller than the Great Hall, the emperor's seat. As ancient Themiclesians associated the size of buildings with political importance, the dimensions of the court hall evidence of its political importance.

Cultural value

Collective government

In earlier centuries, the Council's work centred on reading submissions by regional and departmental officials, and its power derived from its control over the flow of information, uniquely enabling it to formulate policies, as no other office had as much information. While each council member had an official specialization, which changed over time, all business was conducted as a group; dormitories were built so that they could spend as much time together as possible. Originally, each member drafted his opinions, in the emperor's voice, as a response to each submission; however, differing opinions proved difficult for monarchs to grasp. The Council's secretariat was expanded in the 200s, permitting the Council itself to read submissions and formulate a unified opinion upon them, leaving the drafting of specific responses to its secretaries and clerks. In time, the secretariat evolved into the Cabinet Office, while the Council performed the function of the modern Cabinet.

The physical spaces of the Court Hall reflected the Council's operations. Each member of the council had a suite of offices for his personal use, but all documents sent to the emperor, who was nominally the head of the bureaucratic government, was addressed to the Council and physically delivered by the Colonel of the Gates to the Court Hall. The Court Hall was separated from private offices by a gate, which no submission was permitted to cross (and thereby be removed from the collective agenda) before the Council had formulated an opinion pertaining to it. The large desk on which submissions were laid under discussion is named the Dispatch Table, after Tyrannian practice. The law also strictly forbade anything to be removed from the Dispatch Table without the order of the Council, and this was apparently strictly enforced until the 19th century, when individual ministers were permitted to receive submissions first, before laying them on the Dispatch Table; this was meant to strengthen the control of ministers over the departments in their jurisdictions.

Aristocratic unity and independence

By custom, the emperor did not participate in the deliberations of the Council. In 246, King Mrjang at the gate of the Council, demanding to see the state papers on the Dispatch Table, hoping to respond to submissions directly and to make appointments. He was humiliated and turned away by his prime minister, on the grounds that he had entrusted the papers to the Council and should not interfere with their work; if he found the Council unsatisfactory, he should instead depose them. In the 4th century, this long-standing practice was formally recognized by King Ngjon, who ordered that all state business should be transacted by the Council, prior to being laid before himself, to make the final decision with reference to the Council's considered advice. Since the Council was led by his great uncle, he also would not read any state paper until the Council had made a decision on it. As the upper rungs of the Civil Service became increasingly aristocratic in the 2nd to 3rd centuries, the Council's rules were used to justify the aristocracy's hold on politics, claiming that throne had no voice or knowledge, except through the Council. While the Council's hold on power was chipped away by proactive rulers in the 6th century, the rule had formed that the emperor's edicts, written or not, had no effect until the Council approved it. This would, in time, become a constitutional principle in Themiclesia, that the monarch's powers are shared with and legitimated by the approval of the bureaucracy.

Nexus

The Court Hall was also a nexus between the throne and the bureaucracy of the outside world. As mentioned, all state papers from bureaucrats addressed to the throne had to pass through the Council. During the reigns of earlier, active monarchs, the Council was also the spokesperson for the throne. If the monarch was dissatisfied with a particular official, he could order the official to present himself at the Court Hall for questioning. In later ages, the Council took to doing this without instructions from the throne. This could be seen as an extension of the Council's powers from passively responding to submissions to active control over the bureaucracy.

While all documents bound for the throne were set out on the Dispatch Table, those that had received the emperor's endorsement were placed on a different table, the Remission Table. Every first and fifteenth day of the lunar month, the Council held a public meeting with high-ranking administrators that worked in the capital city and the representatives of prefectural governments. Its proceedings included the remission, i.e. returning, of submissions to the sender, his superior, if he was not senior enough to be allowed in the Court Hall, or his representative, if he worked away from the capital city. Council members sat on the balcony of the Court Hall, flanking the throne, while those expecting a response would stand under it. With the exception of the prime minister, who announced new legislation, each secretary of state announced the recipient under his jurisdiction, e.g. the War Secretary to generals submissions, and the Administration Secretary to new appointees or the departments seeking them. The recipient knelt under the throne while the secretary of state read the response; the recipient then ascended the balcony, genuflected to the secretary of state, and collected the document.

