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The Hourglass Hall 1

Wang, Yu Cheng 2 (954 A.D.-1001 A.D.)

    The laws of the heavens are silent. One may wonder why all things grow with the cycles of the four seasons. It is because the spirit of nature prevails through the work of the gods of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, as well as through the assistance of the gods of gold, wood, water, fire, and earth. Great philosophers seldom speak. One may wonder how they make people compassionate and kingdoms peaceful. This is because an emperor's three advisers have constantly discussed the relationship between nature and men, and the six ministers have shared the power and divided their work in order to promote the teachings of the great Chinese philosophers. In view of this, it is consistent with the laws of the heavens that the emperor governs in peaceful leisure while the officials work hard on carrying out his policies. The number of great prime ministers from ancient Tao Gao and Kui 3 to more recent Xun-ling Fang and Zheng Wei 4 can be counted on one's fingers. They were not only virtuous but also were diligently dedicated to their work. They retired to bed late and rose early in the morning to serve their emperors. Even officials of less importance in the emperor's court should follow this practice, not to mention the prime minister himself.

    The imperial court, following the traditional institution, has established Hourglass Hall at the right of Dan-feng Door 5 as a place for the prime minister to rest before attending the morning audience held by the emperor. The name "Hourglass" reflects the diligence of the prime minister. When the sun has not risen from the east and the north watch tower is about to be illuminated, the prime minister departs for the palace. The torches of his entourage resemble a resplendent city. When he arrives at the palace, the bells on his horses ring melodiously. After the prime minister dismounts by having the carriage's cover removed, if he finds the doors of the palace not yet open and the jade-colored liquid in the hourglass still dripping, he will enter Hourglass Hall to rest.

    One wonders if the prime minister is thinking about his work while he waits for the morning audience. If people feel unsettled, he should insure their security. If a neighboring country is not yet allied with us, he should entice it to become our ally. If there is a war going on, he should find ways to reach a cease fire. If many fields lie in waste, he should find a way to develop them into farmland. If talented people are not being appointed by the government, he should advance their careers and utilize their talents. If evil officials are standing in the emperor’s court, he should banish them. If the six spirits 6 are not in harmony, and disasters 7 are occurring frequently, he will yield his position to a more virtuous person because he thinks that the disasters are caused by nature's unhappiness with his lack of virtue. If we fail to abolish the five sentences of capital punishment 8 and fraud occurs daily, he should cultivate virtue to correct the problems. The prime minister is laden with anxieties while he is waiting for sunrise to enter the palace. Once the nine doors 9 of the palace open, the broad-minded emperor will be near and listen to all the nation's problems. Then the prime minister will give his advice and the emperor will accept it. The emperor's virtue will thus bring order and peace to society, and living beings will thereby prosper. If this is the case, it is by merit rather than by luck that the prime minister rules over all the other officials in the emperor's court and earns a generous salary.

    Suppose the prime minister thinks otherwise. He is thinking about how to inflict revenge on those with whom he has a personal grudge, how to glorify the ones who have done him favors, how to acquire jade objects and silk fabrics for his children, or how to acquire horses, carriages, and curios. If an evil man ingratiates himself with the most powerful person such as him, he will promote him. If straightforward officials criticize his work, he will remove them from their office. When some officials report natural disasters during the spring, summer or autumn, and the emperor looks anxious, the prime minister will fabricate cunning words to distract him. If a group of officials pervert the law, and the emperor hears of the complaint, he will flatter the emperor and cause him to ignore the problem. While he sits and waits for the morning audience, he dozes off and his dreams are filled with selfish thoughts. When the doors of the palace open, he makes up lies with shifty eyes. When he talks with the emperor, the emperor looks puzzled. The handle of political power is thus falling apart, and the throne is thereby in great risk. If this is this case, it is appropriate rather than misfortunate that the prime minister is sent into exile or put into prison and sentenced to death.

    In view of this, we see that a nation's policies and the lives of millions of people depend on the prime minister. Therefore, a prime minister must contemplate the results before he acts. Also, we will not give credit to a prime minister who does mediocre work that no one can praise or criticize, who advances or retreats by following the crowds, who acquires the position only to gain a generous salary, or who assume the seat as a filler and only tries to protect his personal interests.

    I, a humble official in the Court of Appeals, have written this essay and would like to propose to have it inscribed on the wall of Hourglass Hall as a motto for the executive of the government.

1 The Hourglass Hall is the place where the prime minister waits for the morning audience held by the emperor.

2 Yu Cheng Wang passed the advanced exam at the age of 29. Although he composed poetry quickly, it was well written. On one occasion Emperor Tai-zong wanted to test poets himself. He summoned Wang to the palace to improvise poetry. It only took a short while for Wang to complete the task. The emperor was very pleased and appointed him to be his adviser. Later, Wang was demoted to be the mayor of Chu-zhou City because he criticized the extravagance of Queen Xiao’s funeral.

3 Tao Gao and Kui were prime ministers during Emperor Shun's reign in the Yu dynasty.

4 Xun-ling Fang and Zheng Wei were wise prime ministers during Emperor Tai-zong's reign in Tang dynasty.

5 "Dan-feng" means "red phoenix"; "Dan-feng Door" refers to the main entrance of the palace.

6 "The six spirits" refers to "the positive spirit, the negative spirit, and the spirits of wind, rain, light, as well as darkness".

7 "Disasters" refers to plagues, eclipses of the sun and moon, etc.

8 "The five sentences of capital punishment" refers to "tattooing (branding the crime on one's brow), cutting off the nose, amputation of the feet, castration, and death".

9 "The nine doors" refers to "The road door, the imperial door, the pheasant door, the warehouse door, the pool door, the city door, the nearby suburb door, the distant suburb door, and the pass (checkpoint) door."