Historians have analyzed this ceremony in recent decades and concluded it was a manifestation of the institutionalization of the politics of power-sharing. While the throne would have been in everyone's view, it was never occupied; instead of the emperor's voice, the secretary of state's voice was heard, and indeed dominated the physical environment. The secretaries of state sat facing south, the same direction as the throne; they sat on the balcony, at the same level as and flanking the throne, so they would have shared a similar view of proceedings as someone sitting in the throne. The balcony was quite spacious, but the seats of the secretaries of state were always placed very close to the throne itself. Anyone bowing to the throne would, very suggestively, bow to the Council. The fact that recipients had to bow to the empty throne that the secretaries of state virtually occupied, regardless how highly ranked he was, suggested that the Council was highly identified with imperial authority, since in all other occasions none were allowed to share the same perspective as the throne.

Other functions

The Court Hall was also where "careers started and ended". Newly-elected civil servants were always ordered to present themselves at the Court Hall, and some would undergo interviews before the Council, also in the Court Hall. Come time to appoint the civil servants, the Administration Secretary read the appointment papers on the balcony, while the appointee knelt before it. The seal of office and sash of rank were presented to the appointee over the balcony. When Themiclesia went to war, generals were also appointed by the same process and in the same ceremony, only a bronze axe was presented, in addition to a seal and sash. If the general returned victorious, this was where he presented his spoils and prisoners and recounted his exploits, as well as returned his axe. When a civil servant petitioned for retirement, before his colleagues he relinquished his seal and sash to the Administration Secretary, who would present him with a walking cane and royal gifts for prolonged service. If an official misbehaved, he would be reprimanded at the Court Hall, by the minister with jurisdiction over him, in the voice of the monarch. If a distinguished bureaucrat died in office, his sarcophagus would lie in state at the Court Hall; the emperor would deliver an eulogy and see the hearse off from here.

By the late 4th century, the monarch had virtually stopped having personal relationships with civil servants other than the secretaries of state. The Council perpetuated this through a range of measures, such as the idea that popularity and connections with the external, "lowly" world debased and defiled the monarchy, which should be secretive and intangible to outsiders. Since all communication with the throne was accomplished through the Council, the monarch was dehumanized and dereified in the perspective of almost the entire bureaucracy, not to mention the commoners, except senior ministers that regularly met with the monarch. While the monarch still had an active role in government, he was not understood in this way; his dynamic, non-ceremonial role was confined to the inner palace and invisible to the rest of the world. The Court Hall, run by the Council of Correspondence, had dispalced the Great Hall, where the Emperor dominated, as the epicentre for public life in Themiclesia, where official business was transacted and state power exercised. In the words of Ham (2003), the Court Hall was "a meeting room, public forum, and community centre for civil servants".

Customs

Barring of soldiers

Soldiers were not permitted to enter the Court Hall under pain of death to them and anyone that allowed them in.

Paper documents

Textual submissions formed the medium that the Council controlled to maintain power. As such, the mundane bureaucratic paper gained a symbolic, almost mystic importance for the Council. Early writers marvelled at the "ordinary strips of bamboo" (Themiclesia would not adopt paper until the 4th century) that kept a sizeable country under central administration; one historian of the early 6th century wrote that "the entire country exists on paper and ink", referring to the power of documents to abstract and move affairs, so that it could be understood and decided thousands of miles away, to the extent that the Council controlled every inch of Themiclesia solely through documents. It became an offence to mistreat the documents that were sent into the Council. Couriers that soiled or lost documents faced increasingly heavy punishments through history, under the dubious charge of holding the Council in contempt. Newly-appointed Gentlemen-at-Arms were required to gift 10,000 sheets of paper and 100 pens to the Council as proof of their loyalty; this is one of the most long-lasting traditions for gentlemen-at-arms, only abolished in 1947.

See